pop songs

This year was terrible, but I'm glad at least now we can all admit we like pop music. I don't know anyone who had a good year in 2018; I wouldn't trust anyone who said they did. I don't know anyone who isn't exhausted, and I wouldn't trust anyone who wasn't. It has been hard to dig gratitude out of this impossible, dull, filler-space of a year. Too often gratitude is just the ability to shut the door against the storm, and isn't that repeated act, for so long over and over, exactly why this year feels so dragging, so dull, so peculiarly un-blessed? For Thanksgiving I cooked some unnecessarily elaborate and indulgent things and filled my house with food and warmth and people I loved, and it was good, and it didn't make anybody less sad, which is also sort like the one good thing that happened this year, which is pop music. 

2018 is largely a tragedy but if you only listened to it as a soundtrack compiled of its most popular music, you would be forgiven for coming away with the notion that tragedy absolutely slaps. The shared kernel of genius at the bottom of all pop music, the uniting piece of genetic code in every banger you've ever turned up too loud alone in your car or in your headphones is that pop music is happy music about sad things. The majority of pop songs have the same theme: Heartbreak.

Heartbreak is a frivolous enough tragedy to be accessible to all of us, and light enough that turning its pain into a jam does not threaten to trivialize it. But it is still pain, crushing and hopeless at times, and the alchemy of pop music, the thing a three-minute bop about getting your life back offers, is the idea that it might be healing to trivialize our pain. It is nothing so self-serious as saying that pain has meaning, nor that it translates into art; in fact, pop music is a relief from the responsibility of such statements. It takes the sadness that seems impenetrable, the small, selfish, personal insults, the at-once vast and utterly unimportant sense of personal loneliness and says, what if this were a party? What if this were hilarious? What if this were what drove us outward into the world? What if the worst way you felt about yourself were a warm room in which everyone is dancing?

Carly Rae Jepsen's “Party For One” is a song so explicitly made to this thesis that I feel almost taunted by it. For all that pop music is supposedly the music of young, attractive people fucking, the music that generation after generation of aging parents warns will drive us all into early sex, masturbation is a surprisingly common theme. Specifically, much of the history of pop music is concerned with sad masturbation induced by rejection or loneliness. “Party For One” is so much part of this canon that it sums up the canon itself, pointing back at the history it has swallowed and regurgitated, a pop star on a stage in front of a screaming crowd, singing about how they have to jerk off alone because no one wants them. The most hopeful part of me believes that this trope is for the most part self-aware, meant to joyfully skewer the self-indulgent nature of loneliness. At its best, the juxtaposition of the content and form of a song like “Party For One” acts as a fed-up friend lovingly telling you how little your real life adds up to your protestations of your own loneliness. Hearing this song loud on the speakers at a party -- a whole bunch of people, together, rubbing up against each other, yelling along to lyrics about being alone -- undoes the words in the song, and lights a way out of small personal sadness by showing its absurdity. It offers the kind of grace we achieve when we take ourselves least seriously, when we recognize even our pain to be foolish.

The other thing that happened in 2018 is that all of us are Ariana Grande now. The tiny, relentlessly lovable singer has moved across the landscape of this year as an irresistibly bizarre sexpot Everyman, loving and losing, getting engaged, getting tattooed, deleting tweets, experiencing or being proximal to tragedy after tragedy and also producing an almost physically implausible volume of absolute bangers. The lightness with which Ariana poured her personal life straight into music and straight into the public record was, too, that same grace of making the tragic into the absurd. The fact of Ariana putting Pete Davidson's name into her album not just as a lyric but as a song title made him matter less, not more. The natural response to things like this is the same one people tend to have to couples' tattoos: "but how will you stand it if you break up? But won't it hurt too much to remember?" The answer was clearly no, the heart chewed up and digested for songs, for content, for brief infectious moments of joy. The instant virality of “thank u, next” is not just about the song as an heroic act of pettiness, but about the idea that one could metabolize pain into motion, that sadness opens immediately into a room where everyone is still sad, but also dressed up in going-out tops and dancing about it. 

These are just two examples from an overwhelming glut of great music in the same vein, a Thanksgiving table of bops about the heart's rock bottom. When Robyn's Honey (the album) came out, I took myself to the gym and set up to run through its duration, remembering the angrily hopeful jams that had populated Body Talk, an album that carried me through one of my very loneliest years. But the thing I forgot about Robyn is that Robyn lives in a better world, an enlightened space-alien dimension from which she sends occasional benevolent dispatches.

Both Carly Rae and Ariana (and many, many other artists who put out superlative pop music this year) are furiously horny on main, the form and content of their music and persona about sex in a way that demonstrates the inescapable foolishness of sexual desire. Their music reminds us that our bodies’ wants are at once more important and more frivolous than we admit them to be.

But Robyn lives in an alternate universe where the phrase "yeah sex is cool" isn't the opening of a joke. The song “Honey” is the kind of feeling you can sometimes access on a day when you get stoned  because you have nothing pressing left to do, in the late stages of early love, in the morning in a big house when you wake up before everyone else. It is the brief sense of living in a body free from the anxiety generated by the fact of living in a body. Robyn's music feels like the totally inaccurate thing some of us mean when we say "the 1970s." It is what you think being young was like when you are old enough to not really remember being young, or what you thought being older would be like when you were very, very young. It is not at all important beyond itself, and it is the best thing that happened this year.

Very little is more abhorrent to me than the idea that bad times produce good art, that living through fascism and atrocities has some sliver lining in which at least it yields urgent, deathless work from the artists who manage to survive (or, worse, from those who didn’t). That's a sick and ahistorical notion invented by people in tall buildings with clean hands writing checks. I have always been and will always continue to be a stan for escapism as a compassionate function of art. But sometimes all that means is that the good things are frivolous, not a fortress against the cold, but a momentary relief before going back out into it. There is value to temporary mercies, to the useless things, to the things that put our own heartbreaks into laughable perspective, and push us outward from ourselves, back into a larger and uglier world.  

hi friends. I’m so sorry this letter has been a little absent recently, but I promise this month will make up for it (there are already partly drafted upcoming editions on cooking! on parents! on end-of-the-year senioritis! on art monsters! and more!) I’ll also send the bonus letter I’ve been promising for a while, with a bunch of my weird, obsessively-accumulated advice about how do fancy travel on a decidedly un-fancy budget (if you have specific questions on this topic, feel free to email me them!) In the meantime, if you want to read more of my work, I wrote about Bergman and Rothko and Twombly and the color red here, and I interviewed Heather Havrilesky for Bookforum here (it’s paywalled for subscribers online, but pick up a copy or get a subscriber to link you if you want to read.)

As ever, if you know someone who wants to subscribe to griefbacon but can’t afford it, please have them email me, or email me for them, and we can set something up. If you’d like to purchase a gift subscription (it’s a great, and easy, holiday gift!) you can now do so very easily here. xo