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.

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