Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Song that Got Away

The first time I saw/heard Katy Perry was the song "California Gurls". It's like bubble-gum pop from the 60s done in super-technicolor, widescreen CGI but about 100 times as sexy.

There seem to be a million music videos out there with a sexy female singer either posturing as the ideal sex object or showing her strong independence or alternating between them. Musically, there is not a lot to choose among them. Sure, there are different flavors, but they all are subsumed into the generic pop product. Another kind of music video is the sullen guy either flaunting his bling or showing his defiance. As always, some stand out because they rise above the standard and ordinary. Lady Gaga and Eminem are good examples. But the professional pop song these days seems to have settled down into a limited number of possibilities. The commercialization of popular music has followed a similar trend to, say, the commercialization of apple-growing. A few varieties have been chosen for their taste, appearance and ease of transport and marketability and hundreds of other varieties left by the wayside. Apart from the musical monocultures we seem to have fallen into, it is the narrowed emotional range that bothers me about pop. Don't get me wrong, I love pop music, but I'm also critical of it. Same with classical: some I love, some bores me to tears. But frankly, what I like and what I don't like is not terribly interesting, is it? What is more important is what are the reasons. So let's talk about Katy Perry.

The way the Beatles worked was to do an album once or twice a year but put out independent singles in between. The singles were normally not part of the albums so as time went on they were collected together and issued as a couple of additional albums. It was the Beatles that were responsible for the movement from singles to albums, especially albums conceived as a whole. In recent years, with the waves of recent changes  in technology, the album is fading fast as we seem to be returning to a marketplace where the single is important. I think it may have been Michael Jackson with his album Thriller that began this shift. In any case, Katy Perry's album Teenage Dream has been out since August 2010, but they have been pulling singles out of it and releasing them in sequence. "California Gurls" was the first single from Teenage Dream. Subsequent ones like the song "Teenage Dream" didn't catch my attention--I'm way out of the market demographic!--and don't seem terribly interesting musically anyway. But the latest single, the sixth, "The One That Got Away", caught my attention. I was talking about emotional range earlier and this song actually steps out of the narrow range of most pop music. Here is Katy Perry performing it live:

I have to say that I enjoy seeing pop artists who can step away from the studio gimmickry and choreography and jump cut videos and just stand up and sing the song, accompanying themselves on guitar. Now, is this a great song? I would say a bit better than average, but this is not a melody that has much character or individuality. Also, the chord progression is perhaps too bland for the emotional weight of the song. But what is happening in the music is just an accompaniment to the story told in the lyrics and the lyrics explore nostalgia, regret, remorse and without a twist into a happy ending. In the music video, the song ends with an excerpt from Johnny Cash's version of "You Are My Sunshine", cut off abruptly. Ann Althouse posted on this song here, asking the question "what lesson will young girls take from this video"? Here's the video:

Maybe it is all about the choice between love or money: go read the lengthy comment thread at Ann Althouse for lots of opinions on that. But what interests me is that here we have a musical artist that is stepping outside of the narrow range that pop music often seems to dig itself into and expressing something tragic in life. This is a bit like McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby", reflecting on the grittier parts of life.

Where Paul is talking about poverty and loneliness, Katy is talking about the terrible dichotomy between, ah, being fabulously wealthy or being in a great relationship with a hot, sexy artist. Ok, I won't get any more snarky! I want to say, great, good, let's have more of it. Because pop music, along with all other music, has the capacity to express many, many things. It doesn't have to be a small set of musical monocultures...


Anonymous said...

I don't think the story is about choice, but about the risks of anger. She petulantly spoils his painting and he storms off while she weeps. Trivial and remediable. But then he goes off the cliff and reconciliation is impossible. She remarries, but no one, not even a very rich man who gives her a posh life, can replace her first love to a playful artist. RG

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a good analysis! But she could have sought out another playful artist, instead she chooses life with a rich and presumably boring, man.