“I don’t want no mediocre”, T.I. declares in his new hit single, as though contemporary music could accept anything less. The messages are clear and usually the same: recognize your worth, realize that others are beneath you, and reach for the top. These are the mantras of Aspiration Culture. Somewhere in the formation of this culture, youth was abandoned.
“Are you listening to that whiny bald guy again?” my father asked me one day in the mid-‘90s. At that point, the dire nature of musical content was its own point of concern. Everything was hopeless. We were all thinking about pulling 180s like it ain’t no thing, dreaming of fucking like animals, and accepting the reality of being left as rats in a cage. This mindset was toxic and unproductive, but it offered troubled kids a place to turn, a sense that popular music was on your side even when teachers, parents and peers were not.
I don’t want to get into romanticizing that decade, because there’s too much of that already right now. Fortunately, much has improved since, and if you care at all about the state of culture, looking ahead and being attentive to the new is a necessity.
Let’s make this clear: music should have many flavors, and the positive will always have its place. A great tune will resonate for whatever reason. It can be melodic playfulness (Lorde’s “Royals”) or the specific texture of a background harmonic (Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home”). Songs often carry personal importance because in times of hardship they appear to be, as the Smiths famously described them, “the only ones who ever stood by you”.
Songs also have the power to bring people together. (I’m firmly convinced that no teenager had sex between 1992 and 1997, so let’s give Backstreet and Britney props for changing that). Yet even the introverted side of pop has abandoned self-doubt and truly negative feelings. Singers aren’t just telling you how to get laid; they’re telling you what attitudes it takes to become a CEO. We’re now firmly planted in a jovial fascism, a tyranny of aspiration.
In his 2005 essay “Radiohead and the Philosophy of Pop”, journalist Mark Greif argued that music is essentially defiant, because it dwells on feelings of uncertainty, which is not productive to social function. In other words, the more inward we look, the more our boss gets annoyed that we’re not working hard enough. In the handful of years since Greif’s groundbreaking piece, there’s been a sea change.
Most of what’s on the airwaves is now a call to quit staring into darkness and join civilization. Even what’s being written about music buys into Aspiration Culture’s sensibility. Icona Pop shouted “I don’t care!” to instill immunity to criticism. Pharrell claps because he feels like a room without a roof—because he’s happy, not because he was leveled by a tornado. Iggy Azaelea rises to the top because she’s so “fancy”. Nicki Minaj’s music is meaningful because, as a message board comment instructed me, she tells girls they can be their own boss in her interviews. In the past few years, as writers and Internet dwellers latched onto the cache of taking pop seriously, they’ve stopped taking pop seriously.
Despite the acceleration of culture (i.e., the speed at which it’s now produced, consumed, and discarded), the sheer abundance of new music rarely leaves one wanting for inspiration. From most angles, it’s an exciting time to be alive and a fan of pop. But if you’re a teenager who isn’t having a lot of sex or buying Bentleys, as the vast majority of teenagers are not, something insidious has happened. Where does a kid turn for commiseration?
The value of music about despair is precisely that it makes dissatisfaction, with oneself, and with one’s world, seem less lonely. In the reach for the top, it now exists mostly in specific status quo outliers and in the solemnity of break-up songs. Yet break-up songs are of no use to kids for whom love has always seemed far away.
Doubt isn’t permitted. Weakness is shunned. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram help curate a climate where everyone’s life is required to be enviable at all times. Aspiration culture is deathly phobic of self-examination, and it’s inherently elitist.
When rapper Mims recorded the lyric, “I’m hot ‘cuz I’m fly / You ain’t cuz you not” in 2007, it seemed like an over-the-top comedic boast, an amplified parody of an attitude that had become prevalent across most popular genres. However, in these Iggy Azalea days, it’s the de facto standard.
Popular music has always been a product of capitalism, but it hasn’t always been so transparently a promotion of success. On Shawn Mendes’ hit single “Life of the Party”, he sings, “I’m telling you to take your shot / It might be scary”, forgetting that true musical idols are the ones who tell you not to do your homework. When Demi Lovato sings, “But even when the stars and moons collide / I never want you back into my life”, she’s another pop star positioning herself as too perfect for feeling, becoming robotic and careerist.
In pop music, pathos is now rarely considered beneath the plight of the upper-classes. The shift is most evident and commonly documented in hip-hop, where hits like “Dead Homiez” made way for hits like “Thrift Shop”. But it crosses all youth-appeal commercial genres, meaning everything but country, and maybe some country, too. Even the indie rock focus of the ‘00s channeled self-obsessed malaise into childhood nostalgia, collegiate ennui and the trials of love. It felt elusive for the same reason that HBO’s Girls was criticized years later: It reflected the destitution of a gated-community.
The limitation of Beyonce as a generational totem isn’t, as internet debates would have us believe, whether her expressed sexuality makes her “the wrong kind of feminist”. Rather, the argument is that it’s impossible to imagine her releasing a song called “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die”.
Youth deserve their own authentic experiences, and shouldn’t have to turn to the musical totems of prior generations. But no meaningful defiance has come out of a cultural refusal to show what it looks like at the bottom.
Without room for doubt, uncertainty, and even self-hatred, the tyranny of Aspiration Culture prevails. As all sensible kids know, there’s no proper response to “Let them hear you roar”, “Baby, you’re a firework”, and “I’m the greatest ever, nobody can touch my style, also I’m rich as hell and have sex twenty times a week” except, “Fuck off!”