* Full disclosure: I am not a music blogger…I don’t know the birth dates, astronomical signs and preferred instruments of every musician since Bach, but I do listen to music and read a lot about it, so I think that makes me semi-qualified to make general observations. Please don’t be mean if I wrote something you disagree with; I’m a commentator, not an authority.
I recently read an article in Esquire magazine (yes, I read Esquire,) and the article in question, “Is This Song Good?” by Tom Junod asserts that music today is, surprisingly, unexpectedly, perhaps even shockingly good. And I am (circumstantially) inclined to agree with him:
“Even the songs that are supposed to suck — the soulless, engineered-by-the-beat dance pop — are pretty good without trying to be. Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” is a really good song. So is Bruno Mars’s “Grenade” and Rihanna’s “What’s My Name?” So, God help me, is Ke$ha’s repugnantly catchy “We R Who We R.”
(read the rest of the article here)
This is not to say that Ke$ha (that damn dollar sign…is she a thug?) will go down in the annals of music history the way Buddy Holly or Jimi Hendrix have, because, let’s be honest: Just. Not. Happening. But at the same time…at the same time….the man has a point. Repugnantly catchy, indeed.
In the way that I imagine Dylan’s lyrics spoke to a generation in the manner of Alan Ginsberg and Howl, I suppose, in a sort of appropriate, abliet depressing way, “We R Who We R” is a sort of anthem for my self obsessed generation, an unapologetic declaration of “this is who I am b*tch, deal with it.” (For further proof, see “The Lazy Song” by Bruno Mars or anything by Lady Gaga.)
Which ultimately begs the question: does music reflect society?
Deep, I know.
This got me thinking about some recent chart-toppers and their chart-topping precedessors of yester-year, and why they were popular to begin with. Take Rhianna, for example. Catchy? Check. Provocative? Check. Soulless, engineered-by-the-beat party tunes? Done and done.
And I like it. But not for the same reasons I like The Stones, CCR, and God help me, the Beach Boys.
For Rhianna and other chart-top-dwellers, popularity seems to be determined by a whole slew of components, none of which, incidentally, pertain to actual musical talent: A) hairstyles, B) affinity for dominatrix-inspired attire and C) the beat that sound engineers come up with. It should be said, though, that umbrella-ella-ella was infuriatingly catchy, so kudos to the sound engineers who came up with that back beat.
But having established that there are some truly amazing beats out there (“All of the Lights”) sure to entice even the most stone-cold, anti-pop music crumudgeon to bust a move, I’m left wondering if the beat is the only thing that matters in pop music anymore. (Please notice that I specified pop music, and did not encompass all of the musical world in that statement.)
In order to further justify that wildy ambitious remark, I present lyrics from some of the current Billboard Top 100 songs:
Do you ever feel like a plastic bag- Katy Perry, “Firework.” Not my favorite song, but I’m also not a middle school girl anymore.
That badonka donk is like a trunk full of bass on an old school Chevy – Pit Bull with Jennifer Lopez, “On the Floor.” I imagine myself on a dancefloor in Miami with the bf, mojito in hand. Overall, not a bad thought. Point for Pit Bull.
I whip my hair back and forth (x70)– “Whip My Hair,” Willow Smith. Almost makes me wish I was Will Smith’s 11-year-old daughter convulsing on stage. Almost.
Now that we’ve established that beats trump lyrics these days, let’s look at the lyrics of three chart-toppers from the pre-autotune era:
Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good- “Sweet Caroline,” Neil Diamond. I dare you not to sing along. Go ahead, try it. Guess, what? Impossible. It’s like sneezing with your eyes open.
Every time you call my name, I heat up like a burnin’ flame– “Abracadabra,” Steve Miller Band. Not exactly revolutionary lyrics, but you’d be lying if you said that’s not a great song.
If I don’t get some shelter, oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away– “Gimme Shelter,” Rolling Stones. I think I blew the speakers in my car listening to this. Twice. Last week…
So armed with this information, what conclusions can I draw? Let’s review the evidence:
There’s a lot of “me, me, me, sluts, me, alcohol, take-your-clothes-off, me, me, my hair, some more alcohol, factory-made songs, deliberately-provocotive lyrics (see: Gaga, Kanye, Britney etc., etc., etc.) and some glitter thrown in for good measure. And more me” going on in today’s music.
In the older songs there’s more “love, girls, I-miss-you, some more love, anti-war, lets-hold-hands, good-times, some more anti-war, r-e-s-p-e-c-t, deliberately-provocotive lyrics (see: the Doors, Madonna, Beatles, Stones…etc. etc. etc., ad infinitum) and actual instruments! The novelty!
Ultimately, does music reflect society? I say yes, and I say that recognizing that there are actual artists out there, who do write their own songs (no, I do not count Taylor Swift, spare me), some of whom do rise to stardom while others remain obscured from the general public. Don’t agree? Google Adele and get back to me.
According to Andy Langer at Esquire,
“Sure, you can say that we’re in an age of too many choices and too few fully realized talents, and that the web’s better at exposing new music than it is at actually selling it. You’d be right. But you’d be a whiner.” (read more).
Maybe I am being a whiner. But I do happen know that, courtesy of the web, we live in an age of painful, sometimes nausea-inducing over-exposure, and that any half-wit with a webcam and a tambourine is free to broadcast drivel over the internet, and there is the very real possibility that someone, somewhere is going to like it. Or not. (Please refer to Rebecca Black for further evidence.)
The fact remains, however, that yes, the music pouring from your car stereo, ipod, computer, is a direct reflection of the TMI-riddled society we live in. Do I still like Britney Spears? Hell yes: I was in middle school during the height of the Britney-N*Sync-Backstreet Boys Trifecta, and teen pop will always hold a special place in my heart. So, thank you Mr. Langer for helping me prove my point.
Still don’t believe me? Just ask your 12-year-old niece how the Biebs was discovered. (Hint: it rhymes with YouGoob).