I’mma get your heart racing
in my skin-tight jeans
Be your teenage dream tonight
Let you put your hands on me
in my skin-tight jeans
Be your teenage dream tonight
Those are lyrics from the greatest pop music achievement of the past 15 years. I’m not talking record sales or radio play. Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” from her eponymous album, is the top artistic triumph in pop music in the twenty-first century, gliding over once-dominant artists still producing high-level pop (Bruce Springsteen, U2), as well as critical darlings of a more recent kind (Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem).
Honors like that don’t usually go to art barely passable as Gossip Girl fan poetry, but pop music is different. That the lyrics lack the artistic seriousness of a Herzog film, that the imagery falls spectacularly short of the Shakespearean ideal, that the message fails to say anything accurate, let alone substantive, about human relationships, is gloriously irrelevant. Pop music is the one art form whose singular focus, whose guiding preoccupation, whose raison d’être, is to create the most pleasurable sound possible.
In art, there is a furious resistance to the feeling of pleasure. Want to insult an artist? Praise his or her work for its entertainment value. This must be because finding something pleasurable comes dangerously close to finding it comforting, which is the antithesis of finding it challenging. Thus, to elevate the sensation of pleasure in this way is to attempt to infuse it with an artistic legitimacy it just doesn’t possess. Kurt Cobain’s “Here we are now, entertain us” was an indictment, not a request.
This has always been hedonism’s legacy, from Epicurus to Oscar Wilde. Even John Stuart Mill, whose utilitarian ethics is one of the most influential products of the Enlightenment, faced such strident criticism on this point that he felt compelled to address it at the very beginning of his most famous work. Mill laid out an ethics that promotes doing what maximizes pleasure, to which his detractors responded that he was offering the masses a “doctrine of the swine.”
Pigs know nothing but their base impulses; human beings, on the other hand, ought to strive for judgments of a more refined nature. This is what so scandalized Mill’s opponents: pleasure seems entirely ill-suited to function as an intellectually respectable yardstick by which to measure anything, art included.
It’s Okay for Pop to Promote Pleasure
Since history has consistently refused to adopt this standard, I should take a little time to explain why pop music should be preeminently motivated by, and fundamentally committed to, the feeling of pleasure. Happiness and pleasure are not the same—if we follow Aristotle, happiness is an expansive condition signaling a total human flourishing—yet pleasure remains an important component of human experience. To deny this is to show contempt for the fact that humans are emotional beings.
When we begin to see, as the romantics saw, that feelings ought to receive artistic legitimacy, it’s no giant leap to award a right understanding of pleasure, one that doesn’t exaggerate its role within our psychological profiles, its proper artistic place. All the familiar critiques against hedonism’s capacity to debase stem from the extravagant role pleasure is often given in these systems. But if sensations of pleasure form a part, not the whole, of human longing for happiness, then there is a place for it in artistic experience. The question is, Why music? And why pop music, specifically?
It’s because music, unlike films and books, is by nature non-representational. A story is about something. A movie intends to say something. We criticize a film for failing to portray life in all its complexity. Taking in each scene, we ask how a particular instance of dialogue, or how the way an event is depicted, advances the overall message.
Yet whereas words are crucial to a visually-centric form of art, they are entirely incidental to a melody’s power. Films that are visually stunning but narratively empty are failures; pop songs that sound good even if the lyrics are meaningless are successes. That tells us that the sound, not the content, is important when it comes to pop.
Of course, a film’s dialogue and a song’s melody are both transmitted through sound, yet whereas the former intends to convey a message, the latter intends to evoke a feeling. Pace the representational pretensions of the classical era, music doesn’t attempt to convey a message. Whether Herman Melville intended “Moby Dick” to be allegorical is an artistically momentous question. Whether George Harrison intended “Something” as an ode to Krishna or as a straightforward love ballad is not (“Long, Long, Long” and “My Sweet Lord” were less ambiguous). Discerning the meanings of Beatles lyrics could be interesting to enthusiasts, but as a component of the songs themselves, the words play no significant role. Otherwise, we’d see “I Am The Walrus” and “Come Together” as failures, since their words don’t signify anything, yet of course we accept them as examples of pop excellence.
In Pop, Melody Is King
This brings us back to Perry, whose song “Teenage Dream” I have called the finest pop offering of the twenty-first century, narrowly beating out Coldplay’s “Fix You,” Beyonce’s “Party,” Arcade Fire’s “Sprawl II,” LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean,” and R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix).” All six make my list of the greatest pop songs of all time.
As the list should make clear, I’m chasing the purity of the melody irrespective of how well-known or well-regarded the tracks are. I operate with no a priori resistance to culturally unacceptable choices. For example, Carly Rae Jepsen makes the list, because with “Call Me Maybe” she’s engineered a pure pop moment; the chorus is unrelenting sweetness and infinite catchiness. Fleetwood Mac makes it, too, despite their status as #dadrock exemplars. Most critics would consider it a travesty to suggest that Leon Bridges’ recent “Coming Home” is superior to James Brown’s classic ballad “Try Me”—yet that’s where I stand.
Pop is no respecter of persons or eras. When it comes to lyrics, pop can be about anything. From an appreciation of heroin intake aesthetics (“Boy, I surely do love watching that stuff inject itself in!” on The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat”) to a singer’s wistful dialogue with his own anthropomorphized reproductive member (Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones”). It doesn’t require any one singing style, either: Beyonce’s “XO” and Rihanna’s “Diamonds” harness much of their power from the singing approach adopted on those tracks—a much lower, wearier style than usual. The aim is to produce the most immediately pleasurable sound, and there is not just one way to do that. There is, however, an underlying sensibility that pop music seems to uniquely possess.
The Challenge Is In New Ways of Sparking Pleasure
The jazz age heralded a style that offered fun, but also more: It sought to challenge as much as it sought to please. The genres that developed in the post-jazz years aimed to fill artistic niches of their own, yet always seeing pleasure instrumentally rather than intrinsically valuable. But when Elvis Presley brought the pop sound, with its fusion of the most accessible elements of earlier genres, to a wider audience, it triggered a new cultural moment. The target was pleasure for its own sake; a sound teleologically aimed at good feelings. This new phenomenon coincided with consumer technologies that could perpetuate and even increase pop music’s reach (television, vinyl records for home use, etc.), effectively crystallizing the “pop” in “pop music.”
Though much of pop in the twenty-first century is a deconstruction of the concept (see Radiohead’s “Kid A”), and thus sounds different from the pop of earlier eras, what’s remarkable is that there remains a surprising level of coherence across the decades. It won’t strain the ears to see Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Going Down” and the Ramones “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” as recapitulations of Elvis. Both are structurally similar to the archetypal Elvis song, yet each advances on it in musically appreciable ways.
“I’m Going Down” smooths out the rough blues edges and, alongside a polished-up verse structure melodically superior to Elvis’ own, creates an unheralded pop masterpiece. “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” unlike Springsteen, eschews Elvis’ vocal style, but nevertheless maintains the underlying pop sensibility even as it ramps up the speed. These changes—a better Elvis (Springsteen) and an uptempo Elvis (The Ramones)—represent the essence of pop music: creating new pleasures from what has given us enjoyment in the past.
I’ll amplify this point using Springsteen again. Consider the second verse in “Hungry Heart,” which introduces a new element into the track, background vocals that are layered behind Bruce’s. This addition modifies the overall sound ever so slightly, with the result being a deceptively complex profile of pleasurable moments throughout the song.
Instead of two verses that sound the same, this slight difference varies the pleasure profile of the track. This is key, because it is the nature of pleasure to resist perpetual stimulation from any one source. Call this hedonism’s inertia: the creeping dullness caused by repetitiveness, monotony, sameness. By the time you tire of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” LCD Soundsystem’s “All I Want” comes to blend familiar pleasure-producing sounds with fresh pleasure-producing sounds; it wins you over both as a brilliant reworking of Bowie but also as its own song. Our sensations of pleasure require both: the familiar and the new.
Don’t Judge Pop by Standards Suited to Other Things
Viewing pop as aesthetically utilitarian—designed to introduce, through music, the most amount of pleasure into the world that it can—is not exactly the dominant theory. Resistance to this idea is present even among critics who wholeheartedly embrace the pop ethos. The underlying feeling is that music simply must be about more than just sounds that generate pleasure.
That’s why for all their embrace of pop as a genre, outlets like Pitchfork and NME (which do fantastic music criticism) devote disproportionate space to inserting into their music reviews details about the artist’s experiences, analyses of song lyrics, interpretations of album themes, contextualization about how the work fits within broader cultural moments, etc. They enjoy the music, but sense that its value must come from something ultimately extraneous to it; perhaps they sense that as a mere feeling, pleasure lacks artistic gravitas.
For me, its value is summed up by Paul Westerberg’s ode to his musical hero Alex Chilton: “I’m in love — What’s that song? I’m in love with that song”
When a song moves you enough to express a love for it twice in two lines—that’s the feeling I have in mind.