When’s the last time you heard a song in the Top 40 charts that was honest about the nature of financial struggle? Honest about how much it can suck to be a person trying to do something creative with their life and realizing that there’s a million easier, safer paths; honest about how tempting it is to pack it all in and get a job at a bank or a call centre?
There’s probably a hip-hop track or two on the charts at any given time that comes close to satisfying those criteria. Beyond that, though, it’s songs about ordering bottle service in clubs all the way down. If you’re lucky, there’s a couple tracks about ex-girlfriends thrown in for diversity.
At this point, there’s no a discernible thematic difference between the handful of genres that exist within the highest echelon of chart-topping artists. The increasing homogenization of pop music has resulted in even the traditional bastions of blue collar music being usurped by folks flaunting their wealth. Mainstream hip-hop has largely abandoned the aspect of its heritage that focused on the struggle of coming up in bad neighbourhoods; rock and roll, similarly, has lost the Bruce Springsteen-esque blue collar attitude that defined it throughout the ‘70, ‘80s, and even into the ‘90s with the rise of grunge music.
Straight-up pop music, meanwhile, continues to center around the same themes of dancing and fucking that it has been about for at least a couple decades now.
Something about this makes me terribly uneasy. In an era when we’re watching the middle class shrink drastically, and wealth inequality balloon to levels that make civilized nations resemble banana republics, the dream peddled by pop music of fast sports cars and unlimited coke and booze seems increasingly silly and unrealistic. More importantly, it seems increasingly unattainable for the overwhelming majority of the audience this music is being sold to. It was never a realistic goal for most people, but it’s becoming so disparate from most people’s actual lives that it begins to resemble kicking someone while they’re down.
This strikes me as a recipe for mass discontent. What happens when all the teenagers lapping this shit up get old and realize, while driving home to their shitty apartment in their shitty old car, that it was all nonsense? Even worse (better?), what happens if they grow up and realize it was all a ruse, actively packaged and sold to them by people with a vested interest in keeping them deluded into believing this was a realistic lifestyle to aspire to?
Maybe the result is revolution. I’m game for that, but that’s probably an optimistic prediction. Instead, maybe the result is a good chunk of a generation of people becoming completely disillusioned with the political and economic system they live under, resulting in a growing apathy that grants those in power even more freedom to tread on people for their own gain. I’m less enthused about that possibility, and I’m more inclined to believe it’s a reality, since it’s already happening.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this situation is that there’s still tons of great, honest music being made – it’s just not being met with anywhere near the degree of financial success that more vapid fare is seeing. Underground hip-hop is still full of people telling honest, heartfelt stories. Punk and hardcore are almost exclusively about struggle and discontent, and the sprawling web of subgenres that have spawned out of punk-rock over the last thirty years or so produces an absolutely stunning volume of emotionally impactful music with a firm grounding in societal realism.
At some point, one has to wonder why none of this music has reached the same success levels as the stuff at the top of the charts. Two obvious explanations come to mind, and both are equally unfortunate.
The first is that people are simply not interested in thinking critically about the media they consume. They’d rather listen to boring music about meaningless nonsense than have to think about the contents of what they’re listening to and attempt to understand it on more than a surface level. This attitude is completely understandable in many cases; when you’re working 60 hours a week to the pay the bills and stressing about your deteriorating relationship or whatever, it’s hard to give a fuck about what the person on the radio is singing about. This explanation is also supported by the fact that the same problem exists in other entertainment media. From Michael Bay films to the insipid wasteland that is reality television, the world is full of hugely commercially successful media that does not stand up to much critical scrutiny at all.
The other possible explanation is that the game is rigged. In other words, that the people with the power (and money) to determine what becomes successful are deliberately feeding people music that glorifies materialism and encourages the placement of wealth as a higher priority than all else. And why wouldn’t they? They have orders of magnitude more money than everyone else, and convincing them all via media that they too have a shot at a slice of that pie if they work hard enough is a great way for one-percenters to prevent themselves from facing any serious, organized threat to their incumbency.
In reality, the truth is probably a little bit of both, plus some other factors that I’m missing. Maybe people who make honest music are deliberately avoiding success, due to the antithetical hurdles they’d have to jump through to obtain it. Maybe the people getting huge are there because they were already inside a system of privilege that prevented them from seeing what’s wrong with pop music in the first place.
All I know is that it’d be nice to see some honest music make it big. It would be nice to be able to talk to others about music and have them know what I’m talking about, and I can’t imagine myself getting stoked about the latest Will I Am track any time soon.