Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Baby It's You (part 2)

(The second part of my latest piece for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung)

Lady Gaga and company exhibit a particularly American perspective: each of them assures their listeners that they are all superstars, gangstas, or in Perry’s case, explosions. Many Americans go through life certain that one day, they will be rich, or famous, or both. For us, being “okay” means being “super.” Normal, unremarkable self-esteem is-- like leaving Afghanistan-- not an option. Put another way, American self-worth is worth more.

Speaking of money, might it be that all of these pop odes to empowerment have something to do with the fact that the US economy is in the toilet, and Americans are feeling, well, a little weak? In desperate times, pop culture often morphs into something more escapist or consoling—think about The Wizard of Oz (1939), or Star Wars (1977). As if in response to the mere suggestion that the dollar is down, Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” practically pole-vaults out of radios, televisions and computer screens, and roars, “We will never be, never be, anything but loud.” To underscore the idea that the USA is back and better than ever, the video clip for the song features images of both Uncle Sam and Rosie the Riveter, the WWII American factory heroine. At times, “Raise Your Glass” seems to be addressed to some sort of outcast “you,” a rebellious, marginalized “nitty, gritty, dirty little freak,” but then Pink, like Ke$ha, switches to the royal “we.” So this, at last, is what truly underlies empowerment pop: Narcissus.

Last April, Dr. Nathan DeWall, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, published the results of a computer analysis of pop music lyrics from 1980 to 2007 which claims to show that the narcissism (and anger) of the form has significantly increased in the last thirty years. Two of the study’s co-authors had already beat him to the punch by publishing the 2009 book, The Narcissism Epidemic. Is it foolhardy to draw generational conclusions from a study of the wit and wisdom of Beyonce, Eminem and the Pussycat Dolls? Yes. Yes, it is. But do take a look at Pink’s video for her second (!) recent empowerment anthem, “Fucking Perfect.” In the last scene, a once-troubled woman tucks her younger self into bed, and gives her a tender kiss on the forehead. The singer intends this to be a song to oneself, a kind of message from the future, when everything will be Okay, Pink pretty, pretty promises.

In one of the few essays to explore why Pink et. al. seem to be hitting the same note, Pitchfork pop critic Tom Ewing made a surprising connection to the recent rise of social media. While search engines like Google can make you feel overwhelmed and lost in a universe of information, Facebook and Twitter make you feel special, unique, even Important. These days, he writes, “We are all born superstars: permanently consulted, endlessly special, but perpetually vanishing into the datamass too.”

This is not a particularly American quandary, but imagine what must run through a poor little pop singer’s head these days when she sits down to write, or in Ke$ha’s case, to text her next song. “How can I please my audience, please myself, and continue to make tons of money?” Which brings us back to that US flag dress she wears in the video for “We R Who We R.” As my Austrian wife is fond of reminding me, Americans are some of the only people in the world who signal their national identity with the word “we.” We Americans do love a good flag dress. In fact, it may be that for us, the only thing more empowering than empowerment is patriotism.

This year, the insightful US journalist and computer programmer Paul Ford published an essay entitled The Web Is a Customer Service Medium. Empowerment pop may only be a sign that popular music is no longer a medium of guitars, slick production and catchy lyrics, but instead, simply a matter of customer satisfaction.

By the way, thank you for your attention. You’ve all been absolutely perfect readers.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Baby, It’s You

(I'm posting the first half of my latest assemblage of potshots and half-baked notions for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. As a subject, especially for US readers who have had to suffer through many, many playbacks of Katy Perry's "Firework," it may seem late. But they say that the best place to watch a parade is from the front and from the rear.)

The American pop star Ke$ha has been called many things, but “smart” is not one of them. Nevertheless, one of her recent videos features a revealing scene, wherein the singer, a fabulous disaster of glittery rags and mis-applied mascara, stops dancing long enough to change into a flimsy US flag “dress.” She then bleats the title lyric to “We R Who We R,” and … jumps off a tall building. It may be the most idiotic fusion of self-affirmation and self-destruction in a music video, ever. Or it may be something else.

Upon first listen, Ke$ha’s song appears to be a hymn to unashamed individuality, to the joy of being young, dumb and quite pleased with yourself. Despite her use of the first person plural, “We R Who We R” is just one in a remarkable string of recent US hit singles which all seem to say to the listener, “You are a beautiful, perfect superstar, everyday, in every way.” From Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” to Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way,” US artists have been injecting so much empowerment into the airwaves, it’s a wonder the whole planet isn’t hugging each other. This isn’t entirely unprecedented—who could forget Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All?”--but why is American pop music so decidedly encouraging at this moment in time?

For an answer, we should start with the songs and the singers themselves. And I have to admit that, although I like the way she looks in a cupcake bikini, Katy Perry’s “Firework” is easily the most annoying song in this wave of feel-good schmaltz. Her stut-ut-uttering delivery of the lyric, which builds to a bellow as the synthetic strings soar into the Fourth-of-July sky, is slightly more pleasant than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Ms. Perry has explained the song by saying that, “Everybody can be a firework, it’s just all about you igniting the spark inside of you.” Fine. Why does this sound so much like a cheerleader stooping to reassure all of the unpopular kids that they can, one day, be just like her?

“Firework” is fascinating musically, too, if only because it’s so difficult to discern exactly what is making the sounds we’re hearing—was there an actual guitar, piano or snare drum involved in the production? This is both typical and ironic: almost all of these pop songs about being yourself are—texturally—quite synthetic. The message is, ‘You are a unique human.’ The medium is uniquely inhuman.

Within the micro-genre of empowerment pop, as she does elsewhere, Lady Gaga tries to top everyone. “Born This Way” not only plagiarizes Madonna, it super-sizes her. The song isn’t just unapologetically disco, it’s indestructible-motivational-gay-pride-rainbow super-disco. It could be interpreted as a response to a recent wave of tragic suicides by gay Americans. But although it instructs the listener to “love yourself,” Ms. Gaga has never sounded more like someone else. Which doesn’t mean “Born This Way” isn’t a great song.