How the rise of self-esteem pop is reducing empowerment to text-speak
Positivity in pop music isn’t exactly a revelation, but there’s a particular nuance to the messages being shared by the current wave of musical optimists. From Perry’s sugary “Firework” to the reverse-engineered anthem that is Gaga’s “Born This Way,” the top half of Billboard’s current Hot 100 features no fewer than seven tracks that can be described as “self-esteem pop.” This burgeoning subgenre is an apolitical, Auto-Tuned version of “free to be you and me” music—a vapid new spin on the bohemian celebration of individuality that emerged from ’60s and early ’70s hippie culture.
The tunes themselves range from syrupy ballads to raucous drinkin’ songs, but they all draw on the self-help rhetoric familiar to anyone who’s grown up in the Age of Oprah. In “Firework,” Perry directs a series of second-person platitudes (“You’re original / You cannot be replaced;” “Come on, let your colours burst”) to instill a sense of self-love in listeners. Gaga’s awkward (and grammatically questionable) attempts to rally her multicultural monsters (“You’re black, white, beige, Chola descent / You’re Lebanese, you’re Orient”) culminate in a promise (“God makes no mistakes”) that lackadaisically inverts the language of right-wing homophobes. “Loser Like Me,” the first original song to emerge from the Glee vaults, is tantamount to a a well-meaning mom who insists the school bully only picks on you because he’s jealous.
As a group, the current proponents of self-esteem pop skew female; they’re the gawky little sisters who greedily gulped down the Spice Girls’ concept of “girl power” while teetering around in their idols’ foam platform shoes. And while you could argue that it’s not that terrible to promote a “Yay, you!” sentiment in song, there’s also something depressing about the idea of young girls mistaking the musical equivalent of emoticons for something satisfyingly profound. That seems to be the case, for instance, with “Born This Way.” Its underlying ideology is to Madonna’s fierce brand of empowerment (sexual or otherwise) what Barney & Friends is to the original Sesame Street: fuzzy, dumbed-down and devoid of critical nuances.
For all the uncanny melodic similarities between “Born This Way” and “Express Yourself,” the two songs espouse wildly different philosophies. The key point Madonna tries to get across in her 1989 hit is this: women—hell, anyone who struggles to be heard—need to speak up and demand what they need, want and deserve. It’s a story about finding a sense of entitlement when you’re constantly kicked to the curb.
Though Elton John dubbed it a gay anthem for our time, “Born This Way” sounds regressive by comparison: Gaga seems to be advocating self-acceptance not because her listeners are awesome and deserving, but because they can’t help being who they are. It’s a watered-down plea for tolerance, not a celebration of sexual diversity and the fabulousness of being outré. And it’s a bit curious to hear someone who’s invested so much time, money and energy into masking her true appearance with grotesqueries (Facial protrusions! Creepy contact lenses! The hairbow made of hair!) insist, “I’m beautiful in my way.”
It’s unfair to single out Gaga: her self-esteem pop peers have produced songs that are far more insipid than “Born This Way.” Ke$ha has founded a career on songs that are like semantic Post-It notes and that couch self-love mantras in text-speak (see “We R Who We R”). And even Pink, who is generally quite good at translating feelings of self-loathing into musical catharsis, has resorted to banal rallying cries (“Raise your glass if you are wrong in all the right ways!”) on her current hit “Raise Your Glass.”
It’s striking that Britney Spears, who so publicly struggled with her own mental-health issues, has just released an album pretty much free of these empty affirmations. Instead, Spears’ new Femme Fatale is a squelchy, writhing ode to physicality and hedonism—without the alibi of somehow sticking it to the man. Spears’s new tracks have an air of pure self-obsession. On the surface, that may sound like a criticism, but Femme Fatale’s tone of unapologetic indulgence is refreshing and genuine compared to Perry’s promise that “After a hurricane comes a rainbow.”
Granted, many of these self-esteem pop divas sing lyrics that are written by hired guns and producers, dudes who don’t ever have to serve as the mouthpiece for their own dogma. When you think about it, there’s something kind of perverse about these messages being disseminated by an industry that’s so implicated in the hollow celebrity obsession, distorted physical ideals and homogeneity that can trigger feelings of inadequacy in young girls. It’s like Big Brother encouraging his helpless subjects to drink more Victory Gin to help numb the sting and distract them from reality. As Pink might say, “Raise your glass, underdogs!”
Picture is from my personal tumblr