I’m an old guy. I like rock music; grew up with it. I don’t listen to the radio much and don’t follow the pop charts. When I become aware of a trend in popular music, it sort of dawns on me slowly: ‘oh, that song’s a bit like that song.’ And my insights, such as they are, are probably way way passé. And above all, I want to avoid moralizing. When I was a kid, I detested the ‘rock music’s going to destroy society’ sermons, and I’m not about to start preaching them myself. Besides, harrumphing old guys pontificating about the life styles of the young have been a staple of comedy ever since Polonius sent Laertes off to college. I am not that guy. Having made all those disclaimers, though, there is a genre that’s interesting right now, and I thought I’d offer some examples and analysis.
The genre I have in mind is the ‘decadent party girl’ pop song. It’s a song in which a girl sings about how fun it is to party all the time. And, again, this is nothing new. Madonna’s Material Girl and Cindy Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun are classics of the genre, which really dates back to Marilyn Monroe singing about how diamonds are a girl’s best friend. (Marilyn’s song, of course, is way creepier than the songs today; girls today are arguably celebrating their own empowerment, while Marilyn is essentially (tragically) promoting prostitution, or at the very least her own subjectification).
Anyway, the recent song that caught my attention is, as I write this, still in constant top forty rotation; Iggy Azalea’s Fancy. (The video is particularly interesting, borrowing its look from Clueless). And, again, the lyrics celebrate what Thorstein Veblen called ‘conspicuous consumption’: “Cup of Ace, cup of Goose, cup of Cris, high heels, something worth half a ticket on my wrist.” It’s all carefully encoded, and also the kind of thing male rappers have celebrated for two decades. ‘This is where I am, this is what I’ve risen to, this is me, owning my own Veblenian economic empowerment.’ The kind of lifestyle depicted in Sophia Coppola’s movie Bling Ring. Wow, it’s awesome to have tons of money, and awesomer to spend it on bling and drugs and cars and clothes. It’s all pose, of course, all surface and image. But those images are a potent enough combination of temptations, to which I have no doubt it would be sort of fun to occasionally succumb. But the song doesn’t dig deeper than that fairly obvious insight.
Example two: Ke$ha and We R Who We R. Ke$ha’s particularly interesting in this regard. She carefully cultivated her ‘dirty party girl’ image in song after song and in video after video. But she’s also brilliant: scored over 1500 on her SATs, was accepted into Barnard College, but dropped out to pursue a pop career. I can’t help but think that her ‘dirty party girl’ image has been very carefully crafted, both by her management and by her. She writes her own songs, negotiates her own contracts, and apparently invests her money intelligently. She wouldn’t be the first singer to cynically cultivate an image and cash in by creating pop songs that fit the zeitgeist.
But what’s really interesting is to see the deconstruction of the ‘decadent partier’ song. That’s where the amazing British songstress Lily Allen fits in. She’s hardly new–nor is this genre–but after just three albums, she combines an eclectic pop sensibility with wickedly spot-on lyrics, as with this song, The Fear. When she sings “I’ll take my clothes off, and I will be shameless, ’cause everyone knows, that’s how you get famous,” it’s clearly satire. But when she sings “I don’t know what’s right, I don’t what’s real, anymore,” she’s reflecting on the emptiness of the very ambition the rest of the song so cheekily expresses. “It doesn’t matter, ’cause I’m packing plastic, and that’s what makes my life so f-ing fantastic.” Word.
Lily Allen is sharp, smart and funny. Lorde’s Royals is sad, powerfully plaintive, tragic. It’s a poor girl’s reflection on celebrity worship, on the world of pop star worship that she can only view from the outside. And, as brilliant as Lorde’s own performance of her song is, somehow Postmodern Jukebox exceed it, in a version sung by a seven-foot tall white-suited clown. Trust me, it’s great.
Of course, any trend needs a final brilliant parody to cement it in our consciousness, and nobody is better at this than Garfunkel and Oates. Content alert; there’s some language here (there’s actually quite a lot of bad language here), but my gosh, it’s funny: This Party Just Took a Turn for the Douche.
As for the trend itself, it’s interesting to me, the way it both embraces and rejects celebrity culture. As usual, the smartest performers have figured that culture out, and find it both amusing and insubstantial. And the least sensitive and sensible song-writers will have made (and spent) their money, and then faded away soon enough.