*nsync - pop
real question i am genuinely asking, because i only know ten songs and half of them are by tori amos: is there another pop song that so explicitly takes as its subject “fuck you music snobs”? this isn’t (to my ears) a particularly great pop song (definitely not the best n*sync song even) but i am so pleased by its message. sick and tired of hearing all of these people talk about what’s the deal with this pop life and when’s it gonna fade out: ugh, ME TOO, justin, ME TOO.
i’m far from the first to suggest that people hating on or dismissing pop (and, okay, there is a place for the “let’s be real guys the ramones wrote pop songs” but one post at a time; here i guess i’m going to be using “pop” to mean “what people who are invested in not liking pop music think pop means” which i acknowledge is kind of circular and weird but hopefully i’ll make it work since i’m thinking about this nebulous conception of Pop more than what the music sounds like, WHICH IS ONE THING THE HATERS AND I HAVE IN COMMON, OH HO HO) often comes entwined with some really fucked-up stuff like racism, sexism, and homophobia. people better versed in pop history than i am have covered the total bullshit notion of “authenticity” (and the double standards with which it is applied), or expanded at length on what is gross about worshipping a form “inspired” (to be very generous) by black musicians as incarnated in a bunch of white dudes as the One True Way of making Real Music, Man, and i’m trying to get through this without just dropping “rockism” every other sentence so i’m going to focus a bit on another aspect of this noxious attitude.
what’s heinous about those terrible “THIS IS WHAT MUSIC WAS… THIS IS WHAT MUSIC IS NOW” images/lyric comparisons that pop up periodically is that 95% of them are incredibly racist and 100% are drawing on an absurdly selective memory (which is bound to happen if you believe that an entire decade of ALL MUSIC can be summarized in three quotes that happened to catch on on the radio). but there’s something else that bugs me about them which is: what is so wrong with shallow, simple, repetitive lyrics?
no one has to like them; i should hope it’s obvious i’m not interested in dictating anyone’s taste. people will find value where they find it, and i’m not interested in shoving britney down someone’s throat (or taking their radiohead records away) any more than i am in changing a theist’s mind about the existence of god (so: the opposite of interested. as far from interested as you can be without dying of apathy like in that joss whedon movie with the spaceship).
part of what i started dancing around here is the question (which i am not endeavoring to answer) of what is to be gained by and who benefits from placing such a premium on intellect or seriousness or whatever you want to call that divides the distinguished from the disdained. the reason i keep circling back to the fact that verbose instrument-playing chanteuses (several of whom i love) get a baseline of respect that allows them to present as imperfect fallible humans, whereas female pop stars are essentially forced to prove themselves constantly or be castigated by people who claim to be pro-women, is that what i see in that difference — other than shades of the aforementioned bullshit (and boring) notion of “authenticity” — is a set of troubling assumptions about the correlation between the words used and the agency of the speaker, the style of speaking and the value of the voice.
i brought my transcript to registration today because i needed it to be granted admission to a class that required the basic freshman english composition class. i walked to the department ready to explain that EXPOS stood for “expository writing,” the equivalent requirement at my previous college, that LIT-ART was also essentially an english class in different department, and that i had also successfully completed a straight english class. by the time i finished explaining my situation to the man at the desk, he was turning to his keyboard to put me in. “you can usually tell by the way someone talks, if they’re confident,” he said.
lucky me, i suppose. but how do i talk? i talk in what is considered standard english; i use grammar recognized as “correct;” i speak without an accent that would code for some (especially white, officially educated) people as belonging to a racial or regional demographic commonly assumed to be less educated, which too easily elides for too many of those (especially white, officially educated) people into less intelligent.
i talk perhaps not unlike fiona apple; she’s a graduate of the same private school i attended growing up. i’ve listened to enough live recordings to tell you sometimes, when i’m nervous or around certain people, my speech bears certain similarities to that of ani difranco.
so i think about words and speech and language. i think about word ain’t and who uses ain’t and who wrinkles their noses at ain’t and who gains from using ain’t as an excuse to ignore every other word that comes from someone’s mouth. i think about how utilizing a vocabulary that sounds like what we call “writing” or “poetry” grants you permission to be complicated, to contradict yourself without erasing your past, and how opting for a vocabulary that sounds like what we call “talking” means your every song is treated as a statement of purpose and your inconsistencies become proof of falsehood. i think about the word educated and people who take it upon themselves to educate those they have no interest in learning about. i think: if the vernacular coming out of her mouth is going to determine whether you trust her enough to consider her the expert on her own life, why should she trust a single word out of yours?
when you assume one woman singing from a vulnerable or unflattering state is pantomiming missives from her patriarchal overlords and another expressing parallel sentiments is self-aware enough to be deliberately constructing an artistic performance, and when the key distinction there is the word count of their verses or the complexity of their language (and oh, irony, that so many who glorify complexity cannot identify it when it comes in guises unfamiliar to them) — well, then i assume that on some level you consider the world to be composed of two groups: those worth listening to, and those who can be ignored or talked over or misunderstood to no consequence. furthermore i assume that those worth listening to are the ones that sound like you, who — quelle surprise! — will also often be the ones that look like you and live or seek to live like you. i will assume that you believe that you can usually tell by the way someone talks whether they’re worth your time.
this is why it matters to me that some art is not considered worthy of respect: because it is a very short step from that to some people are not considered worthy of respect, so short a step many on the other side will vehemently deny they’ve taken it. and because there is a linked sense of entitlement there, the idea that the world should cater to your tastes and your values — not your ethical or moral values, even, but the values you assign to ways to spend your time.
and so this is why i really resist the idea that entertainment or art ought to be “intelligent” — and pop isn’t the only form of art (or, music isn’t the only form of pop) to suffer the scorn of adherents to the deeply enriching pastime of getting emotionally invested in what perfect strangers do with their free time: procedural television shows, “chick lit,” action movies, romantic comedies, cartoons, and superhero comics, just to list what immediately came to mind, tend to fall under similar derision from those passionate about deriding. i believe broadly speaking we have an obligation to aim to harm each other as little as possible, and that’s about it. no one owes it to anyone else to take an interest in topics or pursuits deemed serious or worthy except insofar as certain attention must be paid to knowledge that will heighten our ability to treat others responsibly (read: no, i did not just give anyone a pass on educating themselves about oppressions that don’t pertain to them). there is no moral high ground to be occupied by those to turn to music in whole or in part for edification above those who listen to music because — even “just” because! — it’s fucking fun; that way only smugness lies. in the words of frank o’hara:
But how then can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? […] Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them.
or, as JC puts it in the song: all that matters is you recognize that it’s just about respect.
it really is. anything else is just status-seeking dressed up in different costumes. considering your relationship to art superior to all alternatives is thoroughly dull, but more importantly it’s just a variant on the same game you “win” by owning the biggest house and purchasing the choicest electronics. *nsync tell us that it doesn’t matter bout the car i drive or what wear around my neck, and while on the one hand that’s a bit rich coming from international boyband sensations, the spirit of dispelling competition — because that’s what these sorts of judgments are, ways to set up endless contests for us to win — is i think one worth taking to heart and pertinent here.
the material reality that many people right now, especially those less officially educated, are in jobs and living situations that leave them exhausted with little to no time for recuperation, much less leisure, is not really something that can be ignored but i’m going to bracket it because i dislike defenses of choices that amount to “well it’s hard for the poor things to be like you.” people have the right to their priorities. so for now i will set aside the havoc our economic system has wreaked on too many lives in favor of pointing out that the ideology of capitalism encourages us to value work as a moral good and relaxation as sloth, which i suspect is at play in which hobbies are considered to be wasting rather than spending time. moreover it pushes to relate to each other as competitors, to care enough about the cars we drive or what we wear around our necks to keep spending money on them, and to seek, constantly, things that can tell us we are higher in status than somebody else — including valuing our consumer choices above theirs.
now, the industry of pop is about as far from a haven against the cold winds of capitalism as humanly imaginable outside the offices of goldman-sachs, so while it’s tempting to sign off with an inspiring coda like “pop is democratic” i’ll refrain, in deference primarily to talented and dedicated musicians struggling to make it in part of the vagaries of the market. once again, i’m not looking here at the process or even product of pop. i’m thinking right now on what perhaps you could call the social experience of pop. i’m thinking about sweaty nights where all songs were my favorite song thanks to the magic of beer headphones (like beer goggles, for your taste in music), and the song that everyone doing karaoke that evening gets up to dance for, and giddy nostalgic sing-a-longs, and spending hours choreographing awkward moves to britney in fifth grade, and legs sore and dripping with about fifteen people’s sweat after a concert, and the way shakira reminds me of how sweetly a boy touched my hips at prom, and eight-year-olds spontaneously erupting into taio cruz choruses. i’m thinking about how we privilege the mind above the body, especially in the upper echelons of the intellectual elite, and how pop is so often tied to motion, and how thrilling just motion can be, and how there can be something really beautiful in the moments we leave thought behind. i’m thinking about the body and laughter and community and joy, and i’m wondering why someone would see in those things nothing worth cherishing.
ages ago tom ewing summed it up marvelously in a comment that has stuck with me (and to which this post is much indebted), here:
When you start saying “it needs something extra to be a 10″, what you’re doing is saying that joy on its own can’t be enough. I object to this idea. That objection can get misinterpreted as a hedonistic philosophy – that joy is always enough, pleasure above everything in criticism – but it’s not: of course pop can act in ways beyond simply ‘being pop’, how boring if it couldn’t! But I wouldn’t be much of a pop fan if I didn’t think that sometimes simply being pop IS enough to get the highest praise I can give.
or to toss the mic back one more time to our boys up top:
Do you ever wonder why
This music gets you high?
It takes you on a ride
Feel it when your
Body starts to rock
Baby you can’t stop
And the music’s all you got
Come on now
This must be