Pop music plus pop psych

Fergie’s recent hit single “Big Girls Don’t Cry” has established a new nadir of pop music lyric writing — an absolute zero of the genre. It’s genuinely astonishing, in that EVERY SINGLE LINE must be considered a hollow cliche even within the lower circles of popular psychology (“be with myself and center, clarity peace and serenity”). The overall effect is that of a view of human life learnt entirely in yoga studios and Jamba Juice outlets in the greater Los Angeles area.

It’s a damn shame because pop music used to be a venue for arrestingly clear depictions of emotions so raw and unmediated by workaday politesse that you could barely speak of them outside the format of the 3-minute song — much less analyze them meaningfully with the shrunken toolkit of crap psychology that is our culture’s least common denominator of applied ethics. The bile dripping off every syllable of “Like a Rolling Stone”… the last-ditch desperation of “Thunder Road”… the tender shared dream of “Imagine” — all of them made you feel with chilling clarity a specific emotion that maybe you didn’t even know was inside you. It goes without saying that none of those emotions had anything to do with self-esteem or empowerment or “centering”.

Perhaps within the tight constraints of daily life it makes sense to reduce all of human experience to nothing more than various chemical imbalances, a moral imperative not to judge others, and an unshakeable belief that you’re a good person (no matter what). But art — especially popular music, which has always prided itself on transgressing social norms in favor of stronger, purer emotions — can’t be built out of such ersatz materials. The power of American music in particular — from blues through rock to soul and rap — lay in telling it like it is, ugly and embarrassing and all. It’s not clear to me whether that level of bluntness about the human condition is allowed on the Billboard charts anymore… maybe only by Kanye at his best.

Math for fashion

I was seriously ticked off to see the nose-wrinkling contempt with which Salon’s so-called feminist blogger Carol Lloyd dismissed Danica McKellar’s new book aimed at convincing middle-school girls that math is cool, relevant, and learnable. It’s so depressing to realize that the fundamental bases of feminism are still mysterious to so many who should know better.

The thing that particularly seems to have aroused Lloyd’s ire is McKellar’s suggestion that girls who study math can get high-paying jobs which might enable to them to buy luxury goods such as designer clothes. This, Salon asserts, is a “sexist formula” — a spoonful of consumerist sugar meant to disguise the fundamentally “unsexy” medicine of math. So there’s the gauntlet thrown: in this corner, a female mathematician who talks to tween girls about expensive clothes, cooking, and high-paying careers; and in that corner, a female writer who doesn’t particularly like math or the lifestyle of wretched excess it might bring to deluded young women. Who’s the better feminist and who’s the victim of false consciousness here?

Why is it still verboten to talk honestly about the link between girls’ math/science performance, and their chances for long-term economic success — in terms that ACTUAL GIRLS might understand? Anyone with the slightest understanding of human psychology knows that 12 year olds — both male and female — don’t really grasp and valorize abstract professorial concepts like learning for the pure joy of learning. Kids understand tangible stuff: toys, clothes, cars, trips to Disneyland. So why can’t you make an equivalence that might actually mean something to them — like “Hey girls, if you want to wear pretty clothes as an adult, study math!” — without some bluestocking English-major tsk-tsking all over you in the name of moralistic feminism?

Feminism seems to me strongest and most compelling when it provides real economic, legal, and social benefit to the masses. The feminism that leads opposition to genital mutilation, “honor” killings, forced marriage, sex slavery, and spousal abuse is clearly on solid ground. The feminism that brought us voting rights, equal pay for equal work, legal redress for sexual harassment, and great opportunity for public life — hey, big ups ladies. But the feminism of recent days that has managed to get its head up its ass by engaging in endless arguments about the lifestyles of tiny minorities of the most privileged women in the world… that’s not a feminism that interests me.

I want all girls to study math and science, and to be taught it in ways that make sense to them, and to believe they can excel at it. Anyone who does anything practical towards that goal, like Danica McKellar, is getting my support. When Salon’s blogger writes a book about how middle-school girls should study math for reasons other than consumerism — study math to save the world! study math to become a more fulfilled human being! study math because writers don’t build technical societies! — I’ll support her too.