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.