In Defense of Stupid Pop Songs

Being home for me means driving. And driving means listening to the radio. And I listen to Top 40 stations. No shame.

Maybe I should be cool enough to listen to something more hipster, or intellectual-ish enough to turn on NPR (and I do listen to those things sometimes), but particularly when I’m driving, I find myself returning to my cheesy pop music. Even when it sucks.

Sure there are always some songs that are good, but that’s not really the point. The main content is formulaic rhythms, trite lyrics, forced rhymes, problematic messages, and melodies that sound just enough like something you’ve heard before that they will stick in your head immediately. Or if it doesn’t happen immediately, it will eventually, since you will be listening to the same five songs on repeat for the next month. It’s ridiculously annoying. And yet I keep listening.

Why?

First of all, there is a difference between thinking something is good and liking it, and one can occur without the other. Despite being someone who spends a lot of time figuring out how to make good art, being weary of anything that could be considered corny, cliche, or–God forbid–commercial, I doubt that all of art’s value is tied up in it being good. Is “I Love It” an objectively well-crafted song? Probably not. Did it help me get through angry-crying sessions during the last stretch of my senior year when I was in constant tension with my parents, felt generally alone, and wasn’t sure I had much left to care about. Hell yes.

There is also something to be said about what the format of pop radio does to your mind. A small number of catchy songs repeated intensively over a relatively short time period: it creates a sort of auditory index of memories, anchoring your sense of past time and it’s accompanying feelings to periodic sets of songs permanently imprinted into your brain. Songs that are completely and unapologetically not timeless, but instead committed to a very specific and fleeting present (because last year’s songs are so last year).

That’s why I can’t listen to “California Girls” without experiencing the combination of excitement and loneliness, openness and emptiness, of summer 2010, my first few months in the Bay. Or why “So Yesterday” will always remind me of fall 2003, sitting by my school’s butterfly garden with other girls from my third grade class, believing we were the epitome of faux-teenage coolness because we could (sort of) sing all the words. Or why “Larger Than Life” takes me back to my neighborhood pool in summer 1999, when I would passionately debate the lyrics with my sister during breaks (even though we both were actually wrong).

So I’ll keep listening to stupid pop radio, letting it create a temporal framework where I can dump my emotional baggage for later use. Almost like a time capsule.

And no, I’m not going to get too smart or cool for that.

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