Is there a new fiction in pop music?

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.

Until now?

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.

Brian Hurley


  1. As far as A) goes, pop music has always been for teenagers, so I don’t really get the assertion that it’s getting more adolescent. You can’t get more adolescent than adolescents.

    Nor has pop music really ever taken on sex in any sort of serious or nuanced way. It’s always been vague and coded, as it is now–albeit not within the same kind of song you’re talking about.

    As for c), again, I think it was ever thus.

    What I think is interesting about the type of song you’re talking about is how some of the pro-gay messages dovetail with issues of class that aren’t really addressed outside of pop music. My reading are that these are essentially working class anthems, but whereas they used to be pretty straight forward (e.g., “Bastards of Young”), it’s much more complicated now. Working class identity has been almost completely co-opted by affluent Tea Partiers who have nothing but contempt for the actual working class. On the other side you have urban liberals and their cultural prejudices toward anything that might call into question their affectations or style. (Not to sound like David Brooks, but this is, you know, true.) So it makes sense to me that, with gay issues rising in the popular consciousness, a kind of song that was previously about group empowerment would morph into a kind of song about personal empowerment.

  2. So much to consider…like how does this stack up against hip hop — which is largely focused on boasting — and it’s dominance of the pop charts? What’s the connection to the fact that all of the examples you cite wear outfits that none of their self-esteem targets should even consider? How are these distinguished from their predecessors like The Touch (, The Best Around ( and Eye of the Tiger?

    But if I had to isolate any one thing, I’d have to blame recent period in which various high profile people evaded consequences of their failings by replacing reality with banality (e.g. the number of Mission Accomplished banners people stood in front of on TV vs. the number of fallen soldiers they acknowledged the reality of on TV). That embrace of ignorance combined with hard times has — I’d wager — created some kind of drippy self-help-language reflex where we can almost ride out a problem on the fumes of some uncomplicated, forward-looking platitude. Anyway I’m gonna stop before I say “culture of victimhood.”

    I do know for sure though that it’s NOT that sex is too problematic for pop music. Take for instance any other songs by the artists you reference.

  3. Yeah, I guess it’s also worth mentioning that these songs about self-esteem seem to be one-offs for these artists. Nobody makes a whole album like this. At the same time, the big contemporary female stars seem obligated to do at least one song like this. (Trying to think of Beyonce’s version – Single Ladies?) Almost like they’re doing this one “for the fans.”

  4. Doesn’t really matter what else the artists are doing. We’re past the album production of the 90s and back to the 50s style single wars. My single is louder than anyone else’s. Who cares what else is on the album? (talking strictly pop here) Then you have to beg the question…are the adolescents choosing the singles that satisfy their need to connect with self esteem issues? or have producers figured out that buy playing to adolescents self-esteem issues they make more money and so they force the issue? Has it really taken 20 years for the music industry to figure out how to make money on the punk rock scene=sell it to teenagers before they have the need to discover it!

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