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Living in the world, right now, unless you are building pipe bombs in a little shack in the woods full-time, you are going to be aware of a certain sedimentary level of information. If you never watch television or listen to the radio; if you attempt with your every waking hour to avoid the Top 40 song list at all costs, you will still end up knowing every godawful lyric of a certain batch of bad pop music by heart, because you will be utterly unable to avoid it. Someday, you'll have to go shopping somewhere where some girl with hubcap-size earrings who chews with her mouth open is listening to the radio. You will call your oral surgeon and be put on hold. You will live near a stop sign and snatches of heavy wailing will crawl from bass-heavy car speakers through your window with all the musk and ferocity of a heat-maddened rapist. In any case, you will end up hearing and inadvertently memorizing a lot of terrible songs, because several zillion people you don't know just love the living shit out of them. These invisible nations of people so love the Top 40 that they not only will wade through the barking retail-carpet and auto-body ads to listen to the endless rotation of them on the top Big Radio Stations that are piped like the Word of God into their workplace, but they will then, after their workday is over, go out and buy the same CDs for the full $14.99 price tag and play them voluntarily when they get home in the evening, in those relaxing moments that don't involve television.

The Top 40 has been dominated for years now by that royal family of singers who can twist all the air out of their larynx in an inhuman display of lacy, high-gospel vocal-emoto aeronautics and wild flights of forced musical hysteria, accompanied by string-heavy orchestrations and a commanding hairstyle blown into a backlit power-aureole by a large industrial fan. Often, leather pants are involved. Billowing white shirts are also important to their effect, which I suppose is to evoke the drama of being trapped in a strong prevailing wind, which I believe is supposed to evoke the drama of being tempest-toss'd in a fever pitch of heartwrenching that no mere mortal could stand. Their platform is an incredibly heroic dissatisfaction with Love, a ranting of Zeus-like proportions against Love itself, utilizing such universal laments as "I can't be strong," which is ultimately resolved through a revelation of forceful self-empowerment, such as "I will be strong," fueled by a lot of soft-jam vocal arpeggios. There is a tremendous need for this oversized, synthetic junior-high emotional wallowing. Teenagers all over the world rock back and forth on their beds, singing in hurtful little voices along with the radio as the cyberviolins choke tears out of their love-deprived eyes. Teenagers understand codependent musical statements such as "I will never breathe again" or ..."walk again" or ..."love this way again". This music distills the emotional torpor and the whining indignities of puberty and filters it through hundreds of thousands of dollars of production value into a kind of saplike audio cologne, which, for some inexplicable reason, appeals to billions of adults as well as the emotionally hairless teen. We are a Soft-Jam Nation. Walking into various shops, you start to realize that insipid, cloying lyrics with huge pop-symphonic orchestrations are the emotional wallpaper of the working class. "I'm down on my kneez, beggin' you pleaz, baby baby woah," etc., seems to pacify an otherwise disgruntled, non-movie-star workforce at their delicatessen and gas-station jobs and keep them in a semipermanent state of glazed, flavorless passivity. Listening to such music makes me feel as if I have just rubbed a floral-scented electric-blue toilet puck all over my face and neck, but I am a tiny minority in the vast world of music listeners.

Cintra Wilson, A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease, and Other Cultural Revelations
Copyright © 2000 by Cintra Wilson. All rights reserved.

Posted 8 October 2000

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