Rock and pop lyrics, on the whole, are about hooking up, breaking up, and partying. That’s how Elvis and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Motown and Michael Jackson and Madonna did it, anyway. Other narratives have had their day—the “die young” melodramas of the early 60s, the suburban self-pity of post-grunge bands—but the enduring themes are sex and parties.
The fastest-growing fiction in pop music seems to be the anthem of uplift, the ballad of self-confidence, the hymn to “being oneself.” I’m not qualified to make an official pronouncement on the history of pop music, but the recent vogue for “self-esteem pop” seems to have started with Christina Aguilera…
…and spread to other big-time female artists like Pink…
and Katy Perry.
This kind of thing is not without precedent. Alanis Morissette’s “Perfect” is also about dealing with other people’s unfair expectations, but it’s written ironically (ha!) from the point of view of an overbearing parent. Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” is less about self-empowerment and more about… actually, that song is even more creepy than I realized. What seems to distinguish the new songs is A) a lack of any reference to sex or relationships, B) hyperbole about how amazing the listener is, C) advice that the listener stay exactly the same, and never change, D) an implication that the singer and listener are best friends.
An instructive comparison is between Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” Madonna tells the listener to do something outside his or her comfort zone in order to feel empowered and ultimately succeed in a relationship. Gaga tells the listener to stay exactly the same, because “we are all born superstars,” and she’s talking about the listener’s place in society, rather than a relationship.
If these characteristics do constitute a new narrative in pop music, then we might explain it by observing the following: A) the audience for pop music is becoming more adolescent, and adolescents are more sympathetic to songs about self-esteem than sex and parties; B) sex has become too problematic a topic for broad public discourse, as the “normal” / adult / heterosexual / monogamous whatever breaks down, and pop music is shying away from it; C) pop musicians increasingly need listeners to view them as an intimate part of their lives, as caring and loyal as a real friend.
The new self-esteem songs piss me off because they’re such a cynical fiction. We can’t all be fireworks. When a superstar tells an adolescent (and adolescent-minded people of all ages) that they, too, are a superstar, and should never change or aspire to anything, it’s not only wrong and self-serving; it also goes against the whole history of rock and pop music, which is about feeling frisky, getting reckless, and trying new things (even if you get heartbroken in the process.) The new songs pretend we’re BFFs and then tell us to just keep sitting there. Don’t get up.