PART 3 -
PITCH BLACK POP
“Pop songs aren’t deep.”
That’s one of those aphorisms that’s thrown around again and again and again; people disdain pop, they disregard it, and why shouldn’t they? If anything, pop music has homogenized as time goes on.
It’s been a game of repetition and imitation, with the same cliches about love, dancing, success and desire playing on loop since the 1950s.
Pop was always rock’n’roll’s weird, softer, friendlier little brother; there was a time in the early days of the art form where “pop” and “rock” were used interchangeably, until, gradually, they became opposites, and eventually, enemies. As pop evolved, the forms it took got weirder and wilder, and the acts behind it took all sorts of strange and startling shapes to fit the growing demands of music radio.
It’s fairly common knowledge that The Monkees, the band behind classics like “Daydream Believer” and “Last Train To Clarksville,” was created by TV producers as a parody of The Beatles. People talk less about the fact that The Archies, the band behind the immensely popular “Sugar Sugar,” were a cartoon.
I’m not joking or speaking metaphorically. The Archies were literally the characters from the Archie cartoon. That song, you know, “honey, oh sugar sugar, you are my candy girl-“ that’s a fucking song from a cartoon show sung by cartoons and it was a number one hit for four weeks, and it’s lasted for over 50 years as a Golden Oldie.
So one would be inclined to think pop follows the onomatopoeia of its namesake, bubble-like and empty. That, not withstanding, the most successful pop-stars seem always to be the ones who vary the subject matter of their songs. Indeed, a wide variance of subjects and thematic reinvention seems in many ways to be a prerequisite for success.
Michael Jackson famously sung a song denying he was the father of someone’s baby. He also sang songs about a criminal murdering a girl after breaking into her house, showing someone you’re good at dancing, racial tolerance, the environment, and literally being a spooky ghost.
But Jackson’s wild variance stems from his private life, for the majority of his success anyway, being a bit of an enigma. But this isn’t consistent across pop; for instance, Taylor Swift’s love life is a matter of speculative public record. It’s a known fact amongst fans, like me, that the album 1989, Taylor’s career defining pop masterpiece, contains several songs written about Harry Styles.
But 1989, given the same sort of examination we’ve been giving Jepsen, shows how actually fundamentally different the songs all are, in concept, tone, content and even superficial presentation.
Let’s take a brief look at 1989, released the same year as Emotion, with quick breakdowns for the song’s subject matter:
1. "Welcome to New York" - EXCITEMENT. Having moved to New York, a naive girl must face the new paradigms of city living.
2. “Blank Space” - DANGER. Proud, sexy boasting about a long series of damaged relationships, offering that a new boy could be next but he’d just be another victim.
3. “Style” - LOVE. Having found an intimate connection, a girl rejoices in her new boyfriend and their mutual love.
4. “Out of The Woods” - COMMITMENT. In the midst of a long committed relationship, a girl undergoes a rough patch with her boyfriend, remembering a hospital visit, and wonders if it will end happily.
5. “All You Had To Do Was Stay” - MOVING ON. After a hard break up, a girl chastises her ex for not committing now that he wants her back, saying she’ll never get back with him.
6. “Shake It Off” - RESILIENCE. Accepting that life and love aren’t easy, and she’s got some haters and a lotta boyfriends and a lotta people gossiping about her, a girl just wants to dance away the negative emotions thrown at her by others.
7. “Wish You Would” - DESIRE/LONGING. A song of regret about choices made in a relationship, and desire to get back with her ex. Essentially the total inverse of “All You Had To Do Was Stay.”
8. “Bad Blood” - ANGER. The lamenting of the angry end of a friendship, possibly with another woman, that becomes so aggressive that it functions as a declaration of war.
9. “Wildest Dreams” - SADNESS/REGRET. After a relationship has ended, a girl hopes a man still remembers her in her white dress.
10. “How You Get The Girl” - STORYTELLING. Step by step instructions for the male hero of a Nicholas Sparks novel; almost prose in music, telling a romantic, cliche story about a rainy night. This song doesn’t involve the narrator as a character at all, and is told in second person.
11. “This Love” - LOVE. Functionally a sequel to Wildest Dreams, it is revealed that after the end of the relationship, this guy came back to her after all.
12. “I Know Places” - ESCAPE. Focuses on being famous, and watched, and wanting to go escape with a fellow famous person; specifically, it focuses on the fun of running from paparazzi.
13. “Clean” - RECOVERY. Very long after an unhealthy relationship has ended, a girl finally feels she is over it and can move on.
These songs are different from one another. Though several of them cover familiar ground in pop, they each contain different emotions presented in different contexts, and some, like Shake It Off, How You Get The Girl and Welcome To New York take the idea of “expression” and put it in the backseat to abstract concepts like Dancing, Romance and Literally Just Moving To A New Fucking City And Being Startled You See Gay People There.
It is this variance that defines most musicians.
Nobody could make a career singing about just one thing. Even Alanis Morrisette’s famously pointed and furious “Jagged Little Pill” had a random song about the abstract concept of Irony.
So understandably, as I dove head first into Carly Rae Jepsen’s “KISS,” the emotions I felt in order were “shock,” “disbelief” and something like religious reverence.
Throughout Emotion, Carly constantly reiterates the idea of the type of love she’s talking about as a risky, dangerous endeavor that must at all costs be kept secret, even occasionally specifying it as a “black” or “dark” problem that she is “crazy” for wanting.
On Emotion, it’s kept mostly vague as to why, exactly, Carly’s infatuation is such a dangerous endeavor. But an album prior, on KISS, we learn exactly, and without niceties, a possible obstacle is to Carly’s emotional fulfillment.
The story, it appeared, didn’t end at Emotion. The rubric of themes continued, with no variance. And then came the sub-themes. And more and more new details.
This was just the tip of the iceberg.
And at its heart, long frozen, there appeared to be some very nasty secrets.