The World’s Biggest Popstars are Walking Contradictions
Pop music is inherently authentic yet very, very fake. Here’s a theory on why we keep buying into it
Earlier this year, our Lorde saviour performed her surprise hit, “Royals” - which criticises the excesses and materialism of current pop - at the Grammy Awards gala. As winged statues flickered on-screen, the 17 year-old crooned and convulsed, sharing her personal shit-list of financial excess with a celebrity audience, who glistened in their Tom Ford suits and Gucci gowns. “Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on the timepiece,” she sang. “Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.”
It might strike you as surreal for someone to criticise the capitalist aesthetic of pop culture at the world’s fanciest music ceremony, but the Grammys were a strangely perfect fit for Lorde. Dropping truth bombs about the luxuries of pop culture in a pub basement or art gallery would probably just piss people off. However, what's surprising, is that Lorde's performance of the song made her an icon for the materialists that she set out to criticise. Kanye loves her; "Royals" soundtracked an advert for a $700 Samsung phone; she's collaborated with MAC cosmetics. It's this exact contradiction - I'm this and I'm also this - which is part of a wider social trend that's fucking around with the definition of authenticity and counter-culture.
Lorde performing "Royals" at the Grammys
This stems from what, if you want to get academic about it, is called hyperreality - a phenomenon first observed in the eighties by French sociologist Jean Baudrillard. Shows like The Only Way is Essex are the pinnacle of hyperreality, where even though it clearly states that it's been scripted for your pleasure, the programme relies on the viewer buying into the idea of the characters being completely genuine. It's an idea is explored in Nicki Minaj's recent Dazed cover shoot too, in which the singer dresses as a manicured, brightly polished 'housewife' mindlessly performing mundane tasks like preparing sandwiches with shit ham and cheap mayonnaise, while surrounded by symbols of wealth in her multi-million pound mansion.
The thing is, no matter how hard anti-capitalist messages like Lorde's hit home, the reception hints that we don't want to reject consumer culture at all. We want to buy into the idea of rejecting it.
We believe there is something, a real human, beyond those surreal photo shoots, sexualised music videos and orderly Facebook pages. But unlike the sixties era of outspoken radicalism, the stars themselves stay tight-lipped. Just like in the manufacturing industry, part of being a celebrity in 2014 is selling your fans a lifestyle. And with major interviews homogenised, there’s little scope for journalists to cross-analyse what’s being sold. And without this access - without articles that call bullshit and peer between the camera flashes - PR and marketing are freer than ever to twist and distort, transforming their stars into aspirational cartoons. We suck it up and go along with it.
Naturally, pop has its own catalogue of signifiers and symbols designed to jump into your mind. Pop stars use quick-flash signs like punk (Pink), nostalgia (Adele) and ‘exotic’ dancers (most white pop stars) to create semi-conscious impressions incidental to their music. And because of our ad-driven age, we process it on autopilot. The result is a vast head-fuck of vague metaphors that complexly reference each other without having an obvious root.
Accelerating the hyperactive symbolism is our televised recording culture. Speaking in 1993 to The Paris Review, the postmodern author Don Delillo explains how film (and now the internet) lets us “examine ourselves, imitate ourselves, reshape our reality... in ways earlier societies could not”. According to him, our subsequent “dual identity” detaches us from the here and now, and “turns some of us into actors doing walk-throughs”.
The self-imitation that Delilo identifies has been happening since the early eighties. The era had seen a revival of American pro wrestling - a sport previously discredited as farce - and it was indicative of how the lines between copy, parody, and authentic original started to blur. Rather than a competition, pro wrestling became a spectacle - a symbol of sporting drama. But since TV was full of expensive, highly realistic simulations, the distinction between fiction and reality felt incidental. Coincidentally, around then the phrase “the real thing” entered the youth lexicon. Pro skaters like Rodney Mullen were the real thing - as in, not just bogus posers - and so were top snacks and soda drinks. Even someone like Hulk Hogan, the ideal wrestler, could be the real thing. To say something wasn’t fake - even if it was - became a mark of awesomeness.
This era saw pop, which had always been the soul of artifice, develop a more complex relationship with authenticity. In 1998, Britney’s “...Baby One More Time” video announced a new kind of superstar - one who was both morally pristine (the Christian schoolgirl outfit, the claim she’d never slept with live-in boyfriend Justin Timberlake) and preternaturally sexy (the Christian schoolgirl outfit, the fact she obviously had slept with Justin Timberlake). For her PR, that balancing act was vital, because almost as strong as the public’s blatant perviness is its immediate rejection of that perviness. Britney’s genius was to blend vulgarity and virtue, and this was possible because pop was no longer limited to selling a realistic idea - even if that idea was just: 'YOU WANT SEX.'
In the decade and a half since, that duality has become our culture’s second nature. We’ve all witnessed the Mumford-and-sundry folk revival, which reflects the masses’ primitive fear of superficial pop and advancing technology. It’s paralleled in Hollywood, where films like Crazy Heart and Inside Llewyn Davis depict those back-to-roots values on the big screen. But behind the trend is a paradox. In longing for what folk represents - sanctuary from decadent glitz, basically - the folk boom’s audience didn’t actually reject glitz. Instead, they were given a new, glitzier brand of folk, which swiftly blurred with regular pop.
The idea of hyperreality isn’t necessarily specific to mainstream pop either. Take the lo-fi genre, where bands like Yuck, Wavves and most of the Captured Tracks label pay tribute to their idols. Their retro references recall the early-eighties US underground, when social and technological austerity meant that, between shifts on the factory line or whatever, a new breed of indie-pendent bands had to record fast in bedrooms or shonky label-owned studios. Most lo-fi this decade, though, hasn’t been unpolished but depolished. When its unshowered fundamentalists grunt, “I dunno, man, I guess to me it just sounds better”, the implication is that the old guard’s inspiration is so totemic that, rather than embrace cheap, modern music technology - rather than kill our idols by evolving - it’s necessary to intentionally hold back to look more authentic. But that symbol is corrupt because, as with the folk revival, the rejection of superficial, manufactured pop has spawned an absurd inverse: superficial and manufactured underground music.
All this shows is that capitalism commodifies anti-capitalist virtues. We’ve all seen (or been) idealistic teenagers sticking it to the man in sweatshop-made Ramones tees from New Look. We accept that, in a planed-down culture, ‘indie’ has become a shallow symbol of edginess. And we nod ambivalently as punk digs its grave in Brewdog’s backyard, littered with mass-produced bottles of Punk or Hardcore IPA that use symbols of rebellion and independence to seduce the craft-everything market. This deep contradiction is what makes the world go round.
But it might be reversible, somehow. In his famous 1995 book Travels in Hyperreality, sociologist Umberto Eco describes a hologram that, front-on, depicts two naked women kissing and fondling. But when viewed from another angle, like behind or above, the image vanishes. It’s this blur of distinction between what is real and what is representation that stops you from understanding whether what you’re seeing is genuine or not. That is what makes the image hyperreal. In other words, a culture’s elements might seem perfectly authentic - they may resemble “the real thing” - but seen from another angle their essence vanishes.
Lorde’s outsider pop links these ideas so subtly you forget it’s art. “Royals” is a mind-tingling pop song because, while neatly packaged for mass consumption, it criticises luxuries (a “kind of lux” go the lyrics) that are intangible to most pop listeners. But it’s on “Buzzcut Season”, a track from Pure Heroine, that the singer really shines a light on her cosmic uneasiness. As bombs fall on TV, she and her friends sit mindlessly by the pool “where everything is good”. Then the self-consciousness slips in: “Play along,” she tells herself, “make believe it’s hyperreal.” Her point is that first-world comforts are a kind of illusion. “Nothing’s wrong when nothing’s true,” she sings innocently in the chorus, “I wanna live in a hologram with you.” For Lorde, what’s behind the hologram will come later. She helps us leap out the Matrix of deceptive signs and symbols with that small first step: admitting and realising that we’re even inside it.
Jazz thinks very deeply on Twitter. You can follow him here: @jazz_monroe