Listening to the current top 40 suggests that we are empty skulled nihilists who have experienced an overload of trauma and have no space left to actually ponder music. Throughout the past few decades, music has evolved from political messages with anti-war sentiment to being all about “the good life.” Pop music is a 40 year-old man in the throws of a midlife crisis who has suppressed a lifetime of corporate abuse and is purchasing a Porsche and drinking whiskey at a seedy bar on a Wednesday night. The abuses of the world: war, death, terrorism, mass murder and economic recession have taken such a large toll on culture that mainstream music is no longer recognized as a substantial political outlet.
Anything mindful is excluded from mainstream music art, prompting pop music to be confined to mindless explosions of human desire. Every radio reverberation of pop music echoes a “fuck the world” sentiment and relishes in the abandonment of reason and everything that is moral or natural. Mainstream music went from John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” to radio approved lyrics about drunk driving and domestic violence. Lil Wayne is perpetually on some alarming concoction of cough syrup and Hawaiian punch and must smoke a blunt to himself every five minutes to withhold his insanity. He is also one of the best selling artists of the 2000’s. American Idiot, Green Day’s 2004 moderately intelligent political pop-punk album was widely ridiculed on the basis that it was a political statement. The mainstream has denied what is intricate, intelligent and political and has dove head first into a swimming pool full of id-driven nonsense about sex, violence and the pursuit of happiness, as Kid Cudi would put it.
Some of today’s best selling albums are produced by Young Money records. Drake and Lil Wayne have championed this postmodern notion of “the good life” (a term initially coined by Kanye West) through music centered around the accumulation of money and displaying sexual power over women. The contemporary consumer, that one with the iPod turned up to Jay-Z shuffling along the streets is in a state of despair and is responding with nihilism, rejecting anything purposeful in music, and gravitating toward the meaningless. Not only has music in itself transformed; beauty has been redefined. The casual and more natural beauty seen in icons like Tina Turner and Janis Joplin throughout earlier decades has been replaced with bras that spray whipped cream, abnormally colored wigs, and appearing at the 2010 MTV Music Awards covered literally in raw meat, thanks to Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, respectively. When it comes down to it, the inspiration for what is created and sold in music has changed. It has been dumbed down for the little people with big wallets who don’t know what’s happening on this planet outside of their Top 40 Pandora radio station, and don’t wish to step outside. Pop music has become a parental control, and it is not going anywhere.
The question remains: what is the good life? Why is everyone chasing this concept, and why has it pushed political music out of the spotlight, causing music with substance to stumble in heels off the red carpet?
It started with a political awakening of conscience and a societal unification. In The Postmodern in Music, James Wierzbicki says that, “For Americans, the turbulence of the mid-1960s entailed increased resistance to the United States’ involvement in the conflict in Vietnam, an often violently opposed escalation of the Civil Rights Movement, the initial bubblings of the so-called sexual revolution and its concomitant liberalization of drug use, and the transformation of carefree rock ’n’ roll into serious rock music.” The development of music was once the product of rumbling anarchist angst amongst a body of American citizens and emerged out of the sandpaper throats of Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Hendrix, and the rest of the 1969 Woodstock lineup. Music was an accompaniment to the political protest acid culture in the joyful symphony that was the 1970’s. What was popular then reflected a decade culture of dirty hair and pot, but more importantly, an honest sentiment of freedom and peace that have become historically solidified as the hippie movement. It may have been a hazy dream of a decade, but there was substance. People were questioning what they saw and were constantly in motion toward correcting the politics they disagreed with, and this unification was made possible partly by what was then popular music.
Nowadays, upon flicking the switch of the radio, one can hear lyrical phrases such as, “I don’t care, hand on the wheel/driving drunk I’m doing my thing,” and “I grabbed the stupid bitch by her knappy-ass weave/started talking shit, wouldn’t you know?/I reached back like a pimp and I slapped the hoe.” Artists such as Kid Cudi and Eazy-E are embracing violence and carelessness in a postmodern hug. But there is method to this madness. As society suffers from the furious beatings of the world and is brutally torn apart by the genocidal, tortuous deeds that humans are capable of, we delve into despair.
The grasp on our mortality and the existential awareness of freedom without direction have been imposed on us. We are perpetually at war, we have been startled by national terror, swallowed in mother nature’s hurricane and jumbled in her earthquake; we become increasingly cognizant of death. We have screamed and panicked and cried and lost. Pop music is far more than the amusing antics of celebrities and playful rebellion to traditional values. It is nihilistic pleasure in response to global despair. It is the numbness after trauma, the morphine after the fall. It is the indication that we have given up.
From despair, to nihilism, to hope. The personhood of the female artist has changed to a degree worth taking note of. The skeleton of a dinosaur dug up by an archeologist is a historical artifact. Preserved love letters written during World War II between a soldier and his devoted wife are memorabilia reflective of the early 1940’s. A Hersey’s Kiss bra worn by Katy Perry on the August 2010 cover of Rolling Stone in is indeed a cultural artifact of our time, and is much more exciting than dinosaurs and old mail.
Today, pop music says something about culture. Katy Perry, among other pop superstars, uses her body as an artistic canvas, wearing outlandish costumes and is often seen in heavy makeup and abnormally colored wigs. Her antics include short shorts paired with bikini tops, airbrushed makeup, and bras that spray whipped cream (as seen in the “California Gurls” music video). As an artist, Perry celebrates female power and independence in her man-hating lyrics. She also toys with sexuality in songs, “I Kissed A Girl,” a lighthearted ballad about a lesbian experience, and “Ur So Gay,” an angry ode to an over-emotional ex boyfriend. Capitol Records has chosen this over-sexualized and mildly offensive façade for Perry, and she has reinforced it.
In a reflection on Baudrillard, Douglas Kellner says, “The ‘ecstasy’ of objects is their proliferation and expansion to the Nth degree, to the superlative; ecstasy as going outside of or beyond oneself: the beautiful as more beautiful than beautiful in fashion, the real more real than the real in television, sex more sexual than sex in pornography. Ecstasy is thus the form of obscenity (fully explicit, nothing hidden) and of hyperreality taken to a higher level, redoubled and intensified.”
Pop music must take the form ecstasy by being fully explicit and hyperreal; intensified beyond comprehension to the point where it is void of all reason. It aims to leave us speechless with fascination. Pop attempts in some cases to be a rejection of norms and tradition, but it turn is only imitating what it tries to expel, creating an empty, hyperreal space full of subordinate female stereotypes and cycles that enforce male dominance. This becomes an issue when female artists such as Katy Perry become products of pop music and their very image becomes symbolic to consumers.
Perry, like many other megastars is a human being who is under contract to become extreme and idolized in her personhood to fit the industry of pop that she is such a large part of. Her persona is one that embraces the rejection of traditional gender roles, yet in doing this she becomes even more intensified and dangerous to the public. Her costumes are art in themselves. Female artists accentuate their femininity in a way that is hyperreal, in an attempt to be more beautiful than what people conjure to be beautiful, to destroy boundaries of obscenity in contemporary society, and to flaunt the female form in such an intensified way that it leaves us stunned and speechless. Artists like Perry are artifacts that embody the perverted nature of pop and allude to an empty culture void of dialogue.
On the contrary, Lady Gaga fires back with an overwhelming amount of substance; one of the reasons why many are so surprised by her. Her songs and videos are packed with passionately liberal messages and Christian metaphors as she engages in the classic struggle between being the virgin and the whore. But more people have sifted through her music videos on YouTube than have read through her interviews and pondered her eccentricities. Consumers are more intrigued by an exaggerated sexual performance than they are by the feminine strength and talent behind Gaga as a female pop superstar.
The notion that female artists should use their sexuality to exert power gently plops them back into the margins. Once one appears on camera wrapped in caution tape with a Pepsi can lodged in one’s white-blonde extensions, one is not taken seriously. As an artist, as a woman, or as a reasonable human being, for that matter. Pop is fun. It is exciting and progressive and constantly changing and expanding and simulating itself into further dimensions of art and exposure. There is no reason it should not be enjoyed within its own purposes. However it should not be celebrated as reflective of the lived experience.
But we are not all misogynistic murderers with alcoholism who wish to drive under the influence and physically abuse our spouses. These concepts are but scapegoats and postmodern outlets for human frustrations because to mention the real, the natural, the political issues that plague the world would be to release decades of pent up, suppressed anger and confusion across the globe. Politics is ignored and the feminine physique is exploited in a backwards attempt to assert power, and we remain blind to the horrors.
The substance is within reach. The inspiration is almost there in pop music, although it does not come with the same political passion as it used to. Pop music and everything associated with it has become a whirlwind of simulated costumes, a neon blur of recycled trends and that is auto-tuned and airbrushed to a hyperreal perfection and is shining out, pure and empty. Political statements are no longer relevant through pop music. The natural female voice or makeup-less face with all imperfections is no longer recognized; it is not popular and originality is not coveted.
Pop music has become an escape from the realness of our mortality. It masks the fact that we are people on a slowly deteriorating planet, and that we are not immortal. The world will end whether it freezes over into a silent sleep leaving us as sculptures, chilled into the very centers of our bones, or if we drop like the plastic toy soldiers into the firey core of the earth through gaping cracks in freeways. T.V. broadcasts, urgent news, poverty and hunger, we can’t hear you, the radio is up too high.