Why Study Mainstream Pop?

Many parents would tell you it’s all trash. My friends haven’t listened to Star 92.5 for twenty-five years. Schools of thought that tote morality write it off as being “bad.” But my daughters love it. By their own declaration it helps them define who they are and who they want to become. It is the soundtrack of their lives. When I was a teenager, my life had a soundtrack too: the Scorpians, ABBA, Cindi Lauper, Chicago.

The Question Changes

Why wouldn’t I want to learn all I can about this fascinating music scene as it benchmarks the progress and struggles of our society?


My hope for this project is to understand more about the cultural tapestry of my daughters’ reality. I hope to learn something about myself and what I value in music. And with luck, I hope to hear some great tunes that will stick around in my mp3 player.

The Process

1. find songs through radio play, top ten lists on i-tunes, and recommendations from the kids


2. listen carefully to get a first impression

3. find the video on YouTube and put the songs in playlist categories on my YouTube channel Mennofolksonggirl.

4. download and analyze the lyrics apart from the images

5. put the images, lyrics and music together again and start writing my thoughts as I gave the song one more look and listen



One hundred and twenty songs are included in this informal study, though more have been added to my YouTube channel as I find new ones to save. I eliminated all musical theatre songs (also wickedly popular) and songs from TV shows from this study. Most of the music was on the charts in 2009, though I have included a few older hits from 2007-8. There are many aspects to this music project that could be enhanced by someone with a better understanding of race and class in America. I am not a trained cultural critic or sociologist. My primary analytical background is feminism, and since I have daughters, I am naturally looking for the relationship between women and Pop.

I will describe the songs first by musical qualities, and then by categories, the themes I identified with first impressions.

Non-Objective

There is nothing objective about this paper. As a music fan, I have strong musical likes and dislikes. I’m nuts about Fergie, and Maroon 5, Flo Rida, The Plain White Ts and Colbie Caillat. I can’t stand Metro Station and I find the All American Rejects obnoxious. But there are many ways to judge a song. Throughout the study, I have tried to become aware about what we are drawn to when we hear music.

Qualities of a Song

Listening to the music repetitively helped me identify my own list of qualities I find attractive in a song:


1. Voice quality/soulfulness

2. Energy/intensity

3. Melody

4. Unique or cleverness

5. Compelling story

6. Joyful, feel-good music

8. Beat

9. Lyrics/poetry

The Voice

This quality is, of course, extremely varied, for beauty is in the ear of the listener. I don’t always like a pretty voice best, but I really need to hear an emotional quality and a timbre that is pleasing to me. My favorites? Avril Lavigne, Beyonce, Demi Lavato (great texture!), Fergie, Colbie Collait, Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, Plain White Ts, Sean Kingston (lucious), Taylor Swift, Five for Fighting, Cold Play, Gavin Rossdale, Shontelle and Lindsey Lohan. If it seems like a long list, that is because this particular quality is especially important for my listening pleasure. There are a few who have the opposite effect on me. Vanessa Hudgens is as cute and dear as can be, but her vocal quality is too tinny and harsh for me to enjoy. I am usually quite fond of the sound of Rap and Hip Hop, but what lingers from 90’s angst rock (Metro Station, All American Rejects) makes me tired and gives me a headache. So many voices are electronic now that it is hard to hear the true vocal tone of an artist. I simply take electronic vocals to be an instrument in itself and I find it doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the song as long as I accept it as a performance art of its own

The Energy

This is that mysterious thing called the Spirit of Rock and Roll, the thing that happens to pick you off your feet and fling you into the sky. The voice doesn’t matter, the song doesn’t even matter, but the spirit is everything. Energy can rise and fall affected by other aspects, such as the surprising melody change in Here we Go Again by Demi Lavato or the emotional intensity of Avril Lavigne’s voice in When You’re Gone, the lyrics of Pink’s Sober or the story line of Jesus Take the Wheel by Carrie Underwood. A song doesn’t have to be fast to have incredible energy. Love Story always gives me chills after a certain pause of suspense at the end of the song. Wake Up Call’s beat provides an intense energy that turbo charges the emotional content of the song. And the winner of the “Energy Award” of Wendy’s project goes to Love Addict by Family Force 5, where the singer screaming into the mic makes me feel like banging my head in the air. Fast or slow, and no matter what effective technique is used, the spirit and energy of a song is mysterious and elusive.

The Melody

I can’t say that melody is a strong quality in the music I listened to. There is a feel of chant to the songs, from Hip Hop to Rock, usually with a loud beat driving it. However, some of the melodies carry the song, and provide variations on formula Pop that are pleasing. Jordan Sparks is a good melody artist, as is Colby Caillat. Both have written songs that could hold their own with just guitar and voice. The melodies of Love Remains the Same by Gavin Rossdale and A Thousand Miles by Vanessa Carlton hold emotion within them and involve some good melodic instrumental hooks. Ne-Yo’s So Sick (of Love Songs) makes a pretty tune, as does everything by Maroon 5, no matter how graphic or horrible the words.

The Unique or Clever

All musicians want to be “fresh,” unlike anyone else that came before. But few manage to win that label. Sometimes it can be a clever turn of words (Potential Break-Up Song by Aly & AJ) or a catchy sound (“Under my umbrella, ella, ella ella” in Umbrella by Rihanna) or shock value (If You Seek Amy, Britney Spears).


I think that the most usual way for songs to be unusual is an overall concept that hasn’t been explored. So What by Pink. My Humps by The Black Eyed Peas. We’ve simply never heard anything like it on mainstream radio before. I Do Not Hook Up is unique in that it identifies a new sexual trend which is the reality of today’s romantic involvement...no romantic involvement. Viva la Vida is one of those songs that you can listen to for hours and still not understand. Yet, it is unique enough lyrically that, mixed with a great tune, it made it through the mire to the top. More great concept songs: Do You Know How to Touch a Girl? JoJo, (I’m Not Gonna Write You a) Love Song Sara Bareilles, Message from your Heart Kira Grannis, 7Things (I Hate About You) Miley Cyrus and Wake Up Call Maroon 5.

The Compelling Story

Every song tells a story. Some are very personal, and some more detached. The quality I’m talking about here is the detached technique of telling a story about someone else through a song. Stories draw us in and make us emotionally involved. Many of the songs I listened to had videos that developed the story way beyond the lyrics. At this point the audio and visual can’t be separated; kids listen to the music on YouTube, and they watch the videos on their ipods. Who would have known that What Hurts the Most (Rascal Flatts) is about a pregnant teenager whose lover is killed? Watching Beyonce’s If I Were A Boy is almost like seeing a feature length film where you are never sure which partner of the couple is really in the situation and which is a fantasy. Wake Up Call, So What and Jesus Take the Wheel (mentioned above) all tell classic stories with an unusual twist.

The Joy

We need music when we’re sad or angry. But there is something irresistible about a feel-good song that can offer joy to a lousy day. Akon is great at infusing everything he does with joy. When he sings his smile is like the sun came out, even during Sexy Bitch! Natasha Bedingfield is a bringer of joy, with Unwritten and Pocketful of Sunshine hitting the charts. Bubbly by Colbie fills us with warmth and safety while Me and My Gang (Rascal Flatts) and I Gotta Feeling offer exhilarating preparation for a night on the town.


I gotta feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night

That tonight’s gonna be a good, good night...



I know that we’ll have a ball if we get down and go out and just lose it all,

I feel stressed out, I wanna let it go...



Fill up my cup! Mozoltov!



I can critique Flo Rida’s Low for lots of reasons, but if I want to dance in my kitchen, that’s the song for me! Joy can be quiet like in Taylor Swift’s The Best Day or loud and confident like Party in the USA with Miley Cyrus. Remakes from the 80s are growing in popularity and Aly &AJ show that Walking on Sunshine is still shining through the years.

The Beat

This one really gets me, compelling me to like and listen to music that would have no value to me otherwise. And the worst perpetrator: Lady Gaga.


Let’s have some fun, this beat is sick

I wanna take a ride on your disco stick

Don’t think too much just bust that dick

I wanna take a ride on your disco stick



"Sick" means good. And the kids I've asked about it simply don't care what it says. The beat truely is sick, and there's nothing better to dance to than a sick beat.

The sweet appeal of reggae has not left us, as Akon and Sean Kingston and Jason Mraz carry it on in their music.

Basically every Black Eyed Peas or Fergie song contains an addictive beat that stays with my mind for hours. Even the songs that I analyze as destructive or exploitative carry strong positive connotations in my consciousness because of that awesome jam.

Rock and Roll Still Lives

Rock and Roll still lives, and Move Along by AAR or Here we Go Again by Demi Lavato are irresistible if you want to jump around. The Ting Tings have a great drumming style that reminds me of 80s Alternative Rock. Driving beat lends intensity to Blame it on the Alcohol (Jamie Foxx) and Wake Up Call (Maroon 5) and Rihanna’s Disturbia.

Lyrics

Of course, Pop music involves poetry, much of it as basic as it comes. There certainly have been other eras with more poetic lyrics than what we’re seeing in the early 21st Century. Like... almost any other era.


Other than Love, the poems don’t get very deep. Only one song, Apologize by Timbaland/One Republic dealt with God or the existential:

I found God on the corner of First and Amistad

Where the West was all but won

All alone, smoking his last cigarette

I said, “Where you been?” He said, “Ask Anything.”



Where were you when everything was falling apart?

All my days were spent by the telephone that never rang

And all I needed was a call that never came

To the corner of First and Amistad

The Sound of the Words

It is hard for me to tell whether I admire the actual poetry or just the sound of the words coming out, but I very much like Fergie singing the words of Big Girls Don’t Cry.


I need some shelter of my own protection Baby

To be with myself and center, clarity, peace, serenity



I hope you know, I hope you know

That this has nothing to do with you

It’s personal, myself and I,

We’ve got some straightening out to do

And I’m going to miss you like a child misses her blanket

But I’ve got to get a move on with my life

It’s time to be big girl now, and big girls don’t cry

Poetry of Cold Play

Only one song out of the bunch struck me as good old fashioned poetry, the kind you can sink your teeth into and think about awhile. It’s from Cold Play, Viva la Viva, and it’s worth it to give you the whole thing:


I used to rule the world

Seas would rise when I gave the word

Now in the morning I sleep alone

Sweep the streets I used to own



I used to roll the dice

Feel the fear in my enemy's eyes

Listen as the crowd would sing

"Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!"



One minute I held the key

Next the walls were closed on me

And I discovered that my castles stand

Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand



I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing

Roman Cavalry choirs are singing

Be my mirror, my sword and shield

My missionaries in a foreign field



For some reason I can't explain

Once you go there was never

Never an honest word

And that was when I ruled the world



It was the wicked and wild wind

Blew down the doors to let me in

Shattered windows and the sound of drums

People couldn't believe what I'd become



Revolutionaries wait

For my head on a silver plate

Just a puppet on a lonely string

Oh who would ever want to be king?

Categories

I was looking for broad themes when I first heard the pieces. The following categories are those which came naturally to my mind on first impression of the music.

Rated G

These videos are wonderfully appropriate for all maturity levels. They express a range of life experiences, with an emphasis on joy and love. The artists that sing them come from all races, backgrounds and genre traditions. The words “sweet and innocent” have connotations that are boring, bland or naive, but I don’t think that does these songs justice. This list has teeth. Songs of human emotions from jealousy and insecurity to love, loss, aging, parties, life, determination: the themes run wild. What they have in common is that they are appropriate for any stage of development, age or walk of life. They sing about life experiences we all have in common in ways anyone can identify with.


Chris Brown was arrested for domestic violence against Rihanna this year (2009), but the words of his song With You can be cheerfully sung in any preschool:

‘Cause if I got you I don’t need money, I don’t need cars, girl you’re my all ...

And now I know that I can’t be the only one,

Bet there’s hearts all over the world tonight with the love of their life who feel what I feel when I’m with you



Jordan Sparks seems to be especially philosophical in her songs, “We live and we learn to take One Step at a Time, there’s no need to rush/it’s like learning to fly or falling in love.” Another one of my favorites is Michael Franti &Spearhead with Sey Hey:

I’ve been a lot of places all around the way

I’ve seen a lot of joy and I’ve seen a lot of pain

But I don’t want to write a love song for the world

I just want to write a song about a boy and a girl



Or as Rascal Flatts say “It’s a brother and a sister kind of thang…” in Me and My Gang.

Images That Change Things

It’s really cool how the video images of a song can enhance or even change its meaning. Soulja Boy recorded a song called Kiss Me Through the Phone that could have had a XXX following, but instead showed images of people from all walks of life talking on the phone to loved ones.


What surprised me was the sheer number of songs in the “Sweet and Innocent” category. Including songs that I placed in other categories, I’d estimate that out of 120 songs, half are unquestionably appropriate for everybody. This seems really high to me compared to the 80s MTV scene and most of post-Beatles Pop music history.

Sometimes I like to read the comments under a video on YouTube. One stood out:

You shouldn't be offended by the fact that we comment about personal things have feelings and have felt something tragic it just means were human and have the capability to admit that. Rascal Flatts speaks of personal experience that’s why it reflects on us so much and causes me to confess about abuse, loss, hurt, or even want. I think being idiotic enough to say we care means we are the ones who make a difference.

-comment under What Hurts the Most

Great for Adults

Often juicy, these songs are artful and meaningful but beyond a child's reality. It was a startling realization to me that some of pop music really is aimed at reflecting adult relationships and adult situations. .. music written for adults to listen to! Many of the adults I know stopped listening to Pop radio stations after we had kids. By then the songs that defined us as teenagers were “Classic Rock.”


These songs are often set within a marriage or a long-term partnership: Rihanna’s Unfaithful, If I Were a Boy by Beyonce, and Right Now by Akon (*lyrics changed on youtube from "I want to make love right now na na na na.) I love the way Akon longs to nurture his lover with food “I just wish you could dine with me,” her freedom, “I want you to fly with me,” and everyday life, “I miss how you lie with me.”

One of my favorite songs I encountered on this project was T-shirt by Shontelle. The song describes a woman whose partner is away who doesn’t want to get dressed or go out without him. She just wants to stay home cuddling with nothing but his T-shirt on to enjoy the smell and memory of him.

Love (Continued)

Some of the lyric and image combos that are inappropriate for teenage experience are powerful and moving for adults. Ne-Yo sings a plaintive song called So Sick (of Love Songs), describing details a lot of people dealing with loss can identify with,


Gotta change my answering machine, now that I’m alone

Cause right now it says that we can’t come to the phone

And I know it makes no sense cause you walked out the door

But it’s the only way I hear your voice anymore



Gotta fix that calendar I have, that’s marked July 15th

Because since there’s no more you, there’s no more anniversary

I’m so fed up with my thoughts of you and your memory

And how every song reminds me of what used to be



Several of these songs deal with complexity of love, beyond the usual first kiss scenario. In She Will be Loved Maroon 5 describes a woman who used to be a “beauty queen of only eighteen, she had some trouble with herself,” who in the video images we now see is abused by another man. Yet, the singer offers her a chance at a new relationship with realistic expectations: “It’s not always rainbows and butterflies, it’s compromise that moves us along. My heart is full and my door’s always open, you can come anytime you want.”

Gavin Rossdale’s passionate song Love Remains the Same is also complex in a way that is meaningful to those of us who have been around the block a few times.

I never thought that I had any more to give

Pushing me so far, here I am without you

Drink to all that we have lost, mistakes we have made

Everything will change, but love remains the same.

A Material World

The songs on this list come from a worldly perspective that worships money and society's idea of high living. Some of these songs twist the concept of love into a wealth fetish. Others are about interacting with life on a material level. Out of the 120 songs I explored, 32 had references to money. An interesting second was fame, with 18 references, many linked directly with financial success.


In When I Grow Up and Beautiful Dirty Rich The Pussycat Dolls and Lady Gaga unabashedly claim money/ fame as the highest value in life. Other songs in this category question wealth and fame even as they idealize it, such as Fergie’s Glamorous (a word so similar to amorous, the other Fergie theme). Glamorous starts with a repeated chant: "If you ain't got no money take your broke ass home!"

In the addictive song Low, Flo Rida describes a variety of name brand items such as Reeboks and Apple Bottom jeans. Songs throughout this project used brand names to conjure up a specific atmosphere or idea.

Cold Play and Beyonce use money to symbolize other things such as power and love in Viva la Vida and Ring The Alarm, a fascinating song about a possible divorce where a woman is so angry with her spouse her weapons are “the house off the coast, the VVS stones, and the ‘bach or the Roles.”

Explicit

What we called "soft porn" in the 80s (meaning - still acceptable to mainstream viewing in movies/songs) is gone. Most of this category is without past limitations. Sex is also openly shown, of course. Birthday Sex by Jeremih and Leavin’ by Jesse McCartney show explicit sexual content, McCartney’s with young teenagers.


Other explicit aspects of this category of songs are simply the words. Britney Spears got the attention she was looking for with “all of the boys and all of the girls are begging to If You Seek Amy” (you have to say it out loud). Drake’s song Best I Ever Had (*lyrics changed on youtube) simply defines explicit:

You the fuckin best, you the best I ever had...



My shirt ain’t got no stripes but I can make your pussy whistle like the Andy Griffith theme song

And who told you to put them jeans on, double cup love, you’re the one I lean on

Feeling for a fix, then you should really get your fiend on yah, just know my condo is the crack spot

Every single show she out there reppin’ like a mascot

Get it from the back and make ya fuckin’ bra strap pop all up in your slot till a nigga hit the jack pot



Then, to top it all off, we have My Humps, by the Back Eyed Peas, a truly shocking thing to hear your tween singing Fergie-style in the shower

You love my lovely lady lumps, my hump, my hump...

What you gon’ do with all that junk, all that junk inside that trunk? I’m gonna get get get you drunk, get you love drunk off my hump.



What you gon’ do with all that ass, all that ass inside them jeans? I’m a make make make you scream, make you scream, make you scream.

Woman = Prostitute

It is disgusting to me how common it is to see images of women as strippers/prostitutes in these videos. Pole dancing is so common that even Miley Cyrus did it live on TV as she won an award in front of thousands of tweens. London Bridge and Please Don’t Stop the Music are stripper songs, though Fergie seems in charge of the situation, and Rihanna looks like she’d rather be anywhere else. I think something is wrong when the men in a video are fully dressed, often in bulky suits or sweat suits, and the women are wearing almost nothing at all, indoors or out. That is not how the common woman dresses, and it is a sign that the women are in the video as sex symbols for men’s viewing pleasure only.

Exploitative

These songs cross the line beyond explicit to a level of degradation of women and relationships in general.


The female band Pussycat Dolls epitomize this exploitation of women. And the thing that makes them most despicable is that the shtick of them is disguised as being independent, and dares to show images of archetypical ties to nature and to each other (women’s friendship) only to degrade it all as a hoax for men’s pleasure and power high. Their name says it all. Objectified, and existing only for their pussies, this girl-band can do no right from a feminist viewpoint. They are not women, they are dolls representing a powerless image of women that does not exist, but only exploits.

Rihanna joins the objectification trend in her video Umbrella, a happy song at first listen, but one that turns wrong once the images of a woman painted silver, literally an object, sully it. Rihanna, scantily clothed, does a phallic dance with a closed umbrella in the rain, as a group of men in suits dance with their own umbrellas. The images are incongruous with the positive lyrics:

When the sun shines we’ll shine together, told you I’ll be here forever, said I’ll always be your friend took an oath I’d stick it out to the end

Now that it’s raining more than ever know that we still have each other you can stand under my umbrella ella ella eh eh

"No" Still Doesn't Mean NO

Blame it on the Alcohol (Jamie Foxx) is the song that assures me that “No” still doesn’t mean “NO.” An early image in the video is a woman shaking her head “no” as Jamie Foxx patronizingly shakes his finger at her. The video immediately cuts to the image of a woman/whore pole dancing (insinuating that the woman saying no is actually a whore inside). Not only does the singer insult the woman he’s addressing with “I was unaware how fine you were before my buzz set in,” but he tells her that the more she drinks the more she’ll know that she wants to have sex with him. Arrogant lately? This song makes me furious with a mother tiger anger for all party rape survivors. It also disappoints me that Jamie Foxx is depicted coming out of a limo with a power list of celebrity man friends including Ron Howard, Jake Gyllenhaal, Cedric the Entertainer, Forest Whitaker, Samuel Jackson and Quincy Jones, who are all depicted in the drunken haze of flashing red lights, passively nodding their acquiescence. As I write this the story of the gang rape is playing on NPR. Ten men and boys gang raped a girl coming out of a Homecoming dance while many others stood by and watched, some of them calling friends on cell phones and inviting them to come over.


Akon gives mixed messages in his song Sexy Bitch. He nods to dignity by singing “I’m trying to find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful,” yet the best he can do seems to be “sexy bitch,” stating that “every girl here wanna be her.” Not only is the derogatory term sexy bitch being portrayed as a complement, but all women are supposed to envy that category and are asking men to put them in a misogynistic role. This is damaging, this confusion between beautiful (as in the Akon song Beautiful) and the slut/stripper/whore image. In Beautiful, a series of well dressed men study fashion models as they parade down the isle like merchandise for sale. Akon says, “I’mma spend them grands, but after you undress/not like a hooker, but more like a princess/Queen, empress, president.” Like so many words in our culture, these words are being twisted to portray something powerless and objectified. Flo Rida echos it in Right Round, “From the top of the pole I watch her go down/she’s got me throwing my money around/ain’t nothing more beautiful to be found.”

Fergie the Enigma

This brings me to an unlikely enigma of popular music. Fergie. Child performer on Kids Incorporated, straight-A student, spelling bee champion, Girl Scout cheerleader Stacey Ferguson. Her brand of power mixed with degradation is nothing like I’ve seen before. My mind tumbles as I try to figure out which aspect of her comes up on top. In some ways she is the epitome of self-respect and autonomy, flaunting her sexuality while demanding to control how and when she uses it, “you could see me, you can’t sqeeze me/I ain’t easy I ain’t sleezy/I got reasons why I tease ‘em/boys just come and go like seasons/Fergalicious!” She is so strong and tough and cool and ... Fergie-like, yet sometimes she slips easily into “just another object/whore” role and really lets me down. In the great Black Eyed Peas song I Gotta Feeling, members of the band are shown getting ready for a fun night on the town. I see Fergie putting on her makeup, etc and I’m thinking she is going to kick butt tonight, but all she ends up doing is sitting around in a bar surrounded by men looking board. As if that’s the most fun a woman like Fergie could come up with?


Unfortunately, her lapses get much more significant. When I listen to Fergalicious I find it fun and clever: “Fegalicious, so delicious/but I ain’t promiscuous/ and if you were suspicious/ all that shit is fictitious – I blow kisses.” However, the video images are disturbingly abusive in their use of little girls as a fetish. Fergie is pictured in all kinds of sexualized little girl scenarios. The setting is a Willy Wonka/Candyland world where bodies and candy lie in kaleidoscope piles and people wrestle in chocolate pudding. Fergie is shown in tiny “babydoll” dresses that make her look like a young child but with a woman’s breasts and hips. She and her dance troupe of women wear Girl Scout uniforms that have been redesigned to serve as lingerie. Even as Fergie says, “I’m tryin to tell that I can’t be treated like clientele,” her images show the opposite and worse. While the song is great, this video is part of a body of work that makes the rape abuse of little girls not only acceptable but marketable.

Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga is the single most exploitative and misogynist character that I found on the pop music scene. Her videos are so sickening that I thought surely they must be sarcastic, yet damage is done by the end of the song, despite any intentions. Several browses on the internet brought this Lady Gaga quote up, "I'm not a feminist. I, I, I hail men, I love men. I celebrate American male culture, beer, bars, and muscle cars." Progressive politics are not the basis of her outrageous performance art.


My main objection to Lady Gaga is that I think her videos glorify objectification and violence against women. I may be missing something deep and artsy, but when I see repetitive images of a woman being killed, maimed, raped, tortured and disabled, I object. Period. During the MTV music awards ceremony she performed Paparazzi and at the end of the song blood burst out of her torso, and she smeared it on her face and the rest of her body as she “died.”

Women's Sexuality

These are fascinating videos that are attempting to show an exploration of women's sexuality on women's terms. They walk a thin line between erotica and pornography. There are a lot of questions to ask such as whose sexual desires are really being portrayed? How to define sexuality on women's terms?


It hasn't been attempted very often in pop culture.

There are some examples worth noting in my song list. Britney Spears reserves some lovely images of female sexuality for herself, not for the use of her womanizing man in Womanizer. The sexy scenes at the heart of this video are starkly different from the stripper/whore norm and show a woman alone and comfortable with herself, exploring her own wants and needs.

Bisexual

The song I Kissed a Girl (and I liked it) really stirred some things up when it hit number one. Suddenly, bisexuality seemed normal and cute.


Us girls we are so magical, soft skin, red lips, so kissable

Hard to resist so touchable, too good to deny it

Ain’t no big deal, it’s innocent.



Is heterosexual bigotry finally over? Probably not in that Katy Perry makes it clear that in the song she was drunk, “lost her discretion” and it was an “experimental game” that she hopes her boyfriend “won’t mind.” It is still revolutionary to have a woman singing about another woman’s cherry chap stick on Pop radio.

She Wolf

The song that started this whole project off is She Wolf by Shakira. My daughter showed it to me, keen to get my reaction. I had never seen or imagined anything like it before, and the video filled me with a purpose. I want to understand this song and the pop culture landscape that surrounds it.


As the video opens, a woman (Shakira) can’t sleep and gets up from her bed where she is lying unhappily with a man, “A domesticated girl, that’s all you ask of me/darling it is no joke, this is lycanthropy...I’m starting to feel just a little abused like a coffee machine at an office.” This refers to a Lycanthrope or werewolf, the folklore of humans who shape-shift into wolves during the full moon. She gazes at the moon, then puts on her high heeled dancing boots. She goes into her closet (a reference to “coming out” of the closet?) and makes her way beyond the clothes to a fantasy.

She enters a corridor where she is singing about her own desire, and unmet sexual needs, “moon’s awake now, my eyes wide open, my body’s craving, so feed the hungry.” It slowly dawns on the viewer that this woman is singing and dancing in a huge, sparkly vagina that looks like it is made of Styrofoam! It is just unbelievable. I had to share this image with a few feminist friends to get their impressions:

Well, my initial opinion is that it is an AWFUL video with a woman who can’t dance. Then getting beyond my own dislike of pop music and pop queens, I’m tending toward the “Male fantasy slut flick” end of the spectrum... though the dancing in the vagina was interesting. I fail to be able to infer any self-empowerment for her here... beyond perhaps feminine hygiene?

–friend 1



She is very flexible. And her vagina is very lumpy. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t want to put any of my body parts there. I think it is simply soft porn masquerading as pop culture. And ... I did not feel empowered as I was watching it.

–friend 2



I agree that this video is awful, however, I did find a lot of humor watching her attempt to dance. I did not feel a sense of empowerment from watching this. Other than feeling embarrassed for her performance, I thought there was quite a disconnect of the sexual empowerment of the feminine.

–friend 3



Like my friends, my first watch and listen to this video was shock, discomfort and vague embarrassment. However, I did not give up on Shakira. Curiosity led me once again to Wikipedia:

When Shakira was four, her father took her to a local Middle Eastern restaurant, where Shakira first heard the doumbek, a traditional drum used in Arabic music and which typically accompanied belly dancing. Before she knew it, Shakira was dancing on the table, as restaurant patrons responded by clapping enthusiastically. She became a serious student of Middle Eastern Belly Dance. At school, she says she had been known as "the belly dancer girl", as she would demonstrate every Friday at school a number she had learned. "Shakira is also noted for her keen intellect and has scored well on IQ tests.



Watching her Spanish-language videos drew attention to her unusual voice. In She Wolf, it is very electronic; however there is also an untamed quality to it similar to Buffy Sainte Marie, a folk singer in the 60s.

She enjoyed singing for schoolmates and teachers (and even the nuns) at her Catholic school, but in the second grade was rejected for the school choir because her vibrato was too strong. The music teacher told her that she sounded "like a goat.”



The images in the video continue. Now Shakira is in a cage, wearing a flesh colored leotard and dancing provocatively. At first glance this made me sick. “More degrading masochistic stripper porn,” I thought. However, over time I realized something intriguing. The dance sequences in the cage have no other people in them. There are no fully dressed men leering at her. She is alone in the cage, which is isolated somewhere, but not in a bar or in public. Also, there is nothing violent about the image~ no spikes or chains, and her outfit is remarkably natural looking without the stereotypical lingerie. The cage sequences are juxtaposed with images of a wolf in the wild, and once the wolf had a flash of Skakira’s face. “There’s a she wolf in the closet/ open up and set her free/ there’s a she wolf in the closet/ let it out so it can breath (heavy rhythmic breathing).” Skakira’s writhing takes on a very different atmosphere when she is alone in the scene.

In the video she sings about meeting a man in a club, ”to look at the single man I’ve got on me a special radar,” yet though she is shown dancing in a bar, she is surrounded by women, not men. Perhaps all the women have the same thought.

“SOS she’s in disguise/there’s a she wolf in disguise/coming out, coming out, coming out!” Women’s truth is covered, disguised as submission without sexual desire. Suddenly the cage sequence gives way to Shakira dancing free and barefoot on the roof of a building. She’s wearing a simple black dress similar to a nightgown, and dancing joyfully, smiling under the moon. With a final howl, she flies backwards off the roof and lands again in her own closet.

Quietly, Shakira gets up and slips back into bed with her partner. She turns her back to him and smiles as she falls asleep.

Sense of Self

These are videos of searching for an identity, exploring the idea of being on your own for the first time or finding a new sense of self as you walk away from an unhealthy situation. Though some of these songs are of pain and struggle, their themes are the impulse to find a voice and take a first step toward freedom.


One thing that stands out as an exceptional improvement to American popular music is the number of songs where women define their needs... and those needs include the need to be alone, to be heard, to be respected and not to be pushed sexually.

Songs that I found inspiringly assertive in this way include That’s Not my Name (Ting Tings), Potential Break Up Song (Aly &AJ), Single Ladies (Beyonce), Say OK (Vanessa Hudgens, of High School Musical fame)Do You Know How to Touch a Girl? (Jo Jo, only a very young teenager herself when she recorded it), Love Song (in which Sara Bareilles refuses to be manipulated into writing a love song she doesn’t feel) and Big Girls Don’t Cry by the incorrigible Fergie.

Single Ladies is a fascinating example. The lyrics demand an unusual request in this day of non-monogamy and hook ups... the desire of the singer for her lover to marry her “If you like it then you should have put a ring on it!” When I first saw the video I felt like it was the typical stripper genre. However, on Saturday Night Live, Beyonce explained that she wanted the video to depict strong, independent women in solidarity with each other. The black and white film footage certainly does show woman doing dance moves that could only be done by extreme training and strength. Especially in high heels.

Self Confidence

The Climb and Unwritten stand out as wonderful anthems of self confidence and self knowledge in life in general. Writes Miley Cyrus:


There’s always gonna be another mountain, I’m always gonna want to make it move

Always gonna be an uphill battle, sometimes I’m gonna have to lose

Ain’t about how fast I get there, ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side~ it’s the climb



And Natasha Bedingfield’s Unwritten:



I am unwritten, can’t read my mind, I’m undefined

I’m just beginning, the pen’s in my hand, ending unplanned...



No one else can feel it for you, only you can let it in

No one else can speak the words on your lips

Live your life with arms wide open, today is where your book begins, the rest is still unwritten.



My daughter informed me that I Do Not Hook Up was the “Girl Power song of the summer” in 2009. In it Kelly Clarkson simply announces that she is not interested in a make out session, but in a deep love relationship. Her last line is “Oh sweetheart put the bottle down, ‘cause you don’t want to miss out.” I find it so interesting that girls define themselves a power-song every so often and I’m glad to hear it! At the end of the video, Kelly is dancing and singing in a Country Music Bar in a cowboy hat, even though the song is a classic rock formula and I can’t hear an ounce of Country influence.

Country Woman Taylor Swift

I think that what this image is referring to is the strong country woman archetype that Country music maintained long before it became an acceptable feminist value. In the 1980s I quit listening to pop radio altogether because it was so rare to hear a woman’s voice there. When I heard the country station they were playing songs about, by and for women, and that was what I needed to hear at the time. Not quite a decade later when country music started to make big money, the men’s voices quickly took over the airwaves in that genre as well.


A little girl (and yes, she is both little and young) named Taylor Swift carries on the strong country woman tradition in American pop today. And she does it singing Country. In my youth I could never have imagined that Country, Folk and Pop/Rock could share a single radio station like it does today. And this year, Taylor Swift won the MTV best music video award. Amazing. Not only does Taylor write her own songs, play her own guitar and sing in a natural, un-electronically enhanced voice, but she is really, really good at all three. Taylor Swift deserves an entire paper based on her alone, but let me start by simply saying that Taylor Swift dominates and even defines my Sense of Self category. She has many songs that fit this description and every song she writes includes some aspect of a young woman finding a honest, soulful voice of her own. Taylor’s extreme popularity and the response from fans to her music show that a few folks out there are listening.

Strong

These are songs of passion, strength and energy. Raw anger and emotion that stand and fight instead of giving in.


For some reason, I the songs I placed in this theme are mostly by women once again. Perhaps that is because women’s strength stands out so much more in a sexist society. There is a real difference between the “strong” songs and the sense of self category. I think the reasons that set these apart are a matter of attitude and energy. Aggression, not just assertiveness. And it is odd that in this category, Taylor Swift shines through despite her “nice girl” branding. Her songs Should Have Said No and Tell Me Why simply kick butt.

Pink is a singer that is trying to re-define the female rocker with a modern twist, including her sarcastic name. So What? is unlike any other song I’ve heard and I’m sold on it. It is the kind of song where you remember where you were the first time you heard it, “I’m gonna get in trouble, I’m gonna start a fight!”

The Black Eyed Peas are an incredibly influential group. They are unique in the obviously multi-racial composition of the band, which includes members of Filipino, Mexican, Native American, Scotch-Irish, and African American descent. Fergie has been and continues to be one of the lead singers, while continuing her solo career at the same time. Some of their hits have been politically progressive in nature, and all are provocative.

In Pump it, and Boom Boom Pow, the Black Eyed Peas emulate pure strength. I would go so far as to say the lyrics are almost nonsensical, but the power is palatable. Pump it Harder images show two group of people in a parking garage about to have what looks like a stereotypical gang fight. The energy continues to be that of warriors fighting, but the actions of the fight are dance and later kicking balls around.

Cry for Help

The people in this song are dealing with struggles of loneliness, addiction, self esteem. The cry for help is between the lines, a request from the listener to respond to the pain... or identify with it.


All American Rejects tend to portray hopeless or cynical situations that I interpret as a call for help. It Ends Tonight has a fairly upbeat visual finish, but the words are disdainful, “I’m on my own side, it’s better than being on your side,” and it begins with the singer being executed with a firework. In Move Along there is a feeling of being stuck in a rut “just to make it through” as the band is shown wearing many different societal uniforms, insinuating that all of us are stuck moving along without control over improving our lives.

Poor Avril Lavigne has been forgotten and is willing to adopt anyone who will have her in I’m With You, and The Veronicas have a similar desperation in Untouched. Sean Kingston is “suicidal” in Beautiful Girls, and he even manages to put the blame on them, ”you’ve got me suicidal, suicidal.” Finally, Pink’s call for help is anything but subtle in Sober as she describes alcoholism, “I have heard myself cry ‘never again’ broken down in agony just trying to find a friend.”

Just Creepy

What more can I say?


I guess it is nothing new to find the creepy aspect of any genre of music. Here are some of the songs that make my skin crawl.

The bread-and-butter clean cut Jonas Brothers take the cake with Paranoid. Past a cry for help this song describes mental illness that I just don’t need to be inside. Rihanna’s Disturbia lives up to it’s name with the same theme, “it’s a thief in the night to come and grab you/it can creep up inside you and consume you/a disease of the mind it can control you.”

Uncontrolled obsession is a bit too close for comfort in Here We Go Again by Demi Lovato and Love Addict by Family Force 5, though both are great tunes with amazing energy. Wish We Were Older by the obnoxious Metro Station gives me the creeps with the arrogant line, “I know you’re dying to take off your clothes,” and the Ting Tings describe a relationship in Shut Up and Let me Go where he had her “in bits,” which I don’t much want to think about. Justin Timberlake lays on the revenge too thick with Cry Me a River, and Dirty Little Secret by All American Rejects is disdainful and disrespectful even though the website post secret (which I think the song is based on) can be really beautiful.

I do have to say that the lyrical themes of the early 21st century are radically lacking in obscure satanic references and deep poetic nonsense that rocked generation X in the 70s. The creepy aspect of pop today is pretty straightforward stuff.

Sad

Simply put, these are deep effective expressions of sadness and empathy. Some of the songs which landed in this category involve a heartbreaking quality to the voice, like Demi Lovato Don’t Forget, and (It's too late to) Apologize by Timbaland. Some absolutely swell with emotions of grief like Kelly Clarkson’s Behind These Hazel Eyes or Avril Lavigne’s When You’re Gone.


When you’re gone the pieces of my heart are missing you

When you’re gone the face I came to know is missing too

When you’re gone the words I need to hear to always get me through the day and make it OK... I miss you



It is her voice rather than the actual lyrics that depicts the emotion, because the lyrics are bland on their own.

Just A Dream by Carrie Underwood tells an extremely sad story. The images on the video speak louder than the lyrics as a bride walks to the church on her wedding day and slowly realizes it is her fiancé’s funeral, not their wedding that she is attending. She is handed a folded American flag as a wedding gift.

Ne-Yo has a very tender song called Mad in which the graphics show the singer leaving his house after a fight and witnessing a young boy get hit by a car. He realizes how precious life is and immediately wants peace in his relationship

Nothing, no not for nothing, this should be nothing to a love like we got

Oh baby, I know sometimes it’s gonna rain, but baby can we make up now?

Cause I can’t sleep through the pain, can’t sleep through the pain.

Parents

Complex relationships between child and adult, both sweet and sad.




Several of the songs are Country, with parenting not an unusual a theme in that genre. Ever since winning American Idol it seems that everything Carrie Underwood touches turns to gold, so it is no surprise that her All American Girl even gives un-patriotic-me chills. Taylor Swift has a song called Best Day that has not topped the chart and doesn’t even have a professional music video. However, it is on YouTube with real home movies of Taylor and her mom as Taylor is growing up.

I’m five years old, it’s getting cold

I’ve got my big coat on, I hear your laugh

And look up smiling at you, I run and run...

I hug your legs and fall asleep on the way home



Confessions of a Broken Heart by Lindsey Lohan is a passionate, tragic story of abuse and abandonment by a father, and Sean Kingston’s Dry Your Eyes describes the devastating loss of his mother and how it affected his life:

Only 15 put under pressure, first month 27th day they took away my mother

I was left to be raised by my brother, taught me how to be a hustler

Mommy gone gotta stick together...



Mommy, just dry your eyes, mommy don’t you cry

I know we’ve been through hard times and the struggles

And I just wanna tell you I love you



Finally, another Country group hit the Pop charts with What Hurts the Most by the Rascal Flatts. Even though they use country instrumentation, I didn’t realize that this song was by a Country band until I saw the video images and their cowboy hats. The song opens with a pregnant teenager’s painful confrontation with her parents as she blames them for the loss of her boyfriend.

Sarcastic.

Most of these videos surprised me. Often they showed songs that were really disturbing in a new light, giving the opposite meaning. I wonder if kids "get it" and if the sarcasm is meant to be there by the songwriter or added by the video director?


Several of the songs are delightfully and obviously taunting and sarcastic. Avril Lavigne wrote one hard not to sing along to:

Hey HEY you YOU I don’t like your girlfriend!

Hey HEY you YOU I think you need a new one!



... which is really fun as a sing-along until you get to “I’m the motherfucking princess!” and then things get awkward.

Other clever ones are Take A Bow Rihanna, 7 Things Miley Cyrus, U r So Gay (and you don’t even like boys) Katy Perry and also Katy’s Hot N Cold, a song made more hilarious by the fact that the whole thing takes place in the second before a couple’s wedding vows, “you change your mind like a girl changes clothes!”

Sarcastic?

3Oh!3 has an unfortunate hit Don’t Trust a Ho (called Don’t Trust Me, depending on which version you get on YouTube) that I can only hope is sarcastic, “Shush girl, shut your lips/do the Helen Keller and talk with your hips.” Same with Asher Roth’s I Love College (note: this youtube version is probably not the right one):


That party last night was awfully crazy, I wish we taped it

I danced my ass off and had this one girl completely naked

Drink my beer and smoke my weed, but my good friends is all I need

Pass out at three, wake up at 10, go out to eat, then do it again

Man, I love college



There is another pretty awful sing-along song called Gives You Hell by the All American Rejects that on the surface is about a relationship, yet the images show a societal class struggle. The political aspect of the video is thought provoking and well done. But you’d never catch that aspect on the radio.

A Word on Beauty

Beauty is part of the formula for famous women pop singers.
As for the men, geek chick is definitely still around. There are a wide variety of looks and ages acceptable for male musicians, though there are no Latino or Asian stars included. In a song not included in this study Akon sings about the influence his hair had on his rise to fame (I Am Not my Hair with India):

See I can kinda recall

Little ways back small tryin' to bawl

Always been black and my hair I tried it all

I even went flat, had a gumdee curly top and all the crap, now

Tryin' to be appreciated

Nappy headed brothers never had no ladies

Then I hit by the barber shop real quick

Had em give me little twist and it drove them crazy

And then I couldn't get no job

No corporate wouldn't hire no dreadlocks

Then I thought about my dogs on the block

Kinda understand why they chose a stealin' rock

Was it the hair that got me this far? (uh-huh)

All these girls these cribs these cars (uh-huh)

Hate to say it but it seem so flawed

Cause success didn't come 'till i cut it all off (uh-huh)

-Akon in I am Not My Hair by Indira



Sean Kingston shares his vulnerability by singing about his weight in a serious way rather than making it a joke. He asks his lover to see what is on the inside not judge the outside.

Multi-Cultural Backgrounds

Three of the most beautiful women I have ever seen are Beyonce, Shakira and Fergie. All three of these women were child stars. Fergie started as the voice of Sally on Peanuts cartoons! And all three are an a ethnic mix and experienced multi-cultural childhoods.

According to Wikipedia, Stacey Ferguson’s parents are Mexican, Native American, Irish and Scottish in descent. Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll was born and raised in Barranquilla, Colombia, to parents of Lebanese, Catalan and Italian descent. She is the highest-selling Colombian artist of all time, and the second most successful female Latin singer, with 50 million albums sold worldwide. Additionally, she is the only artist from South America to top the charts in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the UK.


A Wikipedia entry on Beyonce Knowles says:



Knowles' father is African American and her mother is of Creole descent. Knowles was baptized after her mother's maiden name, as a tribute to her mother and to prevent the name from becoming obsolete, since only a few of the Beyincé males carry the name. Her maternal grandparents, Lumis Albert Beyincé and Agnéz Deréon, were French-speaking Louisiana Creoles.

Beyonce, Shakira and Fergie

Each of these women have amazing physiques with the bodies of well-trained athletes, and are the latest definition of “hot.” The interesting thing is that I think “hot” has changed in the last ten years. None of these women look particularly white. They all have celebrated wide hips (“big butts”) and are curvaceous women instead of anorexic waifs that look like little girls.


One thing I’ve enjoyed is seeing these woman portrayed in a video, not as a prissy beauty queen, but in real life situations without make up and glam. Beyonce plays a tired female cop after a long day in If I Were a Boy, and Fergie hangs laundry in a littered intercity backyard in Big Girls Don’t Cry.

How Has Music Changed?

There are certainly songs on the radio that could not have been played in the 80s. I Kissed a Girl just could not have been mainstream, no matter how lighthearted it is. Birthday Sex, which is real, vulnerable erotica would have been Xed out of MTV. When in the 80s did a man sing about a woman’s orgasm?


lemme hit the g-spot, g-spot, Girl...

we grinding with passion (‘cause it’s your birthday)

Been at it for hours (I know you thirsty)

You kiss me so sweetly (taste just like Hersheys)

Just tell me how you want your gift, Girl...



First I’m gonna take a dive into the water

Deep until I know I please that body, body

Or in the beautiful song Come on Get Higher by Matt Nathanson

I miss the pull of your heart


I can taste the sparks on your tongue

I see angels and devils

And God

when you come

Today's Music has Many Genres

Music today lacks the souring guitar solos of the 70s, but it still has the 90s influenced acoustic touch which makes it possible for an amateur to play most of the music on piano or guitar. There is huge variety of style and genre within mainstream Pop right now, and all are getting air time in a mish mash. Each decade of style since the 60s is represented in the sounds of today’s music. One observation that surprised me, though, is the lack of identifiable blues. It was only in the Country music, not the rock that I could hear echoes of the blues.

Has Misogyny Gained Strength?

When I sent my friends She Wolf, I asked them if they thought misogyny has gained strength over the years.


I don’t think misogyny has gained strength per se. I think that we are less shockable and less inclined to find sexual exploitation distasteful.

–friend 1



I don’t find this video (She Wolf) any more shocking than Tawney Kitaen squirming on the hood of a car in a Whitesnake video of the 80s... really, there’s only so far you can go before you’re butt naked, and we reached THAT threshold in the 80s.

-friend 2

Can I make a conclusion?

This is a sincere question, as I’m not sure this project was meant to have a conclusion. As fast as music is produced, music changes and new inspiration and challenge comes with critical thinking. I hope this paper will help progressive parents understand their children’s world in some small way. There may be no answers to why we love the music we love; something about it gets inside us and we resonate with it. I plan to develop a program for my Girl Scout Cadettes and Junior High Youth Group where the kids have space to honestly share the music they love, and at the same time find ways to ask the important questions that will encourage analysis without judgment.