How Pop Upholds America's Last Taboo
There is the fact of money. And there is the fantasy. In America, we're so steeped in our wish for wealth at all costs that we've made it a virtue to live want-by-want. We've coined a shorthand for it, too. We call it "the American dream." Every pillar of our public life in one way or another upholds the dream. And cracks in the structure are daubed over. Quickly. Sometimes pop music is the plaster; sometimes it's the haste.
The first two singles from Justin Timberlake's album, The 20/20 Experience, show how this is done. "Suit & Tie" seduces us with unadulterated fantasy. We are at a club; we are dressed luxuriously; we are the envy of the crowd: according to the song's lyrics, this panorama is the picture of love.
To my ears, "Suit & Tie" is a rewrite of every Depression-Era song that sought to coax the listener out of the dreariness of starvation and squalidness and into pure fantasy. It is "Top Hat," "Pennies From Heaven," and "The Golddiggers' Song (We're In the Money)" -- it is "Happy Days Are Here Again." At the heart of these fantasies is money. Or, more accurately, the absence of the fact of money, within an orgy of wealth.
"Mirrors" is more sophisticated in how it patches the dream. It's a masterpiece of a specialized sub-genre -- a type more ubiquitous than it might seem at first seem. Like Ewan MacColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes," the narrator in "Mirrors" dreams of claiming beauty for his own exclusive purpose. These songs treat love as an ego-redeeming product to be chosen, yearned-for, and then possessed, indeed, like a specially tailored suit and tie:
'Cause I don't wanna lose you now
I'm looking right at the other half of me
The vacancy that sat in my heart
Is a space that now you hold
Show me how to fight for now
And I'll tell you, baby, it was easy
Coming back into you once I figured it out
You were right here all along
It's like you're my mirror
My mirror staring back at me
I couldn't get any bigger
With anyone else beside of me
And now it's clear as this promise
That we're making two reflections into one
'Cause it's like you're my mirror
My mirror staring back at me, staring back at me
There's the fact of money; there's the fantasy. And then there are the times when the facts could use a public airing. Such as when the middle class is in the process of being rendered part of a nation's mythology; such as when a political party that is quick to cry "elitist" at its opponents takes to classifying whole populations as either "makers" or "takers" and deems 47 percent of the nation politically irrelevant. But we in the United States have never been very good about talking about such things. Because to have an honest discussion about the fact of money, you quickly come to a word we don't like to use. More than the fact of money itself, this word disturbs the dream. The word, of course, is class.
There's no subgenre of American pop that has taught us how to talk about money in a way that reflects anybody's reality -- even the very rich. Adultery? Sure. Narcissism? Of course. A fetish for women with big bottoms? Check and triple-check. Yet, somehow, class remains the last taboo in American conversation -- and in our pop music, too.
It might also have been the first. Last week, on the occasion of Margaret Thatcher's death, much was made in the American press about the kinship of ideology and purpose shared by Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, in the 1980s. Then as now, they were described as "political soulmates."
Yet, during Thatcher and Reagan's time in power, the music culture in their respective state and republic responded very differently to their blind faith policies and laws aiding private industry, laws enacted often at the expense of the working and middle classes. In Britain, Thatcher inspired a pop music uprising. These songs played as a soundtrack to riots that broke out at an almost annual clip during her 12 years in office. In this era, U.K. artists as popular and diverse as the Specials, Sinéad O'Connor, and even Pink Floyd protested her policies, and could be heard making their opposition heard in the pop charts and on TV. Meanwhile, in the United States, the musical push-back against Reagan was left entirely to the underground, and the likes of the Minutemen, Dead Kennedys, and Suicidal Tendencies. Hardly a lineup we would call top of the pops.
Without question, the difference in the prevalence and vehemence with which British and American pop stars responded to the conservative revolution boils down to one of the great conflation of ideas in our own traditional political discourse -- namely, the lie that the class system here is absolutely fluid (if not nonexistent) and to attack it is to attack the very idea of personal liberty and agency.
Pop music is entirely complicit in this confusion. How does pop help uphold the taboo of class? Almost everything in American pop is geared toward heightening our desire. More sex, more bling, greater status: more desire. Pop's aspirational voodoo is like the extra little dash of salt on a potato chip that makes you want more because what you already had, while already too much, was only an imitation. And pop lyrics tend to talk of love as if it were a focal point where all other desires meet.
But outside the dream, this is plainly false. Love is always a means to something greater, and is never an end in itself. When at the club in "Suit & Tie," Timberlake sings of "love swinging in the air," he's not speaking of love so much as a feeling of being temporarily sated. This is the highest state of being we can hope to achieve in the dream.
Where the facts of money are met head-on, love finds other purposes and can assume a staggering variety of forms. Here, love is the origin of good fortune, not its reward. And one of the ends love can serve is political struggle.
Behind every protest song there is a love song. This is precisely what we hear in the lyrics of "Shipbuilding," a tune written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer in 1982. The verses exhibit an empathy rare in pop. In drafting the words, Costello was inspired by the shipwrights who, during Thatcher's war in the Falklands, profited financially from an armed conflict that also killed hundreds of their sons. The following year, those very words were sung on The Old Grey Whistle Test by Robert Wyatt, who had turned the song into a Top 40 hit in the UK.
The national TV audience who tuned into Wyatt's performance that night heard these words:
Is it worth it? A new winter coat and shoes for the wife And a bicycle on the boy's birthday It's just a rumor that was spread around town By the women and children Soon we'll be shipbuilding
Well, I ask you
The boy said, "Dad, they're going to take me to task
But I'll be back by Christmas"
It's just a rumor that was spread around town
Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding
With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls
Grace Paley is the first writer I read who showed that, in order to be worthwhile, art had an obligation to acknowledge the facts of money, in some way, even if only in passing; even if only as a slumped and barely perceptible nod, as it is in one of my favorite songs from the Depression era, Rodgers and Hart's "Little Girl Blue."
When I was very young
the world was younger than I,
as merry as a carousel.
The circus tent was strung
with every star in the sky,
above the ring I loved so well.
Now the young world has grown old,
gone are the tinsel and gold.
"It's possible to write about anything in the world, but the slightest story ought to contain the facts of money and blood in order to be interesting to adults," Paley wrote. "That is, everybody continues on this earth by courtesy of certain economic arrangements; people are rich or poor, make a living or don't have to, are useful to systems or superfluous. And blood -- the way people live as families or outside families in the creation of family, sisters, sons, fathers, the bloody ties.
"Trivial work," Paley concluded, "ignores these two facts and is never comic or tragic." The same can be said for trivial music cultures. Though nations and their public discourses never have the choice of being trivial, only willfully stupid and accidentally cruel.