I don’t know anybody who loves pop radio.
I know people who listen to it ironically, as though they’re not comfortable admitting they don’t entirely hate Lady Gaga. And I know people who admit to liking just Lady Gaga, or just Usher, but still insist they “hate the radio.”
But why do we (claim to) hate pop music / pop media?
Why are we so eager to distance ourselves from “the norm?”
Let’s All Be Different Together (Because Being the Same Together Sucks)
We self-identify with people who dislike the same things (and in the same ways) as we do.
That means deriding the musical merit of Ke$ha is as much a prerequisite to being “taken seriously” by our peers as actually liking Spoon or My Morning Jacket; maybe even moreso, since individual opinions are more easily accepted by the fringe than popular appreciations are. (In other words, you can spend the entire $1 draft night railing against MGMT as sellouts, but you’re only allowed to play “Tik Tok” on the jukebox if you agree to sing and dance like a self-aware parody of someone who’s actually happy.)
Happiness also plays a huge part in this shell game.
As I’ve mentioned before, the ’80s were the last time pop culture was allowed to be happy without angering the intellectuals. In the ’90s, grunge made joy obsolete. In the ’00s, the left’s perception of the Bush administration was akin to a country being held hostage by its leaders; to enjoy life would be to give up and blindly accept all the shit Bush was shoveling.
Misery is serious business; only intellectual plebians with no understanding of the long term impact of their actions could possibly find anything to be happy about, right?
Especially “popular” music.
So we all hate it. Together.
You Suck Just Like I Do! Let’s Be BFFs!
It doesn’t help that Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and most other modern multi-platinum musical phenomena benefit from:
- criminally simplistic lyrics
- monotonously propulsive rhythms, and
- a studied amateurishness that teases the public into believing that we, too, are just one Auto-Tune squiggle away from becoming international superstars.
In the ’80s, Madonna and Janet Jackson were personae that women aspired to be like; in the ’10s, Ke$ha and Gaga are women you probably already are like — or, if you’re a guy, they’re women you think you actually stand a chance of sleeping with. No one had those illusions about Madonna, but reality culture means our stars seem touchable, so supporting them is a lot like supporting our friends.
We don’t think of Gaga and Ke$ha as being part of the system; they make us feel like they rely on us to help them reinvent the system.
Gaga earned her audience on YouTube. Ke$ha made her name on MySpace. They didn’t need labels to convince us they were worth paying attention to; now their fans are patting themselves on the back because they told the labels who they wanted to support and the labels listened. (Never mind that this just makes us complicit in the system, only from the inside-out.)
The Last Overnight Sensation I Felt Required a Tissue
50 years ago, pop music took weeks or months to sweep the nation, much less the globe.
50 years ago, a popular film might stay in first-run theaters for more than a year.
Today, all media is hyper-compressed into a mash-up driven culture where identifying, judging, assimilating and reinventing a piece of media happens in the blink of an eye. Today, Lady Gaga has to perpetually shock us, because the impact of each shock wears off much more quickly than the last one did.
Perhaps those of us who maintain a love-hate relationship with pop culture feel this way because we doubt the long-term survivability of memes and media that sweep the globe overnight. History will be history when we get there; for now, we’re just waiting for the next Black Eyed Peas album.
But something has to be pretty damn good — or at least pretty damn effective — to become popular… doesn’t it?
Bludgeon Me Until I Care
On a recent weekday, I was subjected to just over 2 hours of pop radio in Baltimore. (Disclosure: this was in a cafe where I was working remotely, so I had no control over their radio choices.) In that timeframe, I heard:
4 x Lady Gaga songs (though never the same one twice)
3 x Ke$ha songs (one repeated)
2 x Usher “OMG”
2 x La Roux “Bulletproof”
2 x Jay-Z “Young Forever”
2 x Justin Timberlake “Carry Out”
… and so on.
Are these songs worth hearing once an hour? Are they the best songs the record labels can provide us with right now?
Probably not. But they are the ones the record labels have decided to promote. And if they’re promoted enough, they become popular by sheer force of marketing will.
So perhaps what people hate isn’t the pop media, but the subconscious realization that the media conglomerates can afford to bludgeon us repeatedly with the same songs, movies and messages until we recognize them, which breeds, if not appreciation, then at least familiarity. Safety. Comfort. Approval by association.
We don’t hate pop culture. We hate being programmed. And we hate ourselves for submitting to it, or for not having the knowledge or the means to avoid it.
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