Currently I am co-writting an article on Lady Gaga with Doug Groothius. So I am not going to write too much here, but the above picture seems to be one of those photos which struck me as emblematic. It is like the baton being passed from one era of Western Culture to another. The Queen who represents the proceeding centuries of convention and tradition in which it was determined that a handful of people deserved privilege.
Then there is Lady Gaga the self declared Fame Monster, representing the contemporary loss of identity, a voracious appetite to be noticed, broken sexuality, and the West’s culture of entitlement where everyone demands to be treated like a royal. I could go on. However I wanted to make a side note regarding the cultural interpretation of pop music.
For sometime now, at least as long as I have been in ministry, youth pastors and others have used song lyrics and music videos to illustrate what contemporary artists are thinking. We show a video or play a song and say ‘this is what artist _____ is saying here’. Yet today most of the world’s best selling pop stars don’t write their own lyrics or songs. Songs are penned by specialist songwriters who then auction the songs off to record companies.
Often songs are passed through the hands of multiple stars before they find a home. If they don’t they then move down the food chain, the crumbs from the US stars’ table are offered to stars from smaller markets like Australia or the Philippines. Songs can be passed around for a while. Allegedly Britney Spear’s whole album was handed to Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussy Cat Dolls when the singer was hospitalised.
So what does this mean? Well, when a song comes out like Beyonce’s latest release Girls Run the World, and everyone starts to analyse the song, asking what is Beyonce saying here? Is this a new feminist mantra? The answer is that Beyonce is saying nothing, they are not her words. Beyonce is saying what the giant corporate machine behind her tells her to say. Which is normally a message which has been shaped by focus groups and careful marketing of key purchasing demographics.
More and more the lyrics coming out of singer’s mouths are totally disconnected from that singer. This allows other meanings to attach themselves to songs. Most of often in the visuals in songs. Take for example R’ n B’ singer Chris Brown’s recent single Beautiful People.
On the surface the song seems like a fairly summery single in which Brown sings that everyone is beautiful. The lyrics are fairly benign. But when you examine the video not the lyrics and understand the backstory, the true meaning is revealed.
Chris Brown was a top selling singer, who’s career went into a possibly terminal nose dive when he beat badly his then girl friend and fellow artist, the highly popular Rhianna. When Brown tried to save his career by appearing on Good Morning America, he was angered by being questioned about the incident and proceeded to trash his room and become aggressive to staff leaving the studio’s shirtless.
Beautiful People is a masterful public relations exercise designed to save Brown’s career. Notice the behind the scenes footage showing Brown to be a fun loving guy. Notice the cavalcade of fellow Hip and R’N’B’ stars appearing in the video such as Nelly, The Game, Pharrell Williams. Timbaland and Pete Wentz, all included to give the message that Brown is not an industry pariah.
Notice the female stars such as Estelle appearing, particularly Brandy who is featured hugging Brown, showing that he still has some well known women on his side. Sure the lyrics are about Beautiful people, but the message of the song, is crafted in order to show Brown in a redemptive light.
So next time you listen to a song or are watching a video, train yourself to ask the question ‘what is the message behind the lyrics?’. Content is not dead, it is just primarily communicated visually or therapeutically in our contemporary world.