Beneath the Bubblegum Pop

Marina and the Diamonds blowing bubblegum

I’ve never written about music before. The fan culture surrounding it is not so much something I’m ingrained in. In fact, I almost actively try to keep myself distant at times—people will ask ‘So, you like Lady Gaga?’ and my immediate reaction is to dam the flood of mental typecasting that the asker may be impending (for whatever reason) by saying ‘I don’t know, I just like some of her music.’

It’s always important to make the distinction between creation and creator, in any medium, lest you build false assumptions based on one or the other. Sometimes it’s warranted, like, is Robin Thicke necessarily a creepy sexist twat for singing creepy sexist songs? Maybe. Probably. It’s beside the point. What I’m going to talk about here is the art of not judging an artist by their covers and, lord, by their genres, because you know how much I hate that.

Much as we try to quell it I think there’s a hipsteriffic knee-jerk reaction in our bones when it comes to pop culture, that is, the desire to discredit or disown something because it’s popular. ‘So you listen to these guys, do you?’ ‘No! Of course not! They’re consumerist trash! I only pick up music from obscure corners of the internet and Ukrainian alternative radio stations!’

True enough, “what’s popular isn’t always right, and what’s right isn’t always popular”, but disregarding all the merit in an art piece simply because lots of people like it seems to lack a certain level of logic (And yes, pop music is art. It’s not all good art, but it was made for people’s enjoyment with creative energy, and so it is art). Who’s to say that there isn’t artistic intelligence present just because it’s glitzy pop music?

Let’s look at Ke$ha, for instance, American rave trash-princess who has to press shift twice to type her name. She sings autotuned party anthems about getting drunk and covered in glitter and wrapping herself around attractive men. What a scandal! That’s surely no way for a young lady to behave (and if that is your response to her, in her latest single she tells you to suck her dick. Lovely) and she and her music are easily dismissed as being superficial, stupid, shiny and smelling vaguely of vodka and regret.


Intellectualism wears blue lipstick

However, simply because one writes (and yes, she writes all her own songs!) about crashing parties and then hurling all over someone else’s carpet, does not mean that that is the model they live their own life by. Ke$ha, before she added the dollar sign to her name, was a top-grade student with a creative flair and a penchant for sneaking into Cold War history lectures for fun. Why then did she throw her life away to sing about partying, you ask? Well, if you can make money doing what you love, why wouldn’t you, I ask back? The lady says she has great fun making music, and people enjoy it. And she may also be the industry’s least noted parody artist.

Sure, you can take the boppy tunes at face value, or you can tilt your head to one side and ponder what this artist is actually trying to comment on. The exaggerated and ridiculous antics within the songs shed light on how glorified this gross party lifestyle has become. ‘Blah Blah Blah’ can very easily be seen as poking at double standards in the dance music world: there are plenty of dudes rhyming about hooking up with hot women in the back of cars, so why should there not be retaliation from a female perspective?

Similarly, Marina and the Diamonds got a lot of flak for her music video ‘How to Be a Heartbreaker’, wherein she dances around with a bunch of stunning and rather soggy young men. Which, the artist pointed out, only demonstrates the double standards running rampant in the media that she was prodding at with her music (male singers bob around with bikini babes all the time, do they not?).

Again, Marina’s is a vein of shamelessly and enjoyably glitzy pop with princessy lyrics very easy to take at face value and miss the edge of. When conceptualising her album ‘Electra Heart’ she created a character that embodied everything she hated and feared about Hollywood culture, and wrote and performed from that girl’s perspective. From this we end up with an album full of delightfully spoilt, vain, man-teasing, lonely and damaged warbling.

Lana Del Rey

What did you just Lana Del Say to me?

Lana Del Rey, too, can be seen as deconstructing the archetype of the Hollywood princess in her lyrics, most of which (especially from the album ‘Born to Die’) involve a lot of glamour and smoky love affairs and clamouring for diamonds and attention. However, you’d be deaf not to pick up on the running themes of ruined decadence of the world of fame, especially with songs like ‘Carmen’ and ‘Gods and Monsters ’. She takes on a lounge singer persona and makes lots of references to the glazed golden age of Americana, seducing all with her other-timey elegance and then telling us how sparkly and awful the world of our pop culture is.

Plenty of pop artists comment on their world and their genre in their songs, after all, they’re a form of expression and these are the things that will often come out. Pink pokes harshly at the image-warping business of the music industry in ‘Don’t Let Me Get Me’ and sticks her tongue out, again, at the double standards against fun-seeking, drink-sodden promiscuity in ‘Slut Like You’. She also pours a lot of her life story into her songs, very passionate and heartfelt pieces that people can relate to as well as being catchy and entertaining to listen to. I mean, that’s what people really look for in a good song, ultimately—why did ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ get so outrageously popular? Because it got stuck in people’s heads and told a poignant story, one of disintegrating romance, which is a message that lots of people can see themselves in.

Or, maybe, they’re just making fun music without much intellectual substance, and who’s to say that that isn’t okay too? Sometimes I want to angst into banjos with Mumford and Sons, sometimes I want to swoon and sway in the ghostly timbres of Kyla La Grange, sometimes I want to make everything three times as epic with Two Steps from Hell (seriously, put that on when you’re cleaning your house, it becomes an adventure), and sometimes I want to forget my problems and bob my head to Katy Perry. It’s like ice cream for the ears. The truth is, no amount of analysis and genre snobbishness will ever take away people’s love of things, and popular music gets the biggest dose of this I think I’ve yet to see.

The point is, do not judge a song by its cover. It may appear strawberry-gum superficial and be a snide and clever comment on modern culture, or it may seem steep and intellectual and actually just be about making toast. Or, it could be exactly what it claims to be, and everyone can enjoy it for that:

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Filed under Pop Culture Ponderings

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