“Fight Song” by Rachel Platten is fun, inspiring, and thoroughly postmodern. The song hits all the right emotional notes with its smooth melody, thrumming build-up, and burst of energy. The first time I heard it, I was bobbing along to the beat before I noticed the lyrics.
In a stirring build-up to the chorus, Platten declares she has had enough of “all those things I didn’t say / wrecking balls inside my brain,” so she “will scream them loud tonight” and “make an explosion!”
Although I listened carefully, I could not discover what those things were. In fact, Platten never says; she just announces that she will. Likewise, this is her “take back my life song” and “prove I’m alright song,” but the song does not do these things. It only claims it is doing them. As much as I enjoy “Fight Song,” I have to recognize it for what it is: not a song, but the idea of a song.
Tell, Don’t Show
“Fight Song” exemplifies a postmodernist trend towards replacing artistry with exposition, or narration. Instead of leaving room for interpretation or disagreement, the expositive artist tells viewers what to think. Take, for example, “Oak Tree,” by visual artist Michael Craig-Martin. To make a piece of art, Craig-Martin placed a glass of water on a shelf and gave it a title. Without that title, no one would give the setup a second glance, but the blunt exposition involved in calling a cup a tree demands viewers’ attention.
Actually, the entire point of the artwork consists in the artist’s claim about what he has made. Why does he call it an oak tree? we might wonder. What is he trying to say about nature? Or about manufacturing? Or about reality? Viewers are left thinking not so much about the actual artwork as about the artist’s idea of his artwork. We must contemplate the artist’s thought process before we can evaluate his skills or even consider the truthfulness of his claim.
Since postmodern artwork revolves around not the artists’ execution but their ideas, postmodern artists tend to measure their success in terms of impact. You can see this trend play out in “Fight Song.” Platten spends most of the lyrics not on what she wants to say, but on the effect it will have.
She sings, “A small drop in the ocean” sets “big waves into motion.” “A single word can make a heart open” and “one match…can make an explosion.” These images capture postmodernists’ vision of success: a singular movement that builds momentum as it affects more and more people. Unfortunately, this approach ultimately reduces art to a popularity contest. A new, shocking attempt at art can grab people’s attention, often by horrifying them, but as soon as the public no longer responds to it, that piece of artwork has lost its reason for existing.
Unoriginal But Undeniably Catchy
Exposition is not all bad: Satirical art can use this technique to great effect. Take Marianas Trench’s “Pop 101” as an example. Even if you have not heard this song before, it will sound familiar. The first verse promises “some simple instructions” for creating a pop hit, and the rest of the lyrics deliver just that.
“Fade in the bass like so,” Trench coaches the listener, “Now with momentum go STOP / And bring the beat back.” The actual music follows the cues in the lyrics, which makes for an unoriginal but undeniably catchy tune. Even though the singer announces without pretense every trick designed to manipulate the audience’s energy, listeners find themselves dancing along anyway. “Pop 101” is a brilliant satire because it makes itself into the banal but infectious pop song its lyrics describe in unfailing detail.
When postmodern art makes for clever satire, we can laugh at it. When self-referential exposition replaces artistry, however, it advances the philosophical claim that truth is subjective. In other words, the person who makes a claim determines its truth.
Subjective truth robs others of grounds for disagreement. How can I object that an idea is tasteless, wrong, or meaningless if the person advancing the idea determines its meaning? According to postmodernism, if Platten says “Fight Song” proves she’s “alright,” then it does. No one else can participate in her idea except by passively accepting it.