Overcoming Pop Prudishness

Last night I was watching Iron Man with a friend of mine and he mentioned something about an interesting shot. Off-handedly, I mentioned something to the effect of how Superhero films were a bit like crack to me and also that, “Transformers was actually also very good.”

“You know, Transformers always comes up whenever someone is talking about a ‘guilty pleasure’ film,” he said.

“I don’t feel guilty about it at all. I think it’s great action.”

It was a fantastic example of how the information economy has affected our view of aesthetics. The foundation of hipster-ism (particularly in music) was to have access to enough information to procure more unique memes (obscure bands) thus raising the value of one’s personal brand (I am a special snowflake). In my tween years, I was prey to this, eschewing big name boy bands for Britpop bands, believing it made me more sophisticated. Fortunately, my interest in non-mainstream music, which was kick-started by an interest in increasing social capital, matured into an actual interest in musical structures as I grew up. By the time Post-rock became the buzz genre, I was already knee deep in Modern Classical. My journey into ‘eclectic’ obscurity was accelerated. By contrast, my journey into the mainstream, which only truly started when I met my Britney-obsessed best friend at 15, was slow, painful and fraught with personal battles.

For example, recently, I had a lot of trouble appreciating Ke$ha because her music video for Blah Blah Blah gave me such a bad vibe. I saw her as an entitled, bitchy, mean girl and I actually felt, for some time, that she was a “bad influence” on youth. It was the first time such a thought had ever occurred to me in my entire life. Comparing her with Rihanna and especially Kylie Minogue, I felt that her music made sexuality somewhat dirty, whereas Kylie with her affinity for major keys and romantic lyrics made casual sex feel like a celebration and Rihanna, with her poise and brazen-ness imbued even explicit songs like Rude Boy with a kind of classiness.

In retrospect, my objection was nothing but pop prudishness. Without noticing it, I was using the same arguments as old people who hated The Beatles. What helped me understand this was actually the Hipster Runoff-coined term “Slutwave” which perfectly described Ke$ha’s musical philosophy. Unlike her predecessors like Britney or Madonna who played up their sexuality while still maintaining a virginal distance through explaining it away as a sort of “performance art” (a tradition upheld by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry now), Ke$ha’s image (drunk party girl) is a much more accurate reflection of the current definition of “slut,” a term which is problematic in and of itself.

In this way, understanding definitions and how they shift helps us to understand current narratives happening in the world. “indie”, for example, denotes a lifestyle rather than a specific musical style. The myriad of electronic dance music genres are divisible mostly by bpm. The countless metal genres are divisible by texture. With “Slutwave”, we are acknowledging (even if in an ironic sense) that the driving force for a lot of pop music nowadays is the performer’s image rather than their music. By doing this, we get one step closer to disengaging it from aesthetic morality.

In an era that is slowly getting rid of the objective morality imposed by religion, it’s important to realise that we often use the same rigid rules with regards to art and aesthetics. In music, this is most clearly delineated by the divide between “mainstream” and “non-mainstream”. A band that writes their own songs and performs them (however badly), is less likely to be considered “mainstream” or “pop” even if their music is 4/4, verse-chorus-verse and in a relatively unchallenging key. This is because as songwriters, they conform to the traditional image of “musician” and we assume that they must be more emotionally invested in their music rendering it more artistically valuable. Which is more embarrassing? Being a huge U2 fan or being a huge Justin Bieber fan?

The idea of art as being nothing but a vehicle for emotional expression is already distasteful to me but we’ll leave that story for another day. The fact is, the idea of someone creating art for commercial purposes is somehow obscene to us. We cling to the outdated archetype of the artist of fulfilling the same function as the monk or the outcast king of yesteryear. He dedicates his life to transcendental goals, providing an outlet for the rest of us to live vicariously through his inevitable suffering.

The reality is completely different. Capitalism has changed all this. The complexity of current economics lends more fluidity to media than ever before. This company might be affiliated with that company and maybe that company is owned by another company and for all of them to make money, all sorts of new and interesting tricks happen. Glee, for example, sells music through incorporating performances into a television series. The songs sell the series, the record companies get royalties, the series sells mp3s, everyone makes money. The K-pop (Korean pop) industry does away with traditional entertainment gender roles by having K-pop girl groups and K-pop boy bands perform each others’ songs in a bizarre bi-curious fashion because they recognize that it makes more money. The commercial impulse becomes the driving force for creativity and social change. Pop music innovates and changes at a far greater rate than something like Hardcore because public tastes are so fickle and general attention span is miniscule.

This is how I read pop music. I like it because it’s catchy and easy to listen to. I love it because it’s so intertwined with society and economics and I came to this because I chose to read it on its own terms rather than imposing another outdated structure on it. Sure, if you’ve grown up on less mainstream music, it takes some time but, rather like the advice I give to people just getting into Coltrane (it took me a year before it kicked in) or Classical music, if you stick with it and slowly work through your prejudices, the rewards are incalculable.

In the time-honoured tradition of putting my money where my mouth is, I will assure all readers that my next project is to attempt to turn myself into a ‘Belieber’. I’ve already downloaded My World 2.0. Wish me luck. TC mark

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  • a.

    Stopped reading half-way through. It sounded like you were trying way to heard to come off as “hipster cool”.

    • Guest

      ditto, re: stopped reading half-way through 

    • lowerhaighter

      Which, of course, is the exact opposite of the point of the article

    • Ashen1

      I read half-way, then skimmed through the rest, hoping there would be redemption.

  • Leb

    is anything here not some horrible satire of a precocious 16 year old. what is this website

    • TO

      what are question marks

  • Guest

    I’d say its safe to assume that those who stopped reading halfway through are exactly the people the piece is critiquing. For that alone; job well done!

    • Drd

      this is just some self-satisfied bullshit about how culturally enlightened the author is, there’s no “critiquing” here

      but if you didn’t cringe reading every line i guess why am i bothering to point this out

      • Analogue Elk

        …and your response is a little, premature spurt of your own enlightenment, devoid of critique. 

        CHRISTRAPER SINGS had the courtesy to do a full, filthy monty, complete with cute little hip thrusts. Will you scamper off now, having snapped your ragged overcoat open for a brief instant, your issue drying rapidly on the pavement?

  • Katie712

    tl:dr

  • Robev

    straight up one of the most smug, worthless things ever posted here

  • guest

    kesha just plain sucks, sry~

  • http://twitter.com/CowboySandtoes Cowboy Santos

    hipster? wtf. that term, or label was coined for commercialism therefore making null and void. die 

    • TO

      I also hate that word, but oh my god, you just wrote the ultimate hipster response…

      • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

        Admit it, seeing it used in half the articles you read on the internet about anyone from their teens all the way into their 30’s gets old.

    • Analogue Elk

      Your butt, it appears to be hurt.

  • Dinnie Lim

    Defending

    • http://twitter.com/iamthepuddles puddles

      not that ke$ha will ever come a thousandth as close to becoming the cultural icon or having the lasting legacy of the beatles, but it’s true. back in the day the old folk that the beatles were shit, and today they think the same.
      also who cares if you think her music is crap?

  • Jordaneats2011

    I loved this article and the way that it deals with pretension. Great job.

  • Jordaneats2011

    I loved this article and the way that it deals with pretension. Great job.

  • CHRISTRAPER SINGS

    As a songwriter who positions himself amongst some very 19th century ideas about art and melancholy. I found this article to be vapid and annoying. Here is my ‘quick’ response.Far be it for me to argue against the idea that capitalism is aforce for social change. But is social change in any direction supposed to satisfy? Is a song less valuable because the songwriter was committed to the song itself, rather than to extraneous ideas such as ‘social change’? Just because the church has a moral system that is oppressive does it then follow that moral relativism is ‘progressive’ and we can just ignore how capitalism mediates our experiences and reception of the aesthetic? It’s a myth that people can’t make their own ethical systems outside of god and religion. I like the idea of art that is unmediated by capital. Pure direct expression of ideas (or even the dreaded ‘self – expression’) is what I look for in art. I like the idea of ‘pop’ music in that it’s something that is collectively enjoyed. But just because something has pop aspirations, are we to let go of any ideas we have about quality or authentic ideas? Are we to embrace the truly vacuous in the name of resistance to moral frameworks?Missing from this self satisfied article in it’s discussion of high and low aesthetics is an acknowledgement of class, as well as an understanding of the economic mechanics of the song production of the pop artists which it refers to… and even an understanding of what it means to be an ACTUAL musician and songwriter, I think.

    • http://www.facebook.com/grc15r Gregory Costa

      What?

      • CHRISTRAPER SINGS

        I swear it makes more sense with paragraph breaks!

      • jawa

        Sounds like someones a little jealous they don’t make a ton of money writing catchy songs that are basically just a couple of text from last night entries thrown together. 

      • CHRISTRAPER SINGS

        Y’know jealousy is not the impetus here. I find the notion that we are not to have any standards for our songs or art because it supposedly would mirror church-based  moral structures to be just kind of absurd/usesless/ show-offy that the author read something post-modern in college. At the end of the day, shitty commercial pop songs still suck if they don’t have something that grounds them to authentic human experience. 

      • Analogue Elk

        >pure direct expression
        >ACTUAL musician and songwriter

        No. No, it doesn’t. 

  • Anonymous

    ta.gg/55j

  • Paz

    I thought most people get over using taste in music as a signifier of their identity by the time they graduate high school

    though i’m enjoying the image of some boring girl listening to free jazz for a solid year, just torturing herself until “FINALLY i can tell everyone i like some aspect of this!”

    • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

      They definitely, definitely do not.

  • TO

    Nice article. Intelligent writing about music is always appreciated.

  • Guest

    Sorry? Rihanna, poise? “Sex in the air, I don’t care I like the smell of it?” THAT Rihanna?
    I suppose to some extent I agree with what you’re saying in this article but it does seem somewhat unstructured to me and I’m not sure there’s actually a clear point/argument. I dunno. Maybe it’s just me?

  • http://twitter.com/freckleballek Matthew Ballek

    Oh em gee, do PeOPLe STILL hate on pOp cuLTuRe, queStion maRK.  So 2OO8. 

    Ke$ha or Die.

  • diet vanilla cherry coke

    very agreeable :)

  • Guesty

    It’s more embarrassing to be a huge U2 fan.  Is that a trick question?

  • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

    nicely written, but i don’t get it.

  • DatNinja

    your trying wayyyyy too hard to sound smart.

  • Chels

    Any article that begins with “I was watching Transformers the other night”…..

  • Chels

    Any article that begins with “I was watching Transformers the other night”…..

  • Kasper

    Meh.  I “get” it and mostly agree but it’s a bit self-indulgent and long-winded, methinks.  Yeah, I’m impressed you know some musical history and some big words that can’t be abbreviated with any 15 year old’s text message exchanges but the blatant advertisement of your intellect detracts from the very point you’re trying to make.  The reality is that I actually became too bored with YOU to finish the article about a subject that could never bore me.  I could easily just as well sum the genre up with the fact that if you have to either wear a completely outrageous yet not very original outfit & makeup (Gaga:  See Wendy O. Williams circa 1984.  Or Missing Persons circa 1982.  Or David Bowie circa 1972.) or wear next to nothing at all leaving very little to the imagination (Gaga, Ke$ha, Beyonce, Britney, Rhianna) or an absurd combination of BOTH (Gaga, Ke$ha) then you are obviously trying way too hard to visually distract us from the fact that your music just plain sucks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=641216758 Oweinama Biu

    Is it overcoming pop prudishness or admitting to ourselves that yeah, we’ll take a little mediocrity with our tea, thanks

  • Muertecaramelo

    Actually, this discussion is going to help one of my thesis’ arguments. Thanks

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