In general, people are sincere when they say they like some song and dislike another, but things go all weird when they try to talk about why they like or dislike them. It’s as if the conversation takes a sudden detour, away from what the music does to apparently irrelevant speculations about how it was made and the social character of the people who make it.
I recently played the Backstreet Boys’ wonderful “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” for my friend Nathan, who didn’t like it and said in explanation, “They don’t even write their own songs.” But doesn’t that seem like a weak reason not to like the music? Not that it was his only one—he said he didn’t like the bass part. But what does this have to do with whether a lyric or a melody or a bass line sounds bad, that it was written by writer-producer Max Martin rather than, say, by Backstreet Boy Nick Carter? And if Nick Carter had written the very same lyric or melody or bass line, how would that make it better? The issue—“they don’t write their own songs”—is a stand-in for something else. But this doesn’t mean that there is a clear but unspoken Real Reason behind it that we can easily ferret out, or a set of Underlying Beliefs of which the reason is an expression. What stand-in issues do isn’t so much to conceal some Real Issue as to leave issues and ideas inchoate.
I’ve pressed Nathan on this matter, who in response wrote me a little squib that included: “The pretty girls had me in their spell, and I was never going to get anywhere with them. But I could listen to their silly music, vapid go-along/get-along tripe, and someday a nice girl probably would have won my heart, and I would have thought she was ‘halfway decent’ and been that much better for the experience.” But he chose not to go along. The band in question was New Kids on the Block, but Nathan is right to see Backstreet Boys as an update (though the Backstreets are far better, in my opinion). The obvious question is “Go along with what?” With the lyrics “Am I sexual? Ye-eah!”? But what’s wrong with that? And what’s wrong with pretty girls? What’s wrong with pretty girls dancing, and with pretty boy singers giving a voice to the emotions of that dance, and a couple of genius Swedish songwriters and musicians giving them beautiful melodies to sing and strong beats for the screaming sexual girls and their beautiful dance? Is beauty bad for us? Does it oppress us?
The thing is, to say robustly, “Nothing’s wrong with it” doesn’t seem completely right—Nathan felt a justified discontent with the high-school social system—but no other answer seems any good, either. “Reinforces social inequalities and sexism” is just hand-waving, and no one’s ever shown how this reinforcement takes place or how society would benefit from pretty girls being denied their dance.
Yet I don’t think Nathan’s gut feeling is 100 percent wrong, either. Maybe it’s aimed somewhere wrong, but where should it be aimed? As Dave Moore points out, only pretty girls get to make music, or so it often seems, but whose choice is that—seems to be the consumers’—and how does lying to ourselves and claiming that the music is bad bring the world to rights?
There’s a feeling that happiness is compliance and anguish is resistance. I know the feeling and have worn out Velvet Underground records in honor of it. But feelings aren’t necessarily right. Nathan admires Kurt Cobain—a pretty boy who wrote beautiful melodies, like Nick Carter and Max Martin rolled into one, but his beauty had melancholy and pain, and he made self-destruction feel like a critique and alienation feel like an achievement. But what was the achievement, the lesson? That a spoonful of agony helps the beauty go down? Cobain gave hurt boys and girls their own dance. But is there a law that says hurt kids can’t dance to the Backstreet Boys, who after all have got a better beat?
There’s certainly differences in social content between “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” and between their respective dances. But the idea that the former represents a superior species seems like simple class prejudice, the freaks and the artsy-fartsies looking down on the cheerleaders and the mainstream girls. Yet mainstream girls can share the same attitudes, can feel that there’s something dismissable about dance music, some integrity that’s missing. Lots of mainstream girls bought Nirvana records. This whole issue doesn’t arise without the sense—not just coming from the freaks, but from the mainstream itself—that society is crucially flawed, that some great but unspecified crime is being condoned, with beauty as its accomplice and all integrity at risk.
And that’s where the very strange complaint, that the Backstreet Boys don’t write their own music, comes in. When I pointed out to Nathan that The Beatles rose to fame on the backs of an earlier version of the Backstreet Boys’ fan base—screaming girls in their early adolescence—he said, “But The Beatles created their music organically,” and said that the difference between a Kurt Cobain and a group like the Backstreet Boys was that Kurt’s music came from inside, while the Backstreet Boys were playing to their audience, were just trying to please them. I retorted that Cobain was pleasing him, and asked how you can tell the difference between music that’s from the inside and music that’s meant to please. He said, firmly, “We can tell.” So then I asked if he believed that the Backstreet Boys’ audience couldn’t tell the difference. He paused, then said, “This makes me uncomfortable to say it, but I think that’s right.”
Anyway, I’ve got a slew of counterarguments, but I’ll pass over them. What’s important here is that my friend Nathan didn’t go into the conversation with the intent of dismissing a whole class of people—the Backstreet Boys’ girls—as suckers. And I doubt that he really would, because the position is untenable. A person can be suckered, and a person can try to please others. There are times when a whole lot of people can be suckered. And maybe there are some people who are fundamentally people-pleasers and others who are fundamentally suckers. But these are not class characteristics. Being a sucker isn’t something you are simply by being a mainstream girl, and being a con artist isn’t something you are simply by being a professional who makes music that pleases mainstream girls. And I can’t imagine that many people think so.
The persistence of stand-in issues such as whether or not the bands write their own songs (I read someone recently deriding the Monkees for this, after all these years) is because they allow us to feel class issues without actually discussing them and allow us to indulge our uneasiness with happy songs and the pretty girls who dance to them without our really exploring where the uneasiness comes from.