Dancing Till the World Ends: Why Does Contemporary Pop Love War?

“Our death is indeed, unimaginable”

— Freud

“This place about to blow”

— Ke$ha

As the ought’s have steamrolled into the two thousand and teens, we have been flying high and getting slizzered on the airwaves of mutilation (“Grenade”), sexual deviation (“S&M”), and global annihilation (“Dynamite”).

The Europop renaissance in Top 40 music has created some of the most brilliant pop songs. It has also ushered in a peculiar fascination with the sounds, smells and visions of war. These heart-thumping, cyborg sing-a-longs sound similar. Each crafted with the delicacy and danger of Ina Garten brewing a vat of 4LoKo. The lyrics are locked and loaded: cunningly contrived, over-the-top, comedic and grotesque all at once. They bask in glitter and indifference, which would be acceptable if they weren’t also trying to blow up the world.

In her 2010 roundup, critic Ann Powers noted the preponderance of violence in recent Billboard charts. About 100 years earlier, in a slightly different milieu, critic Ezra Pound noted the same thing. He called the cliché: “theatre of war”, and then added: “Theatre is good.”

One reason “theater” and modern war relate is because armies, like pop stars, perform under contract while “they’re over, over there.” Another is the wearing of uniforms that soldiers neither choose nor fashion in “real” life. Costumes specify a role and there are many to play the military, with a list of titles like Private, Captain, Sergeant, Lieutenant and so on. These factors distinguish between “military life” and “real life”. The division creates a kind of melodrama that makes military affairs such attractive subject matter for artistic portrayal.

Role-playing, alternate identities and divergent realities, are tied into sadism and masochism (S&M), which has its own long history of representing war imagery, especially amongst war survivors and victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. There is a strange S&M routine being played out on the Billboard charts between Bruno Mars, providing the masochism, and Ke$ha, the sadism. Who knew that violence and cruelty also go together like a horse and carriage?

On “Grenade”, Bruno Mars opines about a bad mama jama (er, “cannibal”), enumerating the ways he would commit suicide in her honor: jumping in front of a train, throwing his head on a blade, and, yes, catching a grenade. Keep bleeding love, Bruno. Despite the updated weaponry, the song revels in its old school-ness. When was the last time a woman was addressed as “darling” in a pop song? Mars’s “easy come, easy go” vocals, the doughy declarations, are temptingly close to loverboys of yesteryear, the Stylistics. Unfortunately, all the explosions woke up Ke$ha… who was feeling more like Polyphemus than P. Diddy that morning. “I… am… cann-i-bal,” she bellows, like a tramp-stamped Cyclops, picking off Mars’s backup singers one by one and dipping them in leftover Queso. Bottom’s up!

It’s really no surprise that all of this culminates with Rihanna and her awesomely bawdy track “S&M”. The redheaded vixen is our mistress of Hotel Hell: Check in time, now, check out time, never! “Sticks and stones may break my bones / But chains and whips excite me,” she chants, calling upon a long, creepy fascination war poetry has with perverting nursery rhymes. Rihanna’s croons (“Feels so good being bad”) dissolve into deadpan fragments (“S, S, S, N, M, M, M”). Her signature “na na na’s” are repeated over and over, delivered with the mercy of a machine gun. It recalls the call-and-response “ye, ye, ye’s” from the battlefields of “Hard”, on her last album Rated R.

The video for “Hard” features Rihanna driving a jeep, grinding in a base camp and barking orders at Jeezy, while donning her full metal jacket and some cleverly placed strips of black duct tape. Barely two years later, the same black duct tape traps the pop veteran in a Cellophane cage. The songs are eerily connected; like a two-part war chronicle Tom Hanks wished he had directed. Both incorporate low, tolling synths. In “Hard”, the sounds and visions of military might is empowering. In “S&M”, they are overpowering. “S&M” is a portrait of shell shock. Rihanna’s control is gone. She lunges at the fish-eye camera lens like R.P. McMurphy starring in Barbershop 10. She invites us — through repetitions, easy breezy lyrics and hip-test-approved hooks — to relive some kind of trauma with her. She becomes our muse, our memory, of war.

Rihanna – “S&M”

Sadism and masochism are traditions in post-war media. They illustrate the paradoxical shame of perversion and self-inflicted pain. In a particularly pungent episode from Thomas Pynchon’s war epic, Gravity’s Rainbow, a World War I veteran named General Pudding engages in ritualized torture (S&M) with a Dutch girl named Katje, who transforms into his “Mistress of the Night”. She forces him to drink her urine and eat her shit. The worst part? He enjoys it. But not as much as Pynchon probably enjoyed hearing — beneath his paper bag — “There’s sex in the air / I don’t care / I love the smell of it.” Unless, Pynchon is Rihanna, which would explain a lot. Like this:

“The stink of shit floods his nose, gathering him, surrounding. It is the smell of Passchendaele, of the Salient. Mixed with mud, and the putrefaction of corpses, it was the sovereign smell of their first meeting.” General Pudding’s memory becomes clear only when reliving the torture, the shit, he endured in the war. It is a bizarre scene, both sickening and touching. The prose of the episode is strangely poetic, like a song, emphasizing the way pain frees Pudding by placing him in a familiar world, even if it is one of “nausea, vertigo and pain.”

The honesty associated with obscenity is often the same contradiction we face when listening to pop music.

Rihanna, like Katje, has two coexisting identities. Katje is both a Dutch girl and the Mistress of the Night, so too, Rihanna is both actual human and lacquered superstar. The song “S&M”, combines this duality both literally and figuratively. On one hand, the song is dismissible. When have we needed an excuse for cheeky lyrics or a dominatrix routine? Any pop star after Madonna’s Sex book is hard-pressed to find a (legal) way of surpassing her contribution to sexpottedness.

On the other hand, the ambiguity of “S&M’s” message, the images, the lyrics, reflects the ambiguity of other troubling roles. Rihanna may be confronting a personal shell shock the best way she knows how: through the unrelenting media, the camera lens and public scrutiny. Mixing autobiography with pop is a cautionary act, but the memory of violence in a song like “S&M” is a real one. We don’t need to look further than the Good Morning America footage of shattered glass and a shattered temper to see the effects violent situations have on individuals, regardless of time or place. Rihanna captures the aftermath of violence on “S&M”, but more importantly, captures a latent need to do something about it. Rihanna never gets quite enough credit for how ambiguous she is, mostly because her songs are so great it seems like a sin to muck them up with deeper consideration. “S&M” conjures the memory of war, of violence, in a hyper-public arena, and yet Rihanna somehow maintains her obscure character in pop. Like anything else she does, it is impossible to know what war she is fighting. All we can hope is that next time, baby, she’ll be bulletproof.

“S&M”, “Grenade”, and Ke$ha’s “Cannibal” are only a few examples of the wildly successful pop songs today that are imbued with the melodrama of war. Imagining the unimaginable is what makes these songs great. The stories they tell, the situations they present are too absurd, perverse, ruthless and strange to qualify as “real life”. Seeing pop as a kind of warfare, or warfare in pop, provides a psychic escape for the listener. It engages our “real” selves without damaging our belief in the rational world. A quick fix.

The rhetoric of war also works well for record labels: living for today because tomorrow may never come is a valiant sentiment, but let’s be honest. Pop has never let us go hungry long. These songs are manufactured, like war weapons, in big factories, so that we few — we happy few! — keep dancing, singing, and buying, till the world ends. The ritualized torture and joy of pop music is a strange one indeed. The little General Pudding in all of us will return to the club or to the computer, to feed on the same shit over and over, but we like the smell of it.

Bruno Mars – “Grenade”

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Paul Fussell. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press. 1975.

Sarah Grant is a writer from New York. She currently lives in Baltimore, where she will receive her B.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.