Tuesday, July 10, 2007

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Drezner's pop culture minute!!

One of the pernicious side-effects of shuttling around small children in one's car is that it causes one to lose with touch with today's music. Anything that's not on "Music Together" or the theme song from Maisy is lost on my youngest child, and she gets very grumpy when her music is not being played.

Even with this caveat, I'll go out on a limb and declare myself a better arbiter of pop music meanings than David Brooks.

This is based on Brooks' column ($$) in the New York Times today, a sociological exegesis of three hit songs today:

If youíve been driving around listening to pop radio stations this spring and summer, youíll have noticed three songs that are pretty much unavoidable, and each of them is a long way from puppy love....

[Brooks' three songs: Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats," Pink's "U + Ur Hand," and Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend". I'll go out on a limb and add that I think Kelly Clarkson's "Never Again" is actually a better song than these three and better represents what Brooks is trying to get at in his column.--DD]

If you put the songs together, you see theyíre about the same sort of character: a character who would have been socially unacceptable in a megahit pop song 10, let alone 30 years ago.

This character is hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, fedup, emotionally self-sufficient and unforgiving. Sheís like one of those battle-hardened combat vets, whoís had the sentimentality beaten out of her and who no longer has time for romance or etiquette. Sheís disgusted by male idiots and contemptuous of the feminine flirts who cater to them. Sheís also, at least in some of the songs, about 16.

This character is obviously a product of the cold-eyed age of divorce and hookups. Itís also a product of the free-floating anger thatís part of the climate this decade. But as a fantasy ideal, itís also descended from the hard-boiled Clint Eastwood characters who tamed the Wild West and the hard-boiled Humphrey Bogart and Charles Bronson characters who tamed the naked city.

When Americans face something thatís psychologically traumatic, they invent an autonomous Lone Ranger fantasy hero who can deal with it. The closing of the frontier brought us the hard-drinking cowboy loner. Urbanization brought us the hard-drinking detective loner.

Now young people face a social frontier of their own. They hit puberty around 13 and many donít get married until theyíre past 30. Thatís two decades of coupling, uncoupling, hooking up, relationships and shopping around. This period isnít a transition anymore. Itís a sprawling life stage, and nobody knows the rules. (emphasis added)

A few thoughts:
1) David needs to haul his current research assistant into his office and bitchslap him or her for a while. It's the RA's job to have a better grasp of pop culture, and in this case there has been a clear failure, because this kind of song has been around for a while. A decade ago, there was Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know," Fiona Apple's "Sleep to Dream", and Meredith Brooks' "Bitch."

Two decades ago, there was Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It?"

Three decades ago, there was Blondie's "One Way (Or Another)"

2) The persistece of this song suggests that Brooks' fears might be just a wee bit exaggerated. II'll wager it's been at least three decades since educated women have had to marry the farmer next door at gunpoint. The fact that this period has stretched out further (for both sexes) does not breed more confusion -- it simply means that a higher percentage of the population has experienced the kind of traumatic break-up that generates the songs discussed above. [Did you experience this?--ed. Yes, but in my case it manifested itself into marathon watchings of thirtysomething back when it was aired on Lifetime. You were such a wuss!!--ed. I was keenly aware of this fact, yes. ]

3) Pop songs are about moods more than permanent states of personality. The mistake in Brooks' column is to assume that the mood identified in these songs lasts beyond a summer. They don't.

4) I've wasted way too much time on this post.

posted by Dan on 07.10.07 at 09:25 AM


Concerning 2) ... this guy is fighting to make reverse that trend:


posted by: Jake on 07.10.07 at 09:25 AM [permalink]

delete "make" ... yikes.

posted by: Jake on 07.10.07 at 09:25 AM [permalink]

Brooks had a column deadline.

posted by: Virginia Postrel on 07.10.07 at 09:25 AM [permalink]

I can't believe that Drezner has a "Pop Culture Minute" headline where the lovely and talented Selma Hayek is not mentioned.

You're slipping, Dan.

posted by: Howard on 07.10.07 at 09:25 AM [permalink]

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