But why sweat the preening itself? The prevailing attitude—that all this self-love is unseemly and vapid—seems almost mean-spirited, especially given what non-pop musicians get away with. If we can defend rock lyrics about violence on the grounds that music is a safe space to talk about antisocial feelings, shouldn’t pop be a safe space to talk through odd ideas about, say, ego or beauty? Richard Russell, the head of XL Recordings, recently told the Daily Mail that the “faux-porn” images in pop videos made him feel “queasy”—but he said this just weeks after releasing a record on which a young man tries to needle listeners by rapping about rape. You get the sense that people find it more horrifying—or less artistic—for young women to toy with sex and self-image than for young men to toy with actual violence and hostility. But if either of those things is more vapid and distasteful than the other, there’s a good chance it’s the latter, right?
At 33, I’m just a few years older than the oldest of what we’re now calling Millennials. Which is to say I was born just in time to inherit the wry disdain, detachment, and self-deprecation of Generation X, then watch it immediately expire and lose value. If I could choose, in retrospect, which set of music-based pathologies to spend my teenage years absorbing—the dogged outsider mumbling I picked up from indie-rock records or the brave thrusting entitlement and self-regard that allegedly speak through today’s pop—there’s a decent chance I’d take the pop. Sure, it feels gauche to say that; the path of modesty and self-sacrifice must be more noble, right? But there’s also an embarrassed, self-effacing quality there that’s hard to recommend. Besides, if those psychologists are correct, and our culture is increasingly deluged with narcissism and entitlement, we might really need pop’s poses and costumes to help us navigate it—to have songs that feel out the dimensions of every last way to think you’re hot shit.