Take a look at these:
I’m not sure when it was, exactly, that we became a nation of Stuart Smalleys, sitting in front of a mirror and telling ourselves this. It’s a disturbing trend, however, that I’ve noticed in music the past several years. Certainly it’s not unique to this era — every period of popular music has its element of self-affirmation and healthy ego-boosting, necessary to assert one’s own personality and break through into generational identity. But the three songs posted above, each one sung by a beautiful female pop star, seem to me to go a step beyond that.*
*Or at least, taken together with a parallel trend I outline below, they go a step beyond that.
They bear remarkable similarities, especially in terms of the imagery of the music videos. The basic formula is: misfit / outsider undergoes abuse / ridicule, learns to accept his or her own uniqueness / sexuality and realizes that he/she is “perfect,” “beautiful,” etc. Both Christina Aguilera and Katy Perry deal with queer youth in their videos; Perry seems to throw in a young cancer victim as well. Pink keeps things simple and focused — we follow the arc of a young woman all the way from early childhood through teen years of being the odd kid out, abuse, flirtations with suicide, finally to a blossoming as an artist (and, apparently, wife and mother). The woman is played by Tina Majorino, who was in Napolean Dynamite and also had a supporting role as the straight-edge Mormon pal of Amanda Seyfried‘s character in Big Love. It is probably the most effective, since it doesn’t try to overreach — and it also doesn’t feature the silly motif of fireworks shooting out of boobs, like Perry’s video.
Nothing wrong here, in a certain sense… and I would add Lady Gaga‘s “Born This Way” to the list; though it’s more overtly programmatic, Gaga’s entire career to this point reads like a giant affirmation of outsiderness / queerness, with her concerts, full of positive feedback and motherly assurance, as the Smalleyesque group hug craved by her fans. Up to a point, I don’t have a problem with any of this. But taken together with our dysfunctional political gridlock, culminating most recently in the debt limit stalemate; the riots in England, which at least express understandable outrage at “austerity” measures that are a slap in the face to the already exploited lower classes (though the fighting amongst rioters and looting of neighborhood businesses is a misguided channeling of that rage); and the buffet of environmental issues and general decline of the West — taken with all this, it does seem a little to this Midwestern boy as though we are collectively huddling in the corner and telling ourselves everything’s going to be fine.
How to put this somewhat diplomatically? We are facing the worst political and economical crisis this country has seen in several generations — an utter breakdown of communication across the political spectrum and an abject failure of leadership in the face of difficult choices — and the attitude expressed in pop music is not only symptomatic of the problems, but represents the core reason we fail so utterly at solving them. Put the above together with the following messages, from male pop stars:
–what you get is a disconcerting brew of affirmation mingled with apathy.
I’m especially annoyed with the perfectly execrable Bruno Mars, whose lazy and derivative melodies seem cadged from bubble-gum b-sides, yet who is universally hailed as the Next Big Thing in pop. The video for the aptly titled “The Lazy Song” appears to have cost about $50 to make, including the plaid shirts and monkey masks. “Just the Way You Are” is simply self-affirmation from another point of view — that of the male’s, looking at the objectified female — and obviously there is no pretense here of a larger, more inclusive scope; the video says it all, as a beautiful dark-haired model blushes and preens under Mars’ gaze and unabashed encomium. Gag me.
I actually enjoy the last song, above — it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a mindless party tune — but its refrain of “Lalala — whatever” etc. falls in line with the overall attitude I’m getting at here. “Everything’s fine — don’t change a thing — you’re perfect — you’re a firework — whatever.” We’ve had a full decade following 9/11 of wars, terror, political blundering, and economic decline, and the main tenor of the response in pop music has been just this kind of ignoring-the-problem, let’s-keep-things-positive crap.
It is what makes stuff like ongoing grade inflation not only possible, but inevitable; it is what leads to burgeoning obesity rates; it is, most damagingly, what encourages the cognitive dissonance in which people perceive themselves to be much more well off than they actually are, to belong to a higher class that is actually working against their interests — which I’ve written about before.
* * *
I’ve often wondered what happens to those losers on American Idol after they leave, crestfallen and angry, having been told that they’re not actually the wonderful, talented singers they thought they were. We enjoy watching those terrible auditions; we marvel at the lack of self-awareness, the over-inflated ego that led some tone-deaf soul to believe that she could carry a tune — missing, perhaps, the underlying truth that we are all encouraged to believe ourselves capable of anything at any given moment — but I wonder what happens to them. I would bet most of them just give up in shame. Some probably persist in baseless, clueless self-belief. I wonder how many of those losers go home, look at themselves long and hard in the mirror, and actually work to get better; take classes, embrace the pain and humiliation, put in the several years of hard work it would take to actually get to a point of beginning to know if one ever could be good enough.
* * *
Whenever I teach creative writing, I include some of Keats‘s letters. The letter on “Negative Capability,” of course, and the one on “Poetical Character” — but also the one he wrote to Hessey in October 1818, in response to the latter’s having sent him a copy of a note defending Keats against harsh criticism of his first volume of poems, particularly the “slip-shod” Endymion, as Keats himself calls it in this letter. It is, like so many of Keats’s letters, a beauty of clear-headed brevity, finely turned phrases in which a complex thought process is crystallized.
In this case, the subject is self-criticism and aesthetic judgment. Keats had been viciously attacked by a passel of mostly anonymous Simon Cowells, many of them motivated by resentment towards Keats and his circle (particularly Leigh Hunt) that had little to do with the poems themselves, and some literally advising him to “keep his day job”: “It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John…”
Here is the relevant part of Keats’s letter:
I begin to get acquainted with my own strength and weakness.–Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic on his own Works. My own domestic criticism has given me pain without comparison beyond what Blackwood or the Quarterly could possibly inflict. and also when I feel I am right, no external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary reperception & ratification of what is fine. J.S. [John Scott, who'd defended Keats] is perfectly right in regard to the slip-shod Endymion. That it is so is no fault of mine. –No!– though it may sound a little paradoxical. It is as good as I had power to make it–by myself–Had I been nervous about its being a perfect piece, & with that view asked advice, & trembled over every page, it would not have been written; for it is not in my nature to fumble–I will write independently. I have written independently without Judgment.–I may write independently & with judgment hereafter.–The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law & precept, but by sensation & watchfulness in itself…
Keats does several things here that I find pretty remarkable. First, though, what he does not do: he does not stick his fingers in his ears, skulk off stage, and vow to the camera that he’s actually a great poet and those bastards don’t know what they’re talking about, and blah blah blah. He does not take it personally, though some of the criticism has been quite unfair and personal. He does not curl up on the floor and quit. Having precociously published a poem that is, truthfully, pretty weak in places, he takes responsibility.
But he also does something else.* Without denying that the poem is not terribly good, he defends himself and his writing process by recognizing that if he had allowed his own or others’ critical standards to guide the composition, he never would have completed this very important phase of his creative growth. He fiercely asserts his “independence” as a writer and critic, assuring Hessey that he has painstakingly developed (through years of careful reading and practice, though he doesn’t say this) his own internal barometer for his work. It was necessary to shut that down while he wrote Endymion, but henceforth he will apply it more fully as he writes. Here Keats perfectly captures the entire creative and critical process that an artist must undergo. The wildly creative part — which is, arguably, akin to the ego-boost of self-affirmation described above — that enjoys inspiration, joined with the self-critical part, which guides revision and does the hard work of making final aesthetic judgments. As time goes on, Keats implies, the two can work more easily together, which is why mature artists tend to waste less time going down fruitless paths.
*He also, of course, improved greatly as a poet, which is the reason we’re still reading his letters and poems.
Nor did Keats stop being self-critical, even as he wrote his greatest poems. In 1819 he wrote to his editor Woodhouse that while his Isabella — a tighter and tauter poem all around than Endymion — was “weaksided,” “[t]here is no objection of this kind to Lamia” (one of his last long poems). One could argue that it was Keats’s endless drive to absorb, adapt, and improve that constituted his true genius, rather than the easy narrative of transcendent talent achieved early. But I digress.
Look, I don’t begrudge the misfits of the world — especially those who already endure an incessant message of negativity and degradation that echoes from the puritanical mainstream discourse in this country — their dose of encouragement, especially those who dare to question and explore received ideas about sexuality. There is nothing wrong with that, and having attended Lady Gaga’s concert here in Buffalo last Spring, it was wonderful to see so many kids happy and proud to be weird.
But there comes a point where something akin to Keats’s self-judgment kicks in. Where facts that don’t fit one’s worldview aren’t simply discarded, or bent to make room for one’s outsized ego. Clearly, given our political situation, this problem is not confined to today’s youth. But it does seem to go largely unchecked, and it seems to be getting worse. If Keats had thumbed his nose at his critics, insisted that they just didn’t get it, and continued churning out the decent but ultimately mediocre verse that went into Endymion, we simply wouldn’t have some of the greatest poems in the English language.