A monthly guide to stuff we think is cool

A new issue every
Friday morning


Consuming and analyzing pop music is political and important / by Jes Skolnik

I’ve seen and heard a lot of smug commentary this week. Much of it has been from leftist men in my social circle, about how analysis of Miley Cyrus at this year’s MTV VMAs is “distracting” people from caring about other things going on in the world, like the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington or the intervention of the US military in Syria, as if we don’t have the capacity to think about more than one thing at once.

Certainly I’ve seen a lot of work on That Performance this week that is self-serving, navel-gazing, overthought and/or lazy. It’s a hot topic, and the idea of monetized clicks and pageviews for online publications means that keyword pieces without much thought or integrity behind them often end up on the front pages of publications. But I’ve also seen, heard and participated in a lot of deep, thoughtful reflection and discussion, some of it in published (or self-published) form and much of it backchannel.

We talk and think about Miley not because she herself is all that interesting, but because pop music and pop culture impact, reflect and refract in our lives and relationships. Theft of Black work and the accrual of benefits to white folks – that’s a large part of the story of the US, right? And the idea of coming of age and becoming a sexual being as a rite of adulthood is something every culture has some kind of ritual or commemoration for.

Teen and preteen girls (and young women just coming into adulthood) have made up a large part of the market for recorded popular music since the 1920s, as many of the first recorded hits were meant for consumption by flappers. Teens were arguably the most important consumers of rock n’ roll (in mainstream white terms) in the 1950s. The bubblegum explosion of the late 1960s capitalized on preteen and teen girls’ musical consumption habits (the fact that most bubblegum records came in single format rather than album format was targeted toward the fact that preteens and teens had less spending money than adults) and created a standardized process for the manufacturing of in-studio pop music with tie-ins to television and other cultural products. “Teenybop” music has been traditionally easily dismissed by Serious Rock Critics as facile, sugary, bland, indistinguishable – and some of it is, but that doesn’t mean that preteens, teens AND adults don’t find meaning and enjoyment in it. To dismiss its meaningfulness is to dismiss the preteen and teen girls who consume it.

Sociologist Sarah Baker spent time with preteen girls in Australia in the late 1990s and examined their musical consumption habits and how they took pop music very seriously – Spice Girls, Britney, Destiny’s Child – and used it to understand and construct their burgeoning identities as they began to transition into adolescence. “Music is a key vehicle for the expression and contestation of cultural identities at both a collective and personal level,” she writes. What seems ‘throwaway’ and ‘ubiquitous’ is something incredibly meaningful for the girls Baker spent time with, and that’s something that echoes my childhood and the childhoods of pretty much all of my friends.

I grew up in a household with Weird Parents (thank goodness for it, because I’m a weird dude), and underground/non-Top 40 music was standard in our house. I learned about punk and DIY a lot earlier than most of my contemporaries, and it was something I loved and that resonated with me. And yet in a household where I loved and had access to a lot of “good” (read here as critically acclaimed) music I also fought for the right to listen to top 40. After several years, I eventually started waking up at a certain time every Saturday in order to listen to the Billboard Top 100 countdown, because listening to that music was a) enjoyable and b) gave me a chance to really connect to my peers. (As a weird kid with a weird family, I often felt isolated and without cultural touchstones to share with my friends and bond over.) Along with loving Madonna and Janet Jackson and Cyndi Lauper – artists who you can make a pretty good critical case for – I also loved Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, what my parents derisively called “mall junk” and whom you’d be hard pressed to find a Serious Critic writing about. And I most definitely absorbed ideas about love and sexuality and attraction before I even knew what those things really were or meant from that “mall junk” and from the narratives displayed for me by Top 40.

Kids are constantly absorbing ideas about culture and what it means to Be A Person in our society (who gets the right to humanity? who doesn’t? what stories do we tell ourselves as a culture?) – many of those stories are embodied in pop narratives. There are stories about female desirability and what it means to be desirable. There are stories about what a “normal” heterosexual relationship looks like (while us queer kids, we’re kinda left to figure things out on our own). There are stories about what friendship means. There are stories about heartbreak, healing and struggle. Those stories are often extremely binary and lack nuance, but their themes tell us so much about what we’re supposed to value, what capitalism wants us to value, how we’re supposed to behave. Whether we choose to behave in those ways, whether we consume consciously and thoughtfully – that’s up to us.

The dismissal of the discourse around Miley Cyrus is patriarchal – these are “women’s concerns,” particularly young women’s concerns. And it is also racialized – much of the commentary on Miley is coming from Black women frustrated at how their bodies and lives are impacted every day by white appropriation and sexualization. If you read one thing about the whole Miley debacle, please make it Tressie McMillan Cottom’s brilliant, insightful and painful essay “Your Brown Body Is A White Wonderland”. “Solidarity is for Miley Cyrus” is another excellent article by Jezebel contributor NinjaCate (and I’m usually very, very wary of Jezebel). A dear friend of mine tweeted today: “Because yes we should defend twerking to the death, because it is a consensual display of personal pleasure rooted in deep historic art.” These are meaningful things. They are real things. They have everyday impact for many people.

Discussions about the culture machine and how it impacts our daily lives are just as important as discussions about the war machine. Capitalism may attempt to sell us bread and circus, but we have the ability to take that spectacle apart, to read between the lines, and to find enjoyment and sadness and frustration in it, to dismantle oppression by understanding its true nature.

ABOUT                              CONTACT                              CONTRIBUTORS                              DONATE