Sugar Shock #012: Downgrade U
t’s a post-Paris world we’re living in, and the days of having your let-them-eat-cake and eating it, too may have passed: most pop artists no longer seem entirely comfortable reveling in the excesses that aspiring stardom promises them and existing stardom usually grants them. I call the trend “mini-bling,” a sort of loose, quasi-improvisatory corrective to unashamed flaunting of wealth and prestige. It’s one part everywoman populism (Kelly Clarkson’s career has been a crucial signpost), one part grumbling about the declining star-making power of music media monopolies (Kelly Clarkson still a signpost), and maybe one part guilt of privilege (P!nk’s most interesting song on her last album, “I Got Money Now,” sees her awkwardly rationalizing her own success after railing against money-for-nothing “Stupid Girls,” who wouldn’t know “hard work” if it bit ‘em in the gyrating, sudsy ass).
For the most part, though, mini-bling is fairly arbitrary, since no one in pop is flat-out denying their megalomaniacal drive to stardom, exactly—just cutting back a bit on the blatancy. Hilary Duff’s newest album has her badmouthing Lindsay Lohan for wearing expensive shoes, of all things, and in “Dreamer,” Hilary details the banalities of her everyday life: waking up, brushing her teeth, walking her dog. Funny, then, that so much of Hilary’s transformation in the studio with Kara DioGuardi is reminiscent of Paris Hilton’s debut, from the casually infectious “bum bum bums” of “Dreamer,” evoking Paris’s “dah dah dahs” in “Nothing in This World,” to the dancefloor-minded digs at Lindsay Lohan on “Dignity,” which mirror Paris’s similar effort to bitch-slap Nicole Ritchie in the DioGuardi co-penned “Jealousy.”
DioGuardi hasn’t put herself above partaking in some ad hoc moralizing by disowning one of the best songs she ever co-wrote, Ashlee Simpson’s “La La,” which is mini-bling in its own endearingly ambivalent way: “You can dress me up in diamonds / You can dress me up in dirt.” Kara is more concerned with a subsequent line, “I like it better when it hurts,” and her critique is more faux-feminist than faux-socialist, but the distancing impulse is similar. It’s also a little startling, since her newfound moral position (that the song encourages submissive behavior on the part of female listeners) misreads the song so egregiously that it’s as if she didn’t listen very carefully to the lyrics, let alone write them.
I’m all for personal conflict and perplexing, seemingly unjustifiable contradictions in pop songs—it’s part of what I love about Ashlee’s music generally, though I like “La La” for its refreshing brazenness, its oddball vision of sexual empowerment. The problem with P!nk and Hilary and Kara’s hypocrisies is that their distinctions between working hard for the money and irresponsibly acquiescing to a system of capitalist/patriarchal exploitation (or whatever) require a healthy dose of preachy, holier-than-thou sneering, which puts me off instinctively.
Britney Spears, on the other hand, seems to be realizing that she’s stuck with a generalized but extreme public disgust directed unfairly at her, and not only does she refuse to apologize to people who are just out for blood, but she also seems to have gone so bonkers that she’s starting to make a little sense—lash out at everything. Pious repentance won’t do her much good, since no one bought her piety the first time around (even in 2006 the New York Times was commenting on her phony, “teasingly virginal” persona circa “Baby One More Time”) or the second time around in 2005 (when she dressed up as the Madonna—as in Jesus’s mom—for her “Someday” single).
She of Modest Bling: Lil’ Mama
Anyway, it’s a mad mad mad mad world, but everyone’s sort of unclear about who it is they’re mad at. So we get new signifiers of respectably modest flash in pop: Lil’ Mama’s lip gloss and Katharine McPhee’s open-toed shoes (“not rich but I got a diamond anklet,” she says, and she probably got that for Christmas when she was 13 or something). And there’s Fergie, queen of WTF-pop, simultaneously telling you to take your broke-ass home and proclaiming her regular-gal love for Taco Bell. Not like “keepin’ it real” is a novel concept by any means, but it’s relatively novel in, er, novelties. You can’t brag about flying first class till you’ve driven a Mustang; can’t wear those Jimmy Choos till you’ve gotten comfy in Mary Janes; can’t even wear Nikes ‘cuz Vans are cleaner (and cheaper).
Then there’s my even more nebulous category of “meta-bling,” a form of rampant materialism that’s so over-the-top it reads as intentional (or near-intentional) caricature, effectively deflating any serious claims to wealth and power. Rick Ross edges into Bond supervillain territory by aligning himself with Dick Cheney for some of that sweet Halliburton run-off in “Career Criminal”; Rihanna plays a maneater with stock options (“bonds is what I got”) in “Lemme Get That”; and, as always, Fergie makes you second-guess your assumptions at just about every turn because she’s either brilliant or nuts (probably a little of both), from infantile sexuality paired with an absurd(ist) imitation of high-end consumerism in “My Humps” (now with cred!) to the aforementioned tax bracket schizophrenia in “Glamorous.”
While Disney cross-platforms its way into an ever-metastasizing conglomerate Death Star monolith and hermetically-sealed musical universe unto itself, its stars meekly eschew excess with the rest and best of them: Ashley Tisdale tries her hand at club bangers but really just wants to stay home in flip-flops and listen to hip-hop; Jordan Pruitt spends most of No Ordinary Girl letting you know how ordinary she is; Vanessa Hudgens…well, to be honest I haven’t listened to much Vanessa Hudgens. I seem to remember like five chandeliers in her video, so maybe that’s a start. Disney-owned Hollywood Records’ biggest, if somewhat left-field, chart success to date is an acoustic schlub-emo ballad by aptly named Plain White T’s. Meanwhile, Hollywood’s best artists going, Aly & AJ, feel for Katrina victims but rent helicopters for their Sweet 16 parties, and they just put out an album of surefire spite-pop megahits that make me feel so empty I could cry, except that feeling’s gone, too. The B-sides hit pretty hard, so I guess they break even on all counts.
If I sound a little upset about these developments, it’s partially because when pop actively questions its materialist escapist tendencies, it usually comes out merely wishy-washy (instead of, say, profoundly confused, which at least P!nk and Hilary manage in their own stabs at commentary). I hand-wring ineffectually about social injustice enough f’real without pop stars doing it for me. As intriguing as the current bling-transitional zone is—it does make for some great novelty tunes, after all, and I’m still waiting for Fefe Dobson, Hope Partlow, Lillix, et al. to team up for the quasi-star-studded “It’s the End of the Music Industry As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”—if the trend continues, pretty soon prude- and puritan-pop will get a mite tedious as a rule (rather than as exception to the rule) and I’ll have to hang up the towel and leave this space to a more controversial subgenre (smooth jazz? Ringtones? Breakfast cereal jingles?). Maybe I’ll return again to the bowels of the earth, or maybe Disney will decide to get their shit together and hire me as a consultant after all. We’ll see how Paris’s second album goes.
By: David Moore
Published on: 2007-08-01