Friday, August 20, 2010

The End Of History and Pop Music

A while back, after the fall of Communist Russia, Francis Fukuyama introduced a historical theory that was utterly wrong for what he meant it to apply to, but sneakily correct when it came to an unrelated province: pop music. The theory was that of the “end of history”: basically that “history” was a story, and that mankind ever since history began was constantly evolving towards liberal democracy, and with the victory of the West over the Commies, liberal democracy had won: there was no other governmental system that had such robustness in theory and in practice. Obviously this theory as applied to history was proven incorrect by, well, history, but the framework of the history of the theory has to apply to pop music.

Pop music is crawling ever closer to its end of history. The glory of pop music is in taking certain popular theories, setting them to appropriate music, and hence embodying it in a three to five minute catchy song that conveys that sentiment in such a concentrated, powerful way that, with the transcendent songs, it’s unavoidable: the song is that emotion. These transcendent songs, as with any artistic endeavor, are basically rare and are all the better for that, and given that there are only so many popular subjects—among them sex, breaking up, parties, teenage angst, vengeance, etc.—the number of subjects that these transcendent songs covered were relatively limited as well. Which means that transcendent songs would eventually begin to duplicate each other and eventually would end up evolving into a state from which there’s no progress beyond: there’s literally nothing more you can do with the subject. (Note: “Sexy Chick” is not a great song; however, it fills the requirements of the genre so perfectly that it transcends them…and proves all further attempts to be wanting: admit it, you can’t do better than “Damn! You’re a sexy chick!” for expressing that particular sentiment.)

Count on vaguely hip-hop songs to exhaust sex first. We came dangerously close to the end of history of lust-related pop music with Jeremih’s “Birthday Sex,” which ultimately was too gimmicky to bar further evolution. But that was only temporary—Akon released “Sexy Chick.” “Damn, you’s a sexy chick,” the song proclaimed, and how can you critique or advance upon that? You can’t. It’s unimpeachable: it lies there, inert. It became popular—judging from the radio play, at least—and hence fulfilled its appointed role: the beginning of the end of history (for pop music).

This might have been a mere blip until, oh, today (or yesterday), when Cee-lo released a song that was simultaneously: awesome and part of the end of history of break-up songs (vengeance division) (also, I love the music video, minimalist as it is):

Fuck you! Succinct, elegant, perfect. Nothing more than you can do with that. The lyrics embody the emotion perfectly, expressing the perfect sentiment (in these situations) that while you were awesome while we were dating, your breaking up with me reveals what a jerk you are and hence you’re not so cool after all. Fuck you! Not much more you can do with that, now can you? The only barrier we have left from exhausting history in the break-up song (vengeance division) is actual popularity; given that Cee-lo’s only mega hit during his pretty excellent career so far is “Crazy”, we might be very safe from that particular happening. But perhaps not! Who knows? (At any rate, Cee-lo is on fire: see “You Don’t Shock Me Anymore” or “Georgia.” He and Kanye West are destroying music right now.)

Why is the end of pop music history happening now? To venture a guess: technology. Technology, essentially, is too awesome to let music lie fallow. It’s difficult, for instance, to allow a period of music to be forgotten for a while (because forgetting makes remembering really cool, and that gives a certain charge to hearing old sounds made new). Let’s take “Fuck You”—it’s got a little Motown there, but there’s a little disco there too. It sounds new by being very new. That technology has caused (and has been brought along with) unprecedented freedom. What would “Fuck You” be called forty to fifty years ago? “I Don’t Like You Very Much”? “You’re Not Very Nice (You Meanie!)”? These are not exactly inspiring. So you get the best old sounds and bring with it unprecedented freedom to say just about whatever you want. These sound like the perfect conditions to produce great music—and it’s happening. Weird, huh? Enjoy it while you can: every break-up song (vengeance division) will end up reminding you, at least a little bit, of “Fuck You” because history ended the moment it was released. (NOTE: exaggeration, perhaps.)

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