Pop music plus pop psych
September 24, 2007
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.