This is as far as you can get from the early eighties, when the charts still reflected the tastes of grown, upwardly mobile baby-boomers—probably the least marginalized cohort in recent American history. In 1980, nearly half of our No. 1’s came from artists who had their first hits in the sixties; for a few years after, much on the charts seemed aimed at people on the verge of a boat purchase or signing up for adult education. (3)
Since then, genres like rock have sunk further and further beneath the notice of the pop charts. Same goes for a lot of the music you might associate with middle-class boys—and the particular forms of ego and hostility that sometimes come with them. The occasional hair-metal ballad hit big in the eighties, but all those Poison and Mötley Crüe songs about hedonism and Satan made less of a mark. The antisocial grumbling of nineties alt-rock never climbed very high (a single from Color Me Badd was nearly twice as likely to chart as one from Nirvana); neither did the boyish rage of nu-metal or the grandiose self-pity of emo. Same goes for the cocky individualism of serious rap (as opposed to its party hits).
The bulk of this music will never get played on the radio or attract the paternalistic tsk-tsking of mainstream observers, but it isn’t necessarily any less “narcissistic” than the songs on the pop charts—some genres are self-deprecating, others polite but navel-gazing, others pathologically ego-driven. The songs get to seem like they’re venting to their own audiences or abstractly spilling someone’s thoughts instead of preening or seeking attention in the real world. Our day-to-day moral scolding is attached to the songs we hear too often in stores or imagine warping the sexuality of impressionable teenage girls (rarely boys); meanwhile, a massive and ever-growing share of the music people actually listen to broods in private, being as antisocial as it wants.
Pop, however, remains stubbornly public and resistant to impressionistic thought-spilling—right now, it feels like the music that’s most explicitly committed to real-world social matters. Hit club tracks are built for dancing and courtship; R&B and country singles catalogue, in precise and unflinching detail, every last swoon, sob, and smashed-up car window that results from people, narcissists or not, getting involved. Scan down the Hot 100, and the songs talk with increasing frankness about ego, beauty, money, cheating, posturing, partying, and every other element of solid gossip.
You could complain about what these songs actually have to say on such topics: They can be superficial, misogynist, and downright stupid. You see female sexuality presented as a performance for men. You see self-aggrandizing persecution complexes, like Chris Brown’s. The problem with that “Pretty Girl Rock” song isn’t that it’s about feeling hot; it’s the suggestion that being hotter than other women is a good way to feel better about yourself.
3. Role played by Lionel Richie in the video for 1984’s “Hello”: Art professor. Where Rick Springfield met the woman who inspired “Jessie’s Girl”: A stained-glass class.