Man, I cannot recommend Nitsuh Abebe's defense of "narcissism" in pop music in New York Magazine enough. Just drop what you're doing and read the whole thing. Abebe takes on the recent trend of claiming that the preening in pop music is somehow more evidence that the younger generation are a bunch of ego monsters, a claim that has gotten really out of control in and of itself. Sure, I saw a shift towards helicopter parenting when I was working at a university myself, but I remain skeptical of the claim that this has made young people giant narcissists. When I think of a "narcissist", I think of Dick Cheney, who shot someone in the face and made him apologize for getting in the way of the gun. Or Rupert Murdoch and anyone who thought that getting involved in the News of the World scandal was a good idea. Or Arnold Schwarzenegger knocking up a woman who worked for him and acting like it's no thing. That's the casual disregard for others and overwhelming self-interest that comes to mind when I think of narcissism. Simply wanting to be seen and want to feel beautiful and worthy? Whatever. I wish more people felt safe doing that.
And Abebe masterfully gets right to the heart of the problem with this hand-wringing about "narcissism". It's such a coincidence, is it not, that narcissism in pop music has become a major concern as the voices of women and people of color dominate the charts? But as Abebe explains, there's a countertheory to the "kids are so full of themselves" narrative. Perhaps preening is popular because it speaks to an audience of people who feel marginalized in their real lives and therefore are ready to hear a pop singer tell themselves that, contrary to popular opinion, they're actually pretty great?
Today’s pop world is female, African-American, and Latino, dance-pop and hip-hop and R&B. The audiences it’s usually associated with are female, African-American, Latin, gay, and young. And the music running through the charts is filled with qualities that look a lot like the aspirations and survival strategies of people who’ve felt marginalized—people for whom ego and self-worth can be existential issues, not just matters of etiquette.
This isn’t some arcane sociological observation; empowerment is a selling point of the music itself. It’s almost redundant to explain how hip-hop has schooled the nation in some of the tools and postures of an underclass, from persona-building to competitive braggadocio as a form of entertainment. (Even something as basic as the way rappers used to move their arms is now part of the physical vocabulary of most Americans under 40.) (2) Today’s dance music still carries traces of gay club culture—spaces where people could perform gender and sexuality in ways they couldn’t elsewhere. Just about every young woman on the charts is navigating a complicated matrix of beauty standards, sexual roles, power dynamics, and good-girl/bad-girl dichotomies. Questions of self and self-esteem are unavoidable.
Which isn't, like he said, to say that it's all perfect. A lot of songs have questionable values, like putting too much emphasis on intra-female competition instead of actual self-esteem, or coming from Chris Brown's House of Self-Pity. Some songs, like much of Beyonce's work, manage to use the sounds and even language of ass-kicking, but if you listen to them more closely, are presenting female dependence on men as natural, inevitable, and even desirable. But I think his read on the relationship between audience and artist is right. It's not that there's a sea of narcissists eating this shit up. Pop music is, like he says, mostly club music these days. The general theme and tone of it is to point itself at people who often feel disempowered and telling them that tonight they're going to put on their game face and their high heels, they're going to look fabulous and have fun, and no one can tell them they don't deserve every minute of it.
In other words, it's disco.
I was really surprised that Abebe, who I'm coming around to thinking is probably the smartest guy out there writing about music and whose writing I just eat right up, didn't even mention disco. Maybe it was a space issue, but seriously, not mentioning disco strikes me as strange, because if you're going to talk about a backlash against club music that heavily features the voices of the traditionally marginalized and has a message of self-esteem and empowerment, well, "Disco sucks" is what comes to mind for me.
Abebe describing the recent surge in pop songs that are causing the "narcissism" hand-wringing:
Katy Perry’s “Firework” reassures you that “you don’t have to feel like a waste of space” and exhorts you to “show them what you’re worth.” Pink commands: “Don’t you ever ever feel like you’re less than fuckin’ perfect.” Lady Gaga, Warholian per usual: “We are all born superstars.” Ke$ha: “We’re superstars / We are who we are.”
Some of these songs are trash, some aren't, but it really made me think about a long line of hits from the 70s that were about preening and showing off and demonstrating bravado and kicking ass: "I Will Survive", "Staying Alive", "Ring My Bell", "I'm Every Woman", "Good Times" and even the Village People. It's also worth noting, as this post does, that there's a trend of "wash that man right out of my hair" club songs as well lately, and again, in disco this was a major theme. The two themes are intertwined, and while they're hardly awash in political correctness, I think there's something to really think about here in terms of how the audience relates to this music.
Of course, trying to convey all this is a real struggle. I was doing some feminist event thingie and mentioned, off-handedly, that Beyonce's music felt empowering for a lot of women. This caused an immediate pushback, because lyrically, Beyonce's is what they like to call in the biz "problematic". But there's a real problem with reading songs straightforwardly from their lyrics. You can be fully cognizant of the problems of Beyonce's lyrics but still feel the beat and the power of her voice propelling you onto the dance floor. It straightens your spine and lifts your chin. I think of Chaka Khan singing "I'm Every Woman". On the page, the lyrics read a little, uh, man-pandering. But when she sings it, it's like more like world-conquering. I think the lyrics that read as "narcissistic" on the page have to be understood in context, too. Hyperbole is the language of pop music.
I realize that last time I talked about the race/sexuality/gender issues behind "disco sucks", some people defensively whined that this had nothing to do with it, and it was just a reaction to how ubiquituous the music was. And no one is denying that ubiquity feeds the resentment. Abebe acknowledges that, and so do I. But a lot of different kinds of music become ubiquituous to the point of annoyance. But lots of music manages to become ubiquituous without people worrying that an entire generation of people are ruined forever by it. What kinds of music get this treatment can tell us a lot about our social prejudices.