Just like last theme week, I decided to look at the popular songs of this year to see what they’re telling us. I’m assuming the songs from two years ago don’t sound so different than the songs nowadays, but I’m still interested to see what we find in those songs. For this I’m using the lists of number one songs and top 10 songs from Germany, the US and UK, which again overlap a lot.
Fun. – We Are Young
This is a very drug- and alcohol-infused song. People get “higher than the Empire State”, it’s mostly set in a bar, there are drinks and toasts and in the end people have to be carried home. This description of drinking and a certain sense of directionless is coupled with the chorus:
We are young
So let's set the world on fire
We can burn brighter
Than the sun
We know this pattern already. Excessiveness, living to an extreme but selling it as a good thing, as if there is nothing else to do since, well, that’s all there is it seems. “We are young” seems to imply that this is the time to do something that’s extreme but in the end the consequence is that you burn yourself up, “brighter than the sun.” It is astounding to me that this fatalism is so common and almost inherent. So much for Generation Cynical. If you don’t see a point in this life anymore, it makes sense to just burn yourself up with alcohol and drugs, just to not see another pointless day. Better to burn brightly in the sky, than to fade into the monotony of daily life? This is what people are singing about and kids are listening to. Sure, the title suggests easy identification and lines like the Empire State one are easy to sing along while laughing about it. But there are, as always, some deeper troubling issues here and they are again and again signs of, not trouble, but troubled people. This culture drives everyone crazy but all we have learned is to escape from it instead of thinking about it. But what sadder equation could there be than “We are young = We are hopeless”? We aren’t. You aren't.
Rihanna – We Found Love
It’s a simple love song that mostly just describes the feeling of being in love (unfortunately coupled with an annoying Europopbeat). But the chorus that is repeated over and over is
We found love in a hopeless place
The place is never defined but I don’t think many people will wonder what is meant because “a hopeless place” surely resonates with most listeners, even if they think of different things: their life, their family, their house, school, whatever. Isn’t it fascinating that this phrase is used so centrally here? That hopelessness again is such a key aspect of life in our culture? And, for one thing, that we don’t really question this notion but mostly accept it? And for another that we have learned that only love can save us? Which in turn implies again that we only wait for salvation, which again reinforces that we need salvation, that we are flawed and can’t hope for much. “We found love” then also means that, we are saved, we made it, lucky us!, because we found a way out. Love as escapism. Not an uncommon attitude.
Maroon 5 – One More Night
The song describes a “dysfunctional” relationship, lots of fighting and ugly arguments. But the narrator then comes around to say that he can’t help but still love her. Which could be somewhat romantic, even if the chorus repeats
So I cross my heart and I hope to die
That I'll only stay with you one more night
And I know I said it a million times
But I'll only stay with you one more night
It’s weird because it really sounds like he can’t help himself. He hopes to only stay “one more night” but what is keeping him? And why another night? See, it’s simple, the woman is just too hot. He doesn’t like her but his penis thinks otherwise.
Try to tell you no, but my body keeps on telling you yes
Try to tell you stop, but your lipstick got me so out of breath
I'll be waking up in the morning, probably hating myself
I'll be waking up feeling satisfied, but guilty as hell
This way “one more night” translates to “one more fuck.” Not so romantic anymore, is it? But in this culture it’s hard not to fall to excess and satisfaction of primal desires. It also makes the definition of love problematic. The song talks about a relationship but love is only mentioned in the line
But baby there you go again, there you go again, making me love you
which clearly serves a double meaning or, more likely, a single meaning that doesn’t involve emotions. For so many love songs in the charts, it’s amazing how few actually see love as two people understanding each other and working together, but often see it as either sex or a selfish way to escape from a desperate life.
But you know what they say, “Don’t ask Maroon 5 for songs not about sex.”
Bruno Mars – Locked Out of Heaven
Oh dear. The narrator starts out by explaining he is not a spiritual person but there is this girl and she makes him feel like heaven. At least, that’s what I expected, but the chorus actually says
Cause your sex takes me to paradise
Your sex? He doesn’t actually mean the female sex, right? He’s talking about having sex, isn’t he? Okay, sure, why not, finding good sex is certainly nice. It is a bit odd to connect religious symbolism with sex all through the song, but that’s a matter of taste I guess.
You bring me to my knees
You make me testify
You can make a sinner change his ways
Open up your gates cause I can't wait to see the light
And right there is where I wanna stay
When he says “open your gates” he means…? Okay, just wanted to make sure that this is another one of those romantic songs. But I guess the cover says it all already.
Taylor Swift – I Knew You Were Trouble
Another sad love story. Or something like that. The narrator fell for a bad guy and regrets it now. Two things fascinate me: first she puts all the blame on herself. She “knew [he was] trouble,” so it’s her fault that he hurt her. Second, the man is incapable of love.
And the saddest fear comes creeping in
That you never loved me or her or anyone or anything
Oh men, never able to show their emotions! And stupid women with their emotions hurting themselves! If you take it one step further, the song suggests that men and women better stay away from each other (Gone Girl probably would agree). So romantic, huh?
Flo Rida – Whistle
Oh well. This has to be the last song because how could you follow these lines?
Can you blow my whistle baby, whistle baby
Let me know
Girl I'm gonna show you how to do it
And we start real slow
You just put your lips together
And you come real close
Can you blow my whistle baby, whistle baby
Here we go
Those are the actual lyrics of a song that was very successful (no.1 in the US, no.2 in Germany and UK). And I can imagine people singing and whistling along to a song about oral sex. Again, I’m not against a song about sex (or against sex), but first of all why make a song that is so semi-ambiguous and second, it’s still a pretty sexist song. The lyrics never ask what the women think, they only care about the man expecting to receive blowjobs at any given time and without question. Why does anyone need a song like this? And why hide it under all that catchiness and whistling? As ridiculous as something like Rihanna’s S&M is, at least it doesn’t pretend to be anything but what it is.
To be fair, those are not the only successful songs from 2012. Many other songs simply have nothing important or noticeable to say: Somebody That I Used to Know is straightforward about breaking up, Call Me Maybe is weird but boring, Sexy and I Know It is strangely self-ironic, Diamonds is a simple love song, Gangnam Style is said to be critical of a rich lifestyle but the lyrics only hint at that, Titanium is an “I am strong”-ballad and so on… What I’m saying is, there might be songs where the lyrics aren’t offensive and or sending problematic messages, but there often isn’t much to write about them. All in all, whatever these songs say about 2012 isn’t so different as what current songs say about 2014. Not much hope, not much real love, but still a strong desire for love to escape the hopelessness. I still think this is something we should be more aware of when we think about being willing to change something.