Journal Entry

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Only ten songs, and some notes on girls kissing

As a soundtrack while I'm coding, I've been renewing my acquaintance with contemporary pop music. The distribution of depth and superficiality, talent and schlock, doesn't seem to have changed any, at least to my not particularly sophisticated ear, in the last generation, but it's pop music's "plus ca change" quality, it's autophagic endless recycling of themes and tropes, that makes it an interesting social barometer.

Since there are really only ten songs ever (to wit:

  1. I want her/him
  2. We're so happy together
  3. Get the hell away from her/him before I break your face
  4. She/he broke my heart
  5. Get the hell out of my life
  6. Music/dancing will save us all, or at least is a worthwile way to spend the next five minutes
  7. Fuck society/my parents/the music business/religion/the state/consumerism
  8. I am the cat's pajamas and all the ladies/gentlemen/both seek my company
  9. I am a loser/drunk/drone/miserable wretch but at least I have a sense of pathos and/or humor about it
  10. watch me be arty
), they provide a framework, a kind of standard protocol, within which we can measure the drift and flow of social mores and customs, allowing us to see, in the distance between "but I'm always true to you, darling, in my fashion" and "my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard", what has changed, in a world where nothing changes.

One thing that's depressing, in a superficial browse of current music, is the degree of triumphalist misogyny: what the hell is up with "slap my bitch up" as a seemingly non-ironic lyric? Misandry lags; the female equivalent seems to be "I hate you so much right now", despite the fact that a lot of the male artists seem to cry out to be castrated with rusty shears. Meta...phorically.

But if anyone is writing a monograph called "The Queering of America" (and someone should be), surely a datapoint is to be found in the work of one Pittsburgh Slim, entitled "Girls Kiss Girls". It's not Mr. Slim is particularly clever or enlightened, or that the song is all that (though it's sort of catchy, which is pop's most critical virtue); rather, it's that we may plausibly assume that Mr. Slim represents the typical frame of mind of the typical college lad of the day. If the grandfather wore a fur motoring coat, waved a pennant heartily, ogled flappers and swallowed goldfishes, the grandson wishes in his turn to encourage girls to kiss each other, possibly at Spring Break in Florida.

It's not that the fetish is new by any means; it's the fresh-faced innocence of the song's conceit that makes it interesting. It's the song's protagonist's steady long-distance girlfriend who is successfully urged to girl-kissing, to its protagonist's great satisfaction.

Blur's 1994 "Girls & Boys", with its "girls who are boys who like boys to be girls who do boys like theyre girls who do girls like theyre boys", was self-congratulatorily risque and avant-garde, flaunting its progressive nonchalance about gender borders; fourteen years later, "Girls Kiss Girls" is unabashedly sexist and conservative on close to the same territory. As of 2008 (we conclude) the ideal girlfriend of the frat boy with the Heineken babe poster on his dorm room wall is an avowed bisexual.

That wasn't the case in 1988; I'd say it represents a shift of the same kind whereby that same frat boy's ideal girlfriend was sexually experienced, in 1988, in a way she wouldn't have been (or he wouldn't have been able to admit she was) in 1958.

I'm not sure any of this is cause for hope -- the sexual revolution and Stonewall here serve, after a generation's lag, simply to make our hypothetical lad feel threatened about fewer things in his self-indulgent mastery fantasies -- but it's interesting.

Now how long before we get a female artist to cover the song, swapping the genders? (I'd like to see Pink do it. Maybe Madonna, though it is hardly news that she likes when boys kiss boys. If Britney does it, the revolution will be at hand). It would also be interesting to see Tori Amos's (unregendered) feminist deconstruction a la "97 Bonnie & Clyde"...

Posted by benrosen at November 29, 2007 10:36 AM | Up to blog
Comments
I'm not sure any of this is cause for hope -- the sexual revolution and Stonewall here serve, after a generation's lag, simply to make our hypothetical lad feel threatened about fewer things in his self-indulgent mastery fantasies -- but it's interesting.

So, "cause for hope." What is it you're hoping for, and why?

peace
Matt

Posted by: Matt Hulan at November 29, 2007 03:32 PM

> Now how long before we get a female artist to cover the song, swapping the genders?

That has happened already, Ben, just look at this:
http://www.lyricscafe.com/g/garbage/androgyny.htm

Cheers from your co-worker in Zurich :)
-urs-

Posted by: Urs at December 1, 2007 03:51 PM

So, "cause for hope." What is it you're hoping for, and why?

An excellent question. Um, that everyone would be fully free, self-expressed, self-knowing, able to embrace all their kooky desires with humor, restraint and class, but free of irrational guilt, shame, and fear of oppression, that we would all treat each other well and enjoy the world of the senses, the body, and each other as a holy gift, and that politicized confederations of fetishes like "straight" and "gay", or for that matter "masculine" and "feminine", would become an obscure historical research topic for grad students -- not by virtue of us all having become identical, but rather by virtue of us all discovering we are radically different each from the next? Something like that?

In the near term, I'd like the Pittsburg Slim video to end with the kissing girls cutting the skype connection and Slim looking ambivalently pleased yet also suddenly worried.

Urs, I should listen to the music with the lyrics, but it seems more in the category of the Blur tune -- or maybe even a lament?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at December 4, 2007 10:09 PM

Righteous!

Also, good luck with that.

peace
Matt

Posted by: Matt Hulan at December 4, 2007 10:42 PM

Thanks, I'll need it.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at December 4, 2007 10:44 PM

I fail to see where the songs that I have written, for example, for you, Aviva and Noah,fit into your list of 10.

Also, with regard to: "in a way she wouldn't have been (or he wouldn't have been able to admit she was) in 1958." You don't know nuthin about girls in 1958.

Posted by: David at February 26, 2008 01:14 AM

Only ten pop songs. But you could also expand category #1 to include "love" rather than "want". "I love my kid" is a much more common type of folk or country song than pop song, though I can think of a few examples....

> You don't know nuthin about girls in 1958.

Just what I got from "Grease".

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 26, 2008 10:17 AM
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