Snap, Crackle, And The Ideology Of Pop #4

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Wednesday 23rd November 2016

What does pop music have to do with the victory of Donald Trump? Everything…

As I have said before, the purpose of pop music is to represent “normal” desires – the desire for (heterosexual) love, the desire to lead a flashy lifestyle, the desire to possess an abundance of things. The stock characters of the pop pantomime – Bieber, Minaj, Gomez, et al – have become soft vinyl dolls, contorted into the shapes their agents tell them will “play well with audiences”. They do the things most people could only dream of doing and own the things most people could only dream of owning. They are the sterile objects of carefully managed wish fulfilment. Only now is it becoming apparent that far fewer people than it was originally thought, actually have the desires which the pop world enacts for us.

After it became apparent that Donald Trump was going to be the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, Hillary decided that, instead of talking about real political issues, she would simply garner a catalogue of celebrity endorsements. This included many chart-topping pop artists. Recognising that Trump represented the nadir of racist, xenophobic, and homophobic America, she decided that the best way to defeat him was to sidestep a political battle, and instead wage a cultural war. Surely, thought Hillary, the American people will want to align themselves with pleasant, wealthy, prosperous Hollywood socialites, rather than an outrageous loudmouth who looks like a melting waxwork of himself. The fact that she was wrong indicates nothing less than the fact that the world of pop is no longer popular, no longer represents the populace, no longer speaks for the population. Its raison d’être has been immolated: now what does it do?

Where do we look when we want to find out what went wrong? As always, we look at the language: the lyrics. The Weeknd, who is littering the charts at the moment, is the quintessence of pop music’s increasingly irrelevant monoculture of consumerism and alcoholism. In Starboy the singer boasts that he “made your whole year in a week”. “You” is perhaps supposed to target a record producer who wouldn’t take a chance on him or something, but of course “you” is also inescapably the listener. And it is certainly the case that almost all listeners will earn less money in a year than the arrogant, posturing clothes-horses of The Weeknd does in a week. Similarly, in Party Monster the singer describes a life of routine debauchery “I’m like, got up, thank the lord for the day. Woke up by a girl, don’t even know her name,” and, “I’ve just been poppin’, took three in a row. I’m down to do it again, I’m on a roll.” Let me be clear, I am not puritanically judging the singer’s activities; what I am saying is: how can anyone be expected to relate to him, or almost any of the identities described in chart pop? He doesn’t have a real life or a routine or money trouble or existential crises; this person doesn’t do anything, ever.

Even the name The Weeknd – the part of the week where you don’t have to work and you get to cut loose – perfectly sums up everything that is irrelevant about him. It’s always the weekend, it’s always a party, I’m never burdened with actual work. But what does this say to the listener getting up early to do their shift at Tesco early on a Sunday morning? Or the weary commuter on their way to the office? Or the unemployed person sitting at home with the radio on? It says “fuck you”. Most chart pop music is now a diss track aimed at an entire society.

This is why it was such a big deal when the song Closer rose to number one. The record broke with pop’s current tradition of posturing class elitism, and viscerally described how hard it is to live on even a modest income in America right now. The failure of popular music to speak for the population is symptomatic of a general failure of mainstream culture and politics – which were so symbolically united in Hillary Clinton’s campaign videos – to communicate with the majority of people. And the truth is that most people are now entirely indifferent to the pristine bubbles of beautiful Armani models swanning around at the seemingly never ending pool parties and orgies of popland. During the final days of Rome while a Bacchic festival of the consumer senses rages on amongst the collapsing columns, the rest of the city is simply focused on mere survival. As the radical inequalities of society grow ever starker and nation after nation falls prey to low-key fascists, pop becomes increasingly obsolete as an ideology. In a world which has been beguiled into installing a leader who poses a real threat to its own future existence, the charts need to change their tune. If the radio isn’t claimed by more representative and inclusive voices very soon, it will eventually end up playing President for Life Trump’s daily propaganda broadcast. Because at the moment, words of hatred and intolerance seem to connect with people far more than what is currently in the charts…