THURSDAY, APRIL 14, 2016 |
Posted by: Don Saas
On the one hand, the 2010s have been a resurgent renaissance of pop music. Every poptimist in your life who has ever gotten tired of having to defend the value of "pop" music (as broad as that almost meaningless catch-all term can be) has been validated by the fact that this decade has seen a flood of pop music that isn't simply blowing up the charts; it's winning critical acclaim. Charli XCX, Lady Gaga (at least the early records), Adele, Carly Rae Jepsen, Beyonce. It hasn't been this easy to love pop music since the 80s. But it's not all sunshine.
Cause on the other hand, the 2010s have shown the birth of an unfortunate and eye-roll inducing new subgenre of pop that is hitting the charts hard but is drawing plenty of earned criticism. We'll call it "Privilege Pop."
What is privilege pop, you ask? The leading figure in this genre we may or may not have just totally made up is Lana Del Rey. The singer-songwriter shot to prominence in 2011 after her initial singles, including the nearly canonical "Video Games," took over the blogosphere in advance of 2012's tepidly received Born To Die. The daughter of a wealthy tech entrepeneur, Lana Del Rey (nee Elizabeth Grant), parlayed family connections into a career singing about rich, white girl ennui and angst. And she's not alone.
Other notable figures in the privilege pop movement include Sam Smith and (at least on her latest records) Taylor Swift. You might raise your eyebrows at us including Sam Smith on this list but bear with us. Sam Smith, an LGBT performer, sings the kind of songs your bougie aunts listen to in their minivans as they contemplate what type of tile they want for their kitchen countertops. And there's no edge to Sam Smith. He's not Perfume Genius or Olly Alexander of Years & Years. If you just listened to the lyrics of his songs, you'd have no idea he was gay. His music upholds the heteronormative regime of American pop music, and he's making millions doing it.
Privilege pop is pop music that represents no fundamental threat or evolution of the white heterosexual pop music formula while also glorifying wealth and wallowing in privileged excess and privileged boredom. It's very hard to give a shit when Lana Del Rey sings about her emotional ennui when her problems basically boil down to being a rich girl that can't find ways to entertain herself. Rich people are allowed to have existential crises just like poor people, but if your biggest problem is that you have too much money and don't know how to keep yourself busy, we have no sympathy for you. And between Lana Del Rey's old Hollywood aesthetic, Taylor Swift's increasing departure from the emotional intimacy of her early albums towards meaningless bombast and excess, and Sam Smith's increasing straightwashing of his own queer identity, they are living breathing symbols of the worst tendencies of pop as a product and not something of genuine artistic value.
And the aesthetics of privilege pop are easy to define -- languid strings, high register vocals sung with no conviction, vague appropriation of hip-hop culture -- and they've begun to infect artists that don't necessarily fit into the privilege pop mold. Take Halsey. The multi-racial, bisexual singer could be a perfect candidate to upend the complacency of much of the pop scene. But tracks like "New Americana" and "Castle" from last year's Badlands are indistinguishable from the most soporific tracks from Born to Die or Honeymoon. The lyrics of her tracks sound like the kind of things you hear sorority girls complaining about outside of your organic chemistry class sophomore year.
And once again, this isn't to say that artists that come from comfortable economic backgrounds can't have problems. They absolutely can. Robert Redford's Ordinary People is a stunning example of how to do this well. But -- and maybe it's just us -- if the biggest problem in your life is that you're bored and you want the world to know how bored you are and your boredom isn't arising from the fact that you don't have the economic means to provide recreation for yourself, our simple response is "who gives a fuck?"
The best of the contemporary pop renaissance indulges in fantasy and triumph (Carly Rae Jepsen) or Broadway-esque theatrics and walls of emotion (Adele) or subversive lust and yearning that is rarely given a space in the contemporary pop scene (Years & Years) or it's a middle finger to what attitude women are supposed to have in the pop scene (Charli XCX/Melanie Martinez/Lady Gaga/Rihanna). Privilege pop wants to have theatrics, and it wants to have elements of fantasy, but the only thing that artists like Taylor Swift/Sam Smith/Lana Del Rey/Halsey can deliver is a tired reflection of their own comfort.