My alarm-clock radio only gets one station with music: KC101, Southern Connecticut”s Number One Hit Music Station. The first words I have processed every morning for the last two months have been either “You’re a womanizer” or “You’re my experimental game,” or, on good days, “A disease of the mind, it can control you.” The first voices I’ve heard have been Britney Spears’ and Katy Perry’s and Rihanna’s. The first colors I’ve seen have been the purples and greens that synthesizers always make me picture. It’s made waking up feel like being pulled into outer space, especially when “Forever” plays. At first I really liked this; these sounds and these words were so unfamiliar that it made waking up exciting. I’d sit right up in bed and listen hard to what was apparently the sound of today’s Number One Hit Music, and I was really happy that it was so bizarre. But now the more I hear these songs, the more I worry that it’s hard to have a hit now that’s worth listening to after I dress and open my door.
What strange mornings, though! I knew “I Kissed A Girl” from this summer, but “Womanizer,” “Disturbia,” “Damaged” and “So What” were all new to me. They’ve got a lot in common: all are sung by women, produced by men, sparkling with synthesizers and studio glow, about problematic interactions with men. Almost every day I’ve been woken up by troubled women and processed beats. And it’s been great.
All I’d understood of “I Kissed A Girl” before the fall was the chorus line, but I was really impressed by it — I thought she sang it so intensely, she sounded almost desperate or scared, and I thought such a naked statement — “yes, I did this! And I LIKED it!” — was amazing when so much pop seemed artificial. Eventually I realized the song was the opposite of a naked statement. First she plays the rationalizing smartass with “Not,- my-in-ten-tion” and “Lost,- my-dis-cre-tion” and “Just,- hu-man-na-ture;” next the bad girl, with “It felt so wrong, it felt so right” and “It’s-not-what, good-girls-do”; finally she treats the “Girl” in the shitty way we’ve agreed guys shouldn’t treat girls, with “No-I-don’t-even know your name; It,- does-n’t mat-ter; You’re-my-ex-perimental game”. Which is really a shitty way to treat other people in general. But all this is fine when I’m by myself, because then it’s like watching a character in a play. The production is anxious and all the instruments sound on edge and her distorted voice sounds tense too — it’s gripping, really.
“Womanizer” was new to me, but I saw parallels. More abrasive synthesizers, more distorted vocals; even more sneering and contemptuous attitude — she’s got you figured out, you can stop “fronting,” you womanizer. She knows just what you are. “Baby.” It was more aggressive than anything I’d heard all fall. I didn’t know “Disturbia,” either, but I thought it was the jewel among these songs. It had the same synthesized and off-putting production values, but the song fascinated me most. It was the only one explicitly about feeling alienated, while the others only implied that, so the track and the song matched so well! Then there were some more obscure but equally jarring spinoffs, like “Damaged,” by Danity Kane (the Making the Band 3 band), in which the singer, trying to tell her new boyfriend about how he needs to be careful because her ex hurt her badly (her heart is “damaged,” get it?), opens by attacking him with the question “Do, do you have a first aid kid handy?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but I really liked that. And I liked being woken up by these songs with their alienated protagonists and polished production and being amazed at the way pop was changing.
But somehow they felt different when other people were around. I’d come to relax and spend time with friends, but the songs we were hearing were all anxious and about pushing other people away. And I found it hard to just chill when Rihanna was singing about going crazy or Katy Perry was objectifying her new “friend.” Maybe I’d grown too sensitive to the songs from waking up to them. But it seemed and still seems strange to me that the music we play when we get together sings about and sounds like pushing other people away.
Especially because this is all supposed to be dance music. Music to be played at social events when people come together and dance with each other. So you’d expect it be about … coming together and dancing with each other, right? Not the opposite? That was the norm up through the 70s. Love, sex, dancing, getting together — you can name probably 10 dance songs off the top of your head about each of these. One of the points of disco, which after all grew out of minority bars and clubs, was inclusion — think of the emphasis in “Dancing Queen” on how you can dance, you can jive, etc. — you’re invited to be part of all this too! Punk and new wave and the 80s brought in the alienation (goodness knows, “Dancing with Myself”) that we’ve picked up on again, but those songs feel very different to me. Being alone and reaching out is not the same as aggressively pushing others away. And I don’t understand why we would listen almost exclusively to songs about closing off while we’re at dances, which I thought were about opening up.
But maybe that’s what I’m not getting. I have this idea of dances as this chance for people to make connections with each other, but I don’t know whether that’s fair to assume anymore. And if people want to go to dances and act like they’re by themselves, it’s not my place to tell them not to. That’s basically what iPod dances are for: each person interacts individually with a single thing, and the whole group feels good together about each of those experiences. Everyone has fun, and no one feels pressured to be having the same experience as anyone else. And that’s pretty cool. But what if you catch someone’s eye and go back to your room to take the earbuds out, and neither of you feels pressured to be having the same experience, and each of you is just doing it your own way and having your own personal experience. Is this your idea of good sex?
Okay, okay. I’m not saying you have to apply the same standards to your music and your sex life. You’ll make up your own mind about that. But I’ll say this: a sound has developed. There is a new idiom that all of the recent dance hits fall into and have helped develop. So far almost all of these shiny harsh songs have been about alienation. And I wonder whether it’s possible to make powerful music in this idiom about anything else. Chris Brown’s “Forever” is the only song KC plays that’s just about dancing, and it’s the song that works the least. It’s compelling to watch a robot feel alienated; it’s difficult to be asked out by one. So if we’re interested in hearing songs about warmth or successful relationships, we should be careful we don’t let those be ruled out.