Notes From the Margins…

It’s only teenage wasteland: pop culture’s vapid dreamworld

  • February 21, 2012
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When you’re in your mid-50s, you can’t help noticing that time’s winged chariot is hurtling towards you a little faster than you would like.   So every other day I dutifully trudge off to the gym and hit the machines in an attempt to slow down its progress a little.

Unfortunately, some genius had the bright idea of blasting continual chart hits and music videos, so that it’s impossible to be anywhere in the room without some factory-produced choreographed dance number or mawkish ballad pulsating in my ears – an experience that I find about as life-affirming as having embalming fluid pumped into my brain.

I have tried to blot it out by wearing headphones and listening to the radio, but the reception is so poor that sometimes I only get static, which I still find preferable to the bleatings of One Direction or Pixie Lott.    But even worse than hearing these songs is watching the  dreadful videos that accompany them, which are transmitted on  screens all over the gym, like messages from some weird totalitarian state where the whole population is permanently dancing and permanently young.

Because no matter how many I watch I never cease to be amazed at the mind-numbing vacuity of these musical epics.    Most of them are dreamy exercises in hyper-narcissism and self adoration, with rows  of dancing clones singing variations on the same obsessive theme of give-it-to-me one- more- time-babeee and I need you tonite etc.

Many of them present their stars in the midst of crowd scenes, like the one of  Ollie Mars dancing outside some blonde girl’s house before being arrested (oh what rebels these pop stars are), or Kelly Clarkson singing

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stronger
Just me, myself and I

Friedrich Nietzsche couldn’t have put it better.  And that ‘Just me, myself and I’ pretty much sums up the crushing inanity of this powdery brain fluff.  The  majority of these videos are like advertisements for an endless  Ibiza beach party, blending gangsta’s paradise fantasies with imagery from Forbes magazine or Condé Naste Traveller in an unproblematic celebration of instant gratification forever.

Many of these stars are like premier league footballers and share the same tastes, mouthing inane lyrics and frantically posturing in exotic locations while driving expensive sports cars, riding on jet skis or even in one case piloting a fighter plane.   Usually they are decked out in cool shades, trainers, boots and all those other consumer goodies that our feral youths went window-shopping for last summer.

Cars are a constant accessory in these fantasies of wealth and limitless consumption, whether its  Jennifer Lopez being mobbed in a Fiat 500 in  Papi, or Lady Gaga writhing around on the roof of one car in  Marry the Night, while another burns for reasons I can’t quite fathom – presumably because she’s like, so hot that she can set cars on fire by osmosis.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some of these three minute anthems are seriously moody and depressed, and watching the succession of partying dance scenes and  self-pitying torch songs is a bit like being trapped inside the mind of a manic depressive who has lost their medication.

So one minute Rhianna is out looting a supermarket and watching fireworks explode in a druggy relationship with her dodgy boyfriend and letting him tattoo something (a brand name?) on her backside, the next thing she’s weeping on the bathroom floor.  And then there is the ageing Katy Perry mourning the time when she used to listen to Radiohead with the youthful love of her life, before he accidentally drove his  car off a cliff after a row in The One that Got Away.  

Some of these mini soap operas reach quite stunning levels of banality.  Take Demi Lovato’s Like a Skyscraper, which was released last year to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  In the video, our windswept chanteuse can be found practically swooning with emotion in a white dress on the Bonneville Salt Flats singing the memorable lines:

As the smoke clears
I awaken and untangle you from me
Would it make you feel better to watch me while I bleed
All my windows still are broken but I’m standing on my feet

You can take everything I have
You can break everything I am
Like I’m made of glass
Like I’m made of paper
Go on and try to tear me down
I will be rising from the ground
Like a skyscraper, like a skyscraper

From time to time the camera closes in on Lovato’s face to highlight her intense emotion – none of which has anything to do with the apocalyptic events she’s singing about.  I understand that Lovato has had anorexia and depression and that is bad.  I’ve also read messages from teenagers and adolescents saying that they were bullied or had similar problems and that her song inspired them.

But didn’t it occur to anyone that none of these problems are quite on the same level as the mass murder of nearly three thousand people, that people in bad love affairs do not stagger bleeding from destroyed buildings, or that evoking 9/11 imagery in a song about personal relationships is an act of gross self-indulgence which simultaneously trivialises a major historical tragedy?

Probably not.  Because in pop culture’s ultimately shallow world of me, myself and I, the wider world is almost always absent, the only crises are personal ones and the only reason to look soulful and sad is because I lost you or I haven’t found you or I want you back, and the only thing that matters is that you emote and that other people watch you do it and feel as sorry for you as you do yourself.

In some strange way however, the vacuity of pop culture really does reflect the mood of the last twenty years, with its wild soaring highs when it seemed that  things would only get better and the troughs and crashes when it turned out they really weren’t going to.

But maybe now that so many bubbles have burst, the time has come to go to musical rehab and find an antidote to so much drivel.   Yesterday  Michael Davis, the bass player of the late great MC5 died of liver disease.  That isn’t how rock n’ rollers ever imagine they will meet their end.   I remember when I bought Back In The USA nearly thirty years ago and it fairly scorched off my turntable.

The MC5 were aiming their songs at teenagers too.  But unlike the producers of today’s solipsistic  aural valium, they weren’t trying to put the world’s youth to sleep, but to wake them up.   And so, on the day that Michael Davis died, it seems a fitting moment to clear my head of Pixie Lott and One Direction, and remember his contribution to one of the most incendiary two and half minute anthems that anyone  ever recorded:




  1. Nigel Hunt

    21st Feb 2012 - 7:40 am

    Now now Matt. T starts well and then I am afraid you are showing your age. I’m sure your parents said the same to you. Perhaps you just don’t understand the – ahem – sophistication of today’s popsters…

    • Matt

      21st Feb 2012 - 8:45 am

      Well I’m undoubtedly showing my age Nigel, though in fact I had very similar views when I was younger. Of course there has always been great music, and there still is, so I’m not trying to take a ‘things were better in my day’ generational line on this. When I was a teenager there was a great deal of vapid musical dreck around too, and you only have to see a few reruns of Top of the Pops from the 70s to see it. But some of this stuff is reaaallly dumb – and pop culture now has a global reach that it didn’t used to have – so the dumbness is an omnipresent background noise to today’s ‘MacWorld’ in which, no matter where you are, you’re always in the same place.

  2. Herbert Baierl

    21st Feb 2012 - 3:04 pm

    In my opinion pop music is one aspect of the conversion of citizens to consumers. There are other aspects as well, like sports, fashion, … all killing common sense and mostly fostering individuality. Maybe this process is necessary to uphold capitalist democracies like the ones we live in. In regards to the comments above, I think the concentration / monopolisation in the pop-industry and the ever increasing pervasiveness is to blame for the steady decline in “sophistication”.

    • Matt

      21st Feb 2012 - 3:28 pm

      I agree that pop culture is only one component of this ‘conversion’ process. But it’s a very powerful and seductive one. It also has a unique ability to co-opt images of youthful rebellion – both individual and collective – that are also part of pop/rock n’ roll and transform them into mere poses and objects of consumption (Rhianna shoplifting, Lady Gaga setting fire to cars, Beyonce doing dance routines with riot police etc).

      Of course there are lots of creative exceptions to this monopolisation and always have been, but they are almost totally absent from the music video industry and have been ever since MTV first created the genre.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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