If the word “twerk” resonates with you in any way, whether you view it, do it, or revile it, then I congratulate you on being a citizen of this generation. That word is charged with all sorts of connotations, often of sex, shock and racism. As a pop culture phenomenon, twerking is hard to ignore, thanks in part to the self-proclaimed morally righteous who caused an uproar, effecting waves of controversy. Exploitation of controversy has been a long-used tactic, dating back to the hypnotic pelvis of Elvis, and it’s an undeniably profitable scheme.
What society labels as “pop music” isn’t about the songs (remember: music is sound, not how hot a singer is). The lifeblood of pop music is relevance. I don’t mean true relevance, like anonymous bomb threats or UC tuition increases. I mean #RELEVANCE. Bold WordArt headlines on magazines. The avoid-at-all-costs cancer called YouTube comments. To the monster called Relevance, all talk is success.
To stay relevant, a pop musician has to record something new; something that is lyrically unexpected or sonically surprising; basically, anything at all just to get us talking will suffice. We all recall the shocking stylistic about-face by the Disney Channel teen idol who now waits for her turn to snort cocaine in a bathroom. Summer 2014 saw Taylor Swift spinning the turnstiles into Haterland with “Shake it Off,” involving a highly divisive aesthetic trade from a farmhand’s careful daughter to a confusing amalgam of California pop stereotypes (some country-loving fans felt betrayed). Soon after came Nicki Minaj’s wholesome, family-friendly self-love anthem “Anaconda.” The song will never do by itself. All it requires is a boost of raunch.
Music videos are an essential element of the pop music package. They’re the most effective sites of exploiting controversy. The use of twerking in “Shake it Off’s” music video may have felt appropriate and innocent or cheap and offensive. Nicki Minaj’s NSFW provocations may have disgusted or delighted you. In the moneymaking grand scheme of things, all that matters is that you clicked the link.
Controversy yields haters. Haters love to spread their hate. It’s easy to see the impact of controversy; Minaj’s “Anaconda” has almost three times as many views as her prior single “Pills N Potions,” and Swift’s “Shake It Off” has more views than both “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Whether you click the link out of anger or curiosity or adoration for the art, views equal money in the artist’s pocket thanks to the financially beneficial ménage à trois between artist, YouTube and VEVO. Through the controversy tempest, the artistic merit of these works is nullified.
These pieces exemplify modern times – the state of our social norms, the condition of the music industry, the outlook on music’s future – and deserve serious critical analyses. Swift’s self-aware, self-deprecating lyrics to “Shake it Off” intend to inspire independence from the often suffocating negative opinions of others, and the cringingly awkward spoken-word bridge evokes the eternal teenage struggle of achieving cool. Minaj’s “Anaconda” is a biting, silly look at the sexist objectification of women in hip-hop and an unrelenting, satirical barrage of improbable vulgarity; her charisma is undeniable, and the creativity behind her bonkers persona comes across like a wild yet well-rehearsed circus act. Treat art with care and respect: there’s always something worthwhile to hear and read into.
Alas, care and respect in regards to popular music is hardly a reality. It’s our impulsive feelings that the music industry seeks after. Our quick judgments take the spotlight and make the money, over appreciation for music. And that kind of sucks.
To the fella over there with the hella good hair, won’t you come on over baby? We can email STEVEN ILAGAN at firstname.lastname@example.org.