Pop it, lock it: In defense of fun music
I have two big theories about pop music (okay fine, I have like 17, but let’s start with two). The first is that the central thesis of pop is to communicate a complicated idea in a simple way. The second is that contemporary pop music’s single greatest moment was when Britney Spears looked straight at the camera in a red latex catsuit and white frosted eyeshadow and sang to the world: “I’m not. That. Innocent.” She spat out the phrase with a kind of defiant venom, each word punctuated by a bang on the keys and a sharp intake of breath. But it’s all almost hilariously useless in the face of her impossibly sugary, unfixable babyish voice. And yet, it’s genius.
To get into why this moment is magic would maybe require a graduate thesis about narratives of teenage girlhood in modern America, because it’s brilliant in a lot of ways Britney never intended it to be. But to write that sort of thing would kind of undercut the fact that most of the genius of the phrase “I’m not that innocent” is carried in its most literal interpretation. That is, an 18-year-old girl who got famous for carefully toeing the line between innocence and maturity, finally throwing off the plaid skirt and declaring her adolescence over. The genius is not in the overwrought academic mental backflips we (fine, I) love doing, but in the thing itself. The words, the voice, the singer. I mean, it’s Britney, bitch — like, God, she’s good. (Sidenote: I originally misspelled “good” to say “god” which may be the most accurate typo I’ve ever made). So really, it’s brilliant in exactly the way Britney intended it to be.
The point here is that some of the best things about pop happen by accident. Or maybe accident isn’t quite the right word — it’s more like convergence. Convergence in the sense that it had to be Britney, it had to be the year 2000, it had to be those specific piano keys pounding along with the drum, she had to be 18 years old, it had to be white frosted eyeshadow. It’s perfect, instantly iconic and it’s also so so simple.
To get to that kind of simplicity takes a certain kind of miracle, but those miracles seem to happen all the time in pop. Musical moments that are so obvious that the truth of them hurts, just a little bit. There’s a specific type of earnestness that pierces through all defenses, cuts through all bullshit to reveal a kind of tender vulnerability.
Take “Love Story” by Taylor Swift, a song that’s basically the sonic version of a heart drawn on the back of a school notebook in glittery nail polish. It’s simple to the point of maybe being a little bit dumb, and yet there’s something undeniably honest about it, something that cuts past all the sparkle and gloss. I think it’s in the way you can practically hear the smile in her voice when the key change comes in at the last chorus and she shouts, “Marry me Juliet, you’ll never have to be alone.” At the time (that is, 2008, when the song was released), all the cynics laughed and laughed because, haha, she didn’t even read “Romeo and Juliet” far enough to know how it ended, isn’t it funny how teenage girls are dumb, and I am very intelligent, etc. etc.
But Taylor Swift’s earnestness has never been guileless. Part of the magic of “Love Story” is the fact that the words “you’ll never have to be alone” (a line that promises a long future and implies a complicated present all within six short words, in case you forgot that Taylor Swift is an excellent writer) are sung by an 18-year-old girl with deadly seriousness. It never crossed her mind to think that this is a ridiculous thing to say. And this may sound like I’m being condescending — isn’t it adorable, the little girl who doesn’t know what she’s talking about — but I honestly think there’s a sharpness to her earnestness that needs to be respected.
Or think of how stupid and brilliant a move it is to build a song around the lyric,“We ain’t ever getting older,” a line that could only be written by someone who is very young and very aware of his youth. “Closer” is filled with really dumb lines that are way, way too specific (we didn’t need to know what town in Colorado your roommate lived in, Halsey) and neither Halsey nor Drew Taggart are particularly sophisticated singers. But the song comes together like the relationship it describes: addictive, a little bit broken, lovely. Again, there’s a magic that comes out of a perfect convergence of place and time: it had to be 2016, it had to be these really douchey EDM bros and a slightly pretentious indie singer, it had to be this exactly even-metered style of singing. It’s perfect as it is — I think the song wouldn’t be nearly as good if the singing was better, the writing was smarter or if the drop after the chorus didn’t sound like a techno version of Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Ultimately, it’s really silly to sit here and try and parse out the implications of a song like “Closer,” which contains absolutely no hidden intentions and wears its heart on its sleeve. But don’t mistake simplicity for a lack of depth — because “Closer” is complete. “We ain’t ever getting older” in the context of the song is a quietly devastating line that gets sadder with every desperate repetition (and even sadder than that when you see a bunch of drunk college students hugging each other and singing along at a party for reasons that are, again, really obvious). When you hear “Closer” on the radio, you’re invited to understand the totality of young love, nostalgia and heartache without having to think about it at all, because the song is constructed in a way that makes you feel it. The literal, obvious interpretation is the very best one, and its accessibility makes it all the better. In fact, its accessibility is kind of the whole point. This is pop music, after all.
This kind of sentiment is hard to fake. Parts of it can be contrived, of course, but the key, I think, is the earnestness. That is, the wholehearted belief in pop’s simple truths, so ridiculously obvious that they sail right past corny and snap back to brilliance before you even realize that you’ve replayed the song six times now.
I don’t think pop artists are the peak of authenticity or anything. That would be ridiculous. But I think there are lots of tiny moments of carefully constructed earnestness, moments where they really mean what they’re singing. These songs are a little bit dumb, a little bit sugary and really obvious, but none of that is really all that important (the obviousness of it all is kind of the best part). What’s important to me is the fact that to this day, Taylor Swift can’t get through “Love Story” without breaking into a giant smile at that key change when she sings, “Marry me, Juliet.” What’s important is that they’re saying such achingly, perfectly true things with wide open hearts.
It’s such a simple thing, until you stop to think about how complicated and difficult it is for this kind of vulnerability to shine through all the sheen and plasticity of pop’s commercial pressures. The fact that all these people took such a complicated thing and made it simple for us listeners is a special sort of miracle. It’s a little bit genius — and it deserves respect. Or at the very least, a stop on the radio station and a heartfelt sing-along.