5 Modern Pop Songs That Criticize Modern Pop

There's been a recent trend of pop songs that specifically criticize pop music and pop culture, where pop stars seem to be trying to distance themselves from pop... while still being pop.

Satire has a long history in music. From medieval troubadours to Randy Newman, music has been a great vehicle for political and social criticism. But lately, I've noticed a trend of pop songs that specifically criticize pop music and pop culture. Songs that are unabashedly pop while attacking unabashedly pop music. These songs have their cake and eat it too, and maybe that's another layer of intentional satire. Whether it's the subtle parody of hedonistic culture of Ke$ha or the direct criticism in Lorde's "Royals", pop stars seem to be trying to distance themselves from pop... while still being pop. Call it a symptom of the age of irony or a sign that pop has gotten so vapid that even its practitioners want it to change, it's an interesting phenomenon either way.

Lily Allen - "The Fear"

You might be able to successfully argue that "The Fear" was the first pop song to attack pop music in this way. There have been satirical pop songs, and there have been songs that critique pop culture, but what makes "The Fear" different is that it's unabashedly a pop song itself. So while Lily Allen is sarcastically singing about getting rich and famous with simple, thoughtless music, that's exactly what she's doing! Of course, the idea is that because she's poking fun (or worse) at pop music, her song is exempt from its own criticism. And it's that weird kind of paradox that makes these songs so interesting. Coincidentally, "The Fear" took the no. 1 spot on the UK charts from Lady Gaga's "Just Dance", which is perhaps the quintessential example of the vapid pop song Allen is critiquing with "The Fear".

Marina and the Diamonds - "Primadonna"

Like "The Fear", Marina and the Diamonds' "Primadonna" takes on the overindulgent and vapid lifestyle of pop. But here, the lyrics are almost too straightforward to be definitively taken as satire on their own. It's Marina's sneering delivery of lines like "Get what I want 'cause I ask for it / Not because I'm really that deserving of it" and "I know I've got a big ego / I really don't know why it's such a big deal though" that sells it. Instead of Lily Allen's bleak, lifeless vocals to connote sarcasm, Marina is all camp and theatricality, becoming a caricature of the culture she's attacking. And to make sure the music sounds just right, she even enlists hit-makers Dr. Luke and Cirkut to produce. But "Primadonna" is actually part of a larger whole. On Electra Heart, Marina explores ideas of fame, pop culture, and archetypal female characters. "Primadonna" is definitely the most direct and most scathing, though.

PSY - "Gangnam Style"

For those of us who don't speak Korean, it would be pretty easy to miss the satire in "Gangnam Style". But it's been pointed out numerous times during its inexplicable popularity that the song is actually explicitly making fun of high culture in South Korea, exemplified by the Seoul neighborhood Gangnam. With over-the-top music and an even more over-the-top video, PSY makes a mockery of the materialist and money-obsessed culture of his home country, taking on K-pop along the way. This makes it charmingly ironic that after years of K-pop artists trying to break into the West, the song that finally crosses over is actually making fun of Korean culture.

Lorde - "Royals"

breakthrough single from New Zealand singer Lorde takes a different approach to criticizing pop culture. Rather than going with satire, "Royal" calls out pop directly, condemning celebrity culture's obsession with material possessions and image. A lot of criticism was then leveled back at her by people who feel that she unfairly attacks hip-hop culture -- and thus black culture -- specifically, though a more objective reading will notice that in addition to "gold teeth" and "maybachs", she also calls out less loaded signifiers like "trashing the hotel room" and "ballgowns". Either way, her brashness on the subject is refreshing for (or maybe just indicative of) her young age. And with nine weeks at no. 1 on the U.S. Hot 100, there's certainly an irony to all her fame-bashing.

Lily Allen - "Hard Out Here"

Although "Royals" received its share of negative criticism, no song on this list has been as polarizing as "Hard Out Here". In contrast to her earlier song, "Hard Out Here" finds Allen holding back no punches, describing a litany of issues with the way females are portrayed and exploited in pop music. The controversy arose around the same issues as "Royals": claims that the music video itself exploits and sexualizes the black bodies of her back-up dancers. Fair or unfair, the negative reaction to the song and its video seems to be the kind of conversation Allen wanted to stir with the song.





Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.


The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.


Siren Songs' Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.


Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.


Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.


Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.


Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.


Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.


The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.