"People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands, of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss. The unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most; and I don't know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they've been listening to the sad songs longer than they've been living the unhappy lives."-- Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
The Boston Public Health Commission -- the taxpayer-funded agency that brought you the Boston-teens-think-Rihanna-deserved-it "study" last year -- is back with another highly-unscientific headline-grabber. This time, it's a "nutritional information" label for music, which the commission describes as "a new tool to help music lovers evaluate how healthy -- or unhealthy -- songs are."
The Commission's also then issued its version of a 2009 year-end list: a "Top 10 Songs With Unhealthy Relationship Ingredients," which just happens to be populated entirely by young men of color (Mario, Drake, Jamie Foxx, Flo-Rida) with an exception made for two songs by a white woman who coincidentally was scheduled to perform in Boston the night the report was released. (An accompanying list of 10 "healthy" songs is topped by 15-year-old white YouTube sensation Justin Bieber and is dominated by AOR crapola from Keith Urban, Rob Thomas, Jason Mraz, Colbie Caillat, and everyone's favorite honorary white people, the Black Eyed Peas.)
Funny, then, that the commission didn't go after any of the zillion-and-a-half country songs about cheating hearts. Or, say, "Good Girls Go Bad," the crossover smash by snotty white emokids Cobra Starship. Or 3Oh!3's "Don't Trust Me". Or . . . well, you get the drift.
So why'd we lead with the Hornby quote? Well, to show the BBHC what a smart argument agaisnt pop music looks like -- as opposed to the typically jingoistic nonsense that organizations like the BPHC peddle to take cheap shots at youth culture, in the guise of protecting kids who are smart enough to be far savvier about pop music than adults will ever give them credit for.
Hornby knew what we all know: all good music is often bad for you. A pretty good song can fuck you up for days, and a great song can make you break up with your girlfriend for no good reason. If we started judging music based on how shitty it makes you feel, or on the stupid shit it makes you do, I would have to throw out at least 72 percent of my record collection, starting with Ryan Adams's Heartbreaker. Boomers would be stripped of their entire canon -- so long Zep, Stones, Beatles -- and Gen X-ers would have to throw most of the '80s and '90s out the window. We'd be left with, well . . . Keith Urban.
For what it's worth, Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi" -- No. 3 on the BPHC list -- is a fairly clever pop song about the parasitic symbiosis of celebrity and tabloid culture. And it can also be read as a tragedy: a song about the way tabloid mass-culture dynamics trickle down into private moments. Which, you could say, is a way smarter and more damning critique of pop music than putting out cereal-box labels for CDs.
Somewhere in the top-10 pop-songs-of-2009 list I haven't gotten around to compiling yet is Jordin Sparks's "Battlefield," a song (written by a white man and sung by a black girl) whose basic theme is: love is war. In terms of deterministic outcomes, "Battlefield" is much more likely to fuck your head up long-term than New Boyz's "You're A Jerk" (BPHC's No. 4 bad-for-you song). The latter is an awesome novelty hit that no one purports to take seriously, least of all the people who wrote it, as a chipmunky pun on the jerk-dance craze. The former is a monster top-40 hit that subtly creeps into your bloodstream and stays there, reminding you over and over and over again that no matter how hard you try, love won't come easy, if it ever comes at all.