Introducing RetroPop: Connecting Today’s Lady-centric Top 40 tunes with Great Female Jams from the Past
The world’s biggest flirt has triumphed over a social revolutionary on the pop charts: A few days ago, Carly Rae Jepsen and her flouncy seven-week chart topper “Call Me Maybe” finally unseated Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” as the longest-running number one single for a female singer with the Interscope label.
The Gaga-meister, never one to be defeated, tweeted a (supposedly/hopefully) playful retort to CRJ: "@carlyraejepson [sic] I SEE you just swooped in and broke my BORN THIS WAY record of the most weeks at #1. DONT GET COMFORTABLE IM COMING FOR YOU."
But competition scaries aside (um, hi, I would NOT want to be on Gaga’s bad side. Carly Rae, there’s a spare bedroom here if you need somewhere to lay low for a while…), Jepsen’s scoring this record raises a lot of questions about the zeitgeist-y implications of her thriving tune.
Jepsen is almost universally acknowledged to have perfected this era’s breezy, irresistable, superficial, fun—if flimsy—song of summer with “Call Me Maybe.” And this is what dethroned Gaga’s lyrically complex and philosophically empowering cultural anthem celebrating individuality in all its forms. Not that either of the tunes is more worthy than the other based on its philosophy... I mean, they both make me want to smile and wiggle and kick my feet around (this is my version of what most people refer to as “dancing”). But the two singles are about profoundly different things. Flirty summer fun won out over social comment, according to the dollars we are paying for the music they are making, and that means something.
And yet, since this ideological overthrow was executed in the arena of pop music, the philosophical shift our iTunes purchases are fueling is not being discussed in the same way it might be if we were talking instead about domestic themes culled from the latest Jennifer Egan book or other pieces of more “worthy” art. And I know about that stuff.
See, I used to be a music producer at a radio show that played somewhat more thoughtful stuff than just slammin’ Top 40 beatz. Music that referenced Greek myths. Music written by people with MFAs. Listening to chart-topping jams in my spare time was my shameful secret. I was permitted to broadcast pop music of eras gone by because it had accumulated a patina of authenticity, history, establishment. But modern pop music? Not worthy of a thoughtful woman’s appreciation. And so, on the outside I was a thoughtful music fan, and on the inside I would get jiggy when I heard a few strains of Rihanna.
But then I moved abroad for a few years and heard the exact same Top 40 music blasting from buses in Barbados and bush bars in Nigeria and I realized this pop has a real power. It’s shaping our understanding of love and money and women all over the world. And this is an especially interesting gendery musical moment, where Beyoncé is telling us that girls run this mutha, where 50-something sexual revolutionary Madonna is trouncing around in a sexy high school band uniform giving nip-slips, and where little girls wearing tutus are becoming YouTube sensations for belting along to sexually explicit Nicki Minaj tracks.
These little musical mutinies over what’s expected of women are no different than Jane Austen suggesting in her novels (which were themselves considered low culture in her age) that female characters had non-conformist thoughts and feelings. But Jane, to us, is totally legit, while BeyBey is musical bubble gum. Again, as with the '60s pop tunes I was encouraged to broadcast, the “past”-ness of the thing gives it a gravity that our current pop music doesn’t have—yet—even though the messages aren’t always that different from what we now consider to be major blasts from the female canon.
So what if we worthified the Top 40 by considering its pop songs alongside thoughts and arguments from great women writers of the past? What if we made explicit connections between the music of Kelly Clarkson and the oeuvre of Charlotte Brontë? What if we could talk about the contrasts between Adele and Emily Dickinson?
It’s amazing how something gains credibility once you view it through a historical lens. And so, I cordially welcome you to my guest blog for the next eight weeks, RetroPop, a series that will propose parallels between Elizabeth Gaskell, Ella Fitzgerald, and Ellie Goulding; a series that will lift up the tunes bumpin’ on your radio to the same level as time-honored female artists and ask, “Hey, what are these funky ladies saying in common?”
The posts won't be definitive, exhaustive examinations of the gender politics of the pop tune. In fact, some times they might be quite modest nuggets of music and thought. But I like to consider them an opening parry in a dialogue about current pop music as part of a larger historical and artistic conversation about women. I hope you'll join in this fun but thoughtful excuse to jack up the speakers during your coffee break… and to muse a bit while you slurp those last latte dregs.
So put on your dancing shoes and join me in the thinking-lady’s dance party. Somebody flip on the disco ball already!
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