Tue. December 18
Has Rock and Roll Lost Its Poetry?
It’s not that today’s female pop stars are not feminists. It’s that, like today’s young male pop stars, they’re illiterate. Songwriters are supposed to be poets. But we now have at least one generation of digital-revolution songwriters who know nothing about symbolism, metaphor, word play, and writing about unexpected and diverse topics.
That’s the point that Camille Paglia missed–or at least did not emphasize enough in a very popular recent post in the Hollywood Reporter. Paglia announced that “Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Hollywood are Ruining Woman.” Paglia, who is not known for subtlety, wrote that when she sees today’s young female pop stars it’s like feminism never happened: “we’ve somehow been thrown back to the demure girly-girl days of the white-bread 1950s. It feels positively nightmarish to survivors like me of that rigidly conformist and man-pleasing era, when girls had to be simple, peppy, cheerful and modest.”
Paglia misses the idea that when Perry dresses like a cheerleader in a crayon factory she may, in a very self-aware way, be having fun with rock-and-roll imagery. Paglia may have been closer to the mark when talking about Swift:
Swift has a monotonous vocal style, pitched in a characterless keening soprano and tarted up with snarky spin that is evidently taken for hip by vast multitudes of impressionable young women worldwide. Her themes are mainly complaints about boyfriends, faceless louts who blur in her mind as well as ours. Swift’s meandering, snippy songs make 16-year-old Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit ‘It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry if I Want to)’ seem like a towering masterpiece of social commentary, psychological drama and shapely concision.
Had Paglia made her entire piece about the declining literacy in pop music, including male artists, she would have had a real case. Because Paglia is wrong about the music of Perry and Swift–and Pink and Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce. I have records by all these artists, and they all come up with nice hooks and sonically interesting music. But the lyrics are all about the same thing: female empowerment, particularly in the face of some jerky guy. These woman can sing about literally anything they can think of–it just seems like they can’t think of much or can’t say what they aren’t thinking in very compelling ways. And since it is affecting the men also, it has nothing to do with sex. I mean, compare the lyrics of any of today’s male stars with Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Costello’s early records. Green Day? Please. Radiohead? What are the songs about again?
Now, I’m not talking about chunks of Shakespearean brilliance set to music. I’d settle for a sharp turn of phrase, an unexpected piece of imagery. One of my favorite albums from the 1980s, The Motel’s 1982 record All For One, has just been reissued for its thirtieth anniversary. I hadn’t heard the record in years, but I’ve never forgotten the band’s gorgeous lead singer and songwriter, Martha Davis. All Four One opens with “Mission of Mercy,” a strong rocker. The opening lyrics:
I can’t give up I heard him say, the day he left
Fadin’ footsteps on hot cement
I don’t know where he went, but he left in a hurry
Sayin’ something about a mission of mercy
Mama hasn’t been sleepin’ well at all
As she lies stretched out in the hall
Waiting for him to call
In thirty years, I have never forgotten those words and the images they conjure–how what seems to be a conventional breakup song takes a sudden turn with a picture of a woman–depressed? on drugs?–sprawled out on the floor of her house. And not only any woman, but “Mama.” This is not a boyfriend song. This is a family collapsing song. Can you imagine what Pink would do with a similar theme? She would mount a huge sonic landscape with pounding beats and grunge-lite guitars, and scream on and on about how her family sucks. But with a single understated image that evokes illness, insomnia, depression–and just the sheer physical exhaustion of a collapsed marriage–Davis has planted a powerful scene in our imagination.
Again, I’m not saying to day’s pop stars need to set T. S. Eliot to music–although that might not be a bad thing. In fact, “Art Fails,” my favorite song from All Four One, is a picture of simplicity:
But I don’t want you to see me this way
I still remember laughing with delight when I heard this back in the day. It was arch and ironic, yes, but also penetrating and very funny. And I loved how at the end of the song she played with the words, adding a new couplet:
As Robin Williams said in Dead Poets Society, there’s nothing wrong with having your poem be simple, just don’t have it be dull.
I understand that people will respond that there are plenty of great female lyricists around today, people like PJ Harvey, Lucinda Williams and Corin Tucker. But none of them are as popular as The Motels were in its day, and we are talking about the larger culture, not fringe musicians. Davis brought artistry to the masses with hit songs and albums. Perhaps people have become so dumbed-down that they don’t want poetry or art anymore.
In a recent interview in Curve magazine, Davis had an interesting and depressing observation. Today’s Britney’s and Beyonce’s are entertainers, not artists, she said. They don’t wake up in the middle of the night, consumed with passion about this brilliant new song that they have to get out there.
This is why they fail. Contra Paglia, it has nothing to do with being women.