Saturday, October 9, 2010

More thoughts on pop

Katy Perry is one of the worst pop stars we've seen in a while. Not only are her songs not very good -- the lyrics, when not outright offensive, are at best idiotic, and they hooks aren't catchy enough to excuse this -- she just seems completely phony in every way. She's one of those celebrities who wear so much make-up and ridiculous clothing that you have no idea what they actually look like. She always looks like the Saturday morning cartoon version of herself. It's like, if she's not musically talented, can she at least be worth ogling? "I Kissed a Girl" especially makes me angry (I've blogged about this before); she manages to objectify women in general and trivialize homosexuality in one fell swoop; there's no one I'm not offended on behalf of. And Jill Sobule already wrote that lyric into a way better song 10+ years ago, so the faux shock value is especially cheap.

Her popularity baffles me because I have a pretty high tolerance for stupid pop music. For instance I will happily listen to radio hits by any American Idol winner. I kind of like that Adam Lambert song "Whataya Want From Me" (Oh my god, I know, that is apparently how the title is rendered), even though the lyrics make no sense -- it's one of those songs where it's really unclear if he's trying to break up with the "you" or aver his love. I mean, one of the lines in the chorus is "Just don't give up," but wouldn't you give up if your BF wrote a song to you called "Whataya Want From Me"? It's a little confrontational. Anyway, coherence isn't really crucial in a pop song; probably the greatest pop song of the '90s is "I Want It That Way" which makes at least as little sense. Stupidity is also forgivable (see above) as long as the song is really catchy; see "Manic Monday."

I also think a semi-weak song is excusable if the video is really awesome. "Freedom 90" is actually kind of a boring song, and not much worth listening to on its own, but it's the perfect soundtrack to the video, which is one of the best videos of all time and basically short-film quality. Musically, "Father Figure" kicks its ass in every way. I have a half-baked theory that one of the elements of a good song is being able to tell where you are in its arc if you turn on the radio in the middle of it. "Father Figure" has an amazing build-up, and coming in at the end is a real let-down; "Freedom," unless you hit the bridge, kind of sounds the same all over; it's like, who cares. This is why "Total Eclipse of the Heart" is ultimately a ridiculous song and only has camp value, musically -- from the very beginning, it sounds like the final third of a song; it's all climax.

Have you seen Ander Monson's attempt at a canon of pop? He begins with Joy Division and Talking Heads and tours through the essentials of the past 30 years. I like it a lot, and he includes some of my all-time favorite singles ("Dancing with Myself," "The Boys of Summer," "With or Without You," "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out") but the list has obvious holes, too. Women are underrepresented, of course -- he includes the Backstreet Boys but no Britney. Still, I love when intelligent people talk about mindless music.

Who would be in your pop canon? (And I really mean POP here people; the comments on my recent post led to me believe some of my blog readers have strayed so far into the hipster fringe they've forgotten what "pop" means. So use your judgment. For example, REM probably counts, but does TMBG? That's probably a stretch. They were never on VH1.) I'd definitely include George Michael. And Britney! I'd also have to throw in the Avril Lavigne song "I'm With You" -- I hate pretty much everything else she's done, but I find this song oddly affecting and can listen to it over and over.


  1. I need some time to think of my pop canon, but meanwhile, I'm with you (ha) on having an unexpected fondness for "I'm With You."

  2. McSweeney's sendup of "California Gurls":

    was my first initiation to Katy Perry. I thought it was hilarious, but only by the middle of the piece did I vaguely start intuiting that there was some kind of pop culture reference going on.

    I saw her do the song on SNL and connected the dots, though her nerdy-jailbait look took a little adjusting to. I would have pictured a bronzed, athletic blonde - a latter-day Olivia Newton John.

    The actual "California Gurls" video:

    was another twist: Katy prancing nude in an infinitely juvenile gingerbreadland, with Snoop Dogg as the doggerel-spewing Wizard. Lots to chew on: Why are her friends trapped in candy? Why does she spew whipped cream from her nipples? Why did she have to go and make icing look like sex goo?

    Though she makes a kind of music I don't really get or vibe to, I would have thought she could be classed with Lady Gaga, Madonna, Britney Spears, etc., in the sense that she's a born diva capable of invoking absolutely monster-scale the whole virgin/seductress thing.

  3. if joy division and talking heads are pop, tmbg is pop. but i don't think any of them are.

  4. Joy Division is a stretch, yes ... New Order less so. Depeche Mode, not at all. Pop by degrees....

  5. Chris, I'm surprised you didn't bring up the video that superimposes "California 'Gurls'" on "Tik Tok" (they are the same song)

  6. P.S. I had never seen that video. It's actually pretty awesome. Song still suxxx though.

  7. Actually I kind of like "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Or anyway I did back with it was on the radio constantly.

    I'm a little confused by the distinction you're making between Pop and whatever isn't. I guess how I'm thinking of it is: if the radio is on, and a song plays that I like enough that I'll listen to it all the way through, but I don't like the song enough to buy it (or to buy a CD specifically for that song), then it might go on my pop canon list.

    So using that as the main criterion, here's an off-the-top-of-my-head list:

    * Total Eclipse of the Heart (Bonnie Tyler)
    * I Can't Go for That (Hall and Oates)
    * Any number of songs by the Jackson Five (most of which I've never bothered to find out the names of)
    * Last Train to Clarksville (The Monkees)
    * Take a Giant Step (the cover version by the Monkees -- it was the B side of their 45 single Last Train to Clarksville)
    * Our Lips Are Sealed (The Go-Gos)
    * Probably other songs by the Go-Gos too
    * 99 Red Balloons (Nena -- I like the original German version slightly better than the English version)
    * My Green Tambourine (The Lemon Pipers)
    * I Got You, Babe (Sonny and Cher)
    * The Beat Goes On (Sonny and Cher)
    * Probably a few of Cher's solo songs, though hard to think of one in particular
    * Midnight Train to Georgia (Gladys Knight and the Pips)
    * Grease (more or less the whole movie soundtrack)
    * Saturday Night Fever (the songs in the soundtrack by the Beegees)
    * It's My Party (Leslie Gore)
    * Hair (The Cowsills)
    * Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Fifth Dimension)
    * Save the Country (The Fifth Dimension, I think it was)
    * And When I Die (Blood, Sweat and Tears)
    * Wedding Bell Blues (I forget who had the top 40 recording of this)

    (The last three above were written by Laura Nyro, and I do have CD recordings of each of the songs played (on piano) and sung by Nyro herself.)

    I agree with Chris's comment above, I would lump Katy Perry together with Lady Gaga, Madonna, Britney Spears, etc., though Perry hasn't been around long enough to find out if she has any shelf life. I'd throw Miley Cyrus into the same mix too.

  8. Lyle, everything you named qualifies as pop I think. Pop gets radio play and not only on alternative stations. Top 40 type stuff. I think standard definitions of pop tend to assume an orientation toward younger markets, but Big Pop Stars tend to appeal to a broad range of people/ages.

    The reason I don't lump KP in with Madonna, Lady Gaga and Britney is because her music is significantly worse.

  9. I better fess up: when Avril Lavigne puts out a Greatest Hits record, I'm gonna get it. As for "I'm With You," its Female Rescue Fantasy desire matches up well with my Male Rescuer Fantasy desire. I find the song enjoyable for all the worst reasons.

  10. Ha!

    I think part of the reason I like the video is because it reminds me of the Swedish movie Show Me Love (AKA Fucking Amal), which is so great. Young/vulnerable girl in big coat + bare legs in the cold dark, I guess.

  11. I think there's something you should know: I freakin love Freedom 90.

    I never want to hear you say I want it that way.

  12. Oddly I am a pretty big Avril fan but I'm With You doesn't even exist on my iPod. I like "Don't Tell Me."

    "Get out of my head, get off of my bed, yeah - that's what I said!"


  13. that freedom90 video is awesome, for a while in the beginning i thought the first model (the blonde) was george michael crossdressing.

  14. this is prob too new for 'the canon', but colbie caillat 'fallin for you' is pop perfection

    in a similar vein maybe taylor swift

  15. I think that you are underrating Katy Perry in a big way. Sure her latest album is very poppy but as pop goes it is full of hit singles. As for her image I think think that it is pure marketing because she doesn't even have naturally black hair but she does look amazing a lot of the time so she can be forgiven.
    On the question of lyrics I recommend looking at her MTV Unplugged performances on Youtube. The verions of "Thinking Of You" and "Brick by Brick" are amazing and lyrically very poetic.
    In interviews she comes across as really smart.

  16. @Allen, is she a country cross-over a la Shania/Faith Hill?

    @Aidan, I'm not criticizing KP because she is "poppy" -- I'm celebrating pop here! The songs of hers I've heard haven't made me want to seek out more work. They grate on me big-time.

  17. Gah, she actually has a song called "Ur So Gay"???

  18. The MTV Unplugged verion of "Ur So Gay" is very funny if you don't find the stereotyping offensive. Methinks that you might though if you didn't like "I Kissed A Girl".
    I don't think that she will go back to that territory again because she has already made the bigtime.
    Since you are interested in scents I should maybe say that the "Teenage Dream" CD case is scented with a pretty horrible candy smell. That was not something I really valued ;-)

  19. Ha, really?! That's pretty hilarious.