Pop It, Lock It: Loving pop music and wanting too much

Wednesday, March 22, 2017 - 5:17pm

There are two types of people in this world: The ones who know and love every single word to Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time,” and the goddamn liars.

I shamelessly love pop music. And no, not the defensible indie-pop or electro-pop or any of the other hyphenated nonsense you can’t dance to. My one, true, forever love is straight-up Top 40 jams with big dumb choruses and giant Max Martin beats that lodge themselves as a permanent fixture in your brain, beating you senseless with their inanity and omnipresence on the radio until you can’t remember if you love or hate them. As I write this, “Closer” by the Chainsmokers has recently entered its 29th week in the top 10, and it might actually end up killing me with how stupid it is but will likely remain in the top 10 until long after. And it’s still an awesome song.

For a while, I did that thing where I acted like it was just a guilty pleasure, pretending I didn’t know every single word to 95 percent of Taylor Swift’s discography, turning my Spotify on private when I listened to that one 5 Seconds of Summer song, rolling the windows up and turning the volume down so I could dance to Usher without being judged. But in the immortal words of Icona Pop (feat. Charli XCX, whose new mixtape is fire, by the way): I don’t care, I love it.  [Editor’s Note: She’s not kidding about the mixtape.]


I honestly think there’s no other genre of music as uniquely suited to getting at the heart of a feeling like pop. Here’s the thing: Pop music is a distillation of what it means to want. To dance, to run away, to fall in love, to have someone, to get over someone — whatever it is, there’s a “wanting” that goes in front of all those verbs that is always, always the most powerful part of the equation, and is usually more powerful than the object of desire. This is where pop comes in, all sweeping choruses and glittering piano riffs, ready to take that roaring wanting and to force you to feel it.

It’s all over the radio, this longing. Take Lorde, for example. She sings over and over and over: “I’m waiting for it / that green light / I want it.” She’s half singing, half shouting, with dozens of versions of her vocals layered over each other, each of them waiting for it, each of them wanting. One voice isn’t enough because one voice can’t hope to cover the extent of just how badly she wants it. Whitney Houston wants to dance with somebody who loves her, and it sounds joyful, but she says it enough times that it becomes heartbreaking. All she wants is somebody to dance with, I mean god, why won’t somebody just dance with her? Why can’t somebody love her?

Ariana Grande says all she wants “to do is fall in deep …  been waiting and waiting for you to make a move.” In the world of her song, wanting and waiting is all she thinks about, all she dreams about. Whatever dude she’s singing about isn’t important. The star of the song is the desire — how badly she wants him, the way she feels. Carly Rae Jepsen belts: “I want what I want, do you think that I want too much?” while already sort of knowing the answer. Of course she wants too much. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be writing pop songs.

It’s at the heart of every pop song ever written: a wonderfully obvious, devastatingly unsubtle shout from the rooftops. This is what I want, and for the next three or so minutes, I can have it. It’s why a good pop song is nothing more or less than a pure rush of joy — the reaction is visceral. Whether you like pop or not, you will be forced to feel it (usually by me, making you listen to it in the middle of the library, chill be damned) because pop music knows your heart better than you ever will.

It’s also why every pop song will always be at least a little bit sad. It’s sort of heartbreaking to see someone being so naked about their desires, to be so earnest about who they are and what they want. The happy pop songs — the ones about getting what you want — are probably the saddest of them all.

Katy Perry sings “you and I will be young forever,” she sings “this is real, so take a chance don’t ever look back don’t ever look back don’t ever look back.” She shouts the words over hopelessly urgent drums, but there’s an awful earnestness there, to someone so open and vulnerable. There’s this horrible anxiety undercutting the entire song, because what Katy wants is equally as obvious as the fact that she’ll never get it. Taylor Swift sings she’s “feeling 22” and “everything will be all right” and “we’re happy free confused,” except Taylor Swift is 27 now and eventually everybody has to go home, even on the best nights. You know this in your heart of hearts: She won’t get what she wants. She wants it all, and wants it way too much.

But I mean, what is girlhood if it isn’t wanting more than you can possibly contain? It doesn’t really even matter that they’ll never get what they want. It couldn’t possibly hope to matter, not when you’re  up against choruses that big. And don’t think for a second they don’t know that what they want is doomed. That’s everybody’s big mistake, underestimating these shiny-haired pop princesses, thinking they don’t know exactly the music they’re making. There’s a reason, after all, that so many pop songs ground themselves in an ephemeral “tonight” — they know, and all too well, that this feeling is temporary. But for a time, they can be young and beautiful and in love, always dancing, always sparkling. For a time they can be untouchable. Or at least, until the song ends.