Sitting down with Noisey in 2016, Neil Tennant of legendary British pop duo the Pet Shop Boys was asked his opinion on the current pop landscape.
“There’s a problem in pop music…which is subject matter. And there’s only currently one subject matter – and that is the singer. Or possibly, their emotional life.”
After two years with little on the market besides a second collaboration with dance duo Disclosure, Lorde returned to the pop market this week with the Jack Antonoff collaboration “Green Light.” Previewing the single on Twitter, Lorde excitedly professed it was “the first chapter of the last two wild, florescent years” of her life. I’ve already gotten into several Facebook arguments for saying “Green Light” is not a good song. And it’s not – from its dull opening piano chords and clunky songwriting (you will never be able to convince me “we order different drinks at the same bars” and “sometimes I wake up in a different bedroom” are noteworthy songwriting) it feels like Jack Antonoff trying desperately to fit Kylie Minogue-sized hooks on a Daria-sized vocal personality. Compared to stripped, smokey fingersnaps and vocal harmonies of “Royals” – which seemed genuinely exciting in 2012, calmly mopping up awards in the wake of EDM’s chart terror – “Green Light” is a gangly misstep in the young adult diaristics Lorde loves so much. In the wake of all the “Born This Ways,” “Some Nights,” “Blank Spaces,” and “Run Away With Me’s” of the 2010s, “Green Light” is a stadium-sized song that’s much too exhausted from jumping up and down in the bleachers.
It feels like Jack Antonoff trying desperately to fit Kylie Minogue-sized hooks on a Daria-sized vocal personality.
In the early 2000s, the phrase “poptimism” began circulating among music press to describe (mostly female) singers and performers making music that was unapologetically pop. Combating the stuffy “rockism” of indie and rock music circles, poptimism professed that music could be huge, touching, amazing, and not terribly complex – at least not in a way that would require several knowing winks and a fistful of Genius annotations to decipher. It could make teen girls fist pump while packing the dance floors of urbane 20-somethings. Singers like Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato, and Sia have been making music that isn’t afraid to simply be a massive chorus dressed up in some meme-worthy verses, packed deep with enough hooks to make them touchstones of the zeitgeist. Even left-field artists like Grimes and the members of PC Music have crossed over from the heady spheres of blog electronica to make massive pop bangers that dominate the cultural moment while satisfying tastemakers (you’re not a drag performer in New York City unless you’ve done or seen at least one “Kill V. Maim” number). Media outlets abound with think pieces and journalism obsessing over the major positive impact of this music – though arguably, Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 record “E•MO•TION” is the only one to produce anything particularly interesting or thought-provoking. But when will the glossy surface of this music finally break? Though poptimism has been a necessary attitude in asserting the emotional lives of women songwriters as important, respectable pop craft, we cannot deny the stagnancy of ideas in an industry where one-person pop factories like Sia writes the same power ballad / dance floor two-for-one every few months and Lady Gaga thinks her uninspired drum-programming can be panhandled off as an artistic decision.
Though poptimism has been a necessary attitude in asserting the emotional lives of women songwriters as important, respectable pop craft, we cannot deny the stagnancy of ideas.
People will make the argument “it’s just pop music,” or devolve into pop-feminist academic circle-jerking over the deeper value of lines like “she thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar.” Last year trans singer ANOHNI released a handful of pop songs with gut-wrenching directness, singing about drone bombings, imperialist murder, and the destruction of the climate. Even the Pet Shop Boys’ own “West End Girls” shows off Neil Tennant’s love of Russian history (the line “…from Lake Geneva to the Finland station” references a historic train ride Vladimir Lenin took in April 1917). While it doesn’t always need to be Pulitzer-worthy, artists like these have proven that pop can be huge, effective, innovative, and smart all at the same time, without looking down upon or disrespecting its listeners and enriching their personal lives. While Lorde’s “Green Light” is certainly not the end of the world, it signals the downfall of poptimism, showcasing that a political climate in which the president of the United States routinely exploits the ignorance of his uneducated voters, can only produce a hook so interesting or challenging as “I do my makeup in somebody else’s car.”
This is not to say the personal can’t be political – Beyoncé imperial rain of “Lemonade” has shown us the power of the personal narrative on the pop landscape – but if there’s anything we can take away from Lorde and Antonoff’s songwriting prowess, it’s this: It’s time to ask more of our pop stars – and hope they do the same of us.