(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.