pop music at my store: doing it wrong and doing it right

This is a post I've been meaning to do for awhile. Given that I'm starting it at about midnight (by the way--my new power cord works! my compy is back! huzzah!), it counts as both Monday and Tuesday.

At work, there is a computer upstairs which has a large playlist of songs on permanent shuffle. Most of these songs are pleasant enough. There are just a few, however, which stick in my craw. The one I have mentioned most often is a song by the band Simple Plan called "Welcome to My Life." For those of you not curious enough, or too wise, to follow the link to the full lyrics, here's the first verse and chorus:

Do you ever feel like breaking down?
Do you ever feel out of place?
Like somehow you just don't belong
And no one understands you
Do you ever wanna runaway?
Do you lock yourself in your room?
With the radio on turned up so loud
That no one hears you screaming

No you don't know what it's like
When nothing feels all right
You don't know what it's like
To be like me

To be hurt
To feel lost
To be left out in the dark
To be kicked when you're down
To feel like you've been pushed around
To be on the edge of breaking down
And no one's there to save you
No you don't know what it's like
Welcome to my life

Awhile ago Amber explained to me the true definition of "scandal". In Catholic parlance, a scandal is something which encourages others to sin.

This particular set of lyrics is scandalous, to me, in the extreme. It encourages people to feel self-pity and resentment, and to cut themselves off from others. It promotes a bitter state of mind in which a person makes the whole world their enemy because they are feeling lonely and depressed.

It asserts that when you're feeling lonely and depressed, the solution is to isolate yourself from others and sulk among your many possessions. Also, the best way to make others like and respect you more is to angrily inform them they cannot possibly relate to the emotional pain you are experiencing. Oh, without leaving any room for the possibility that others might also experience emotional pain.

For goodness' sake, the speaker in this song has a room of his own with a door that locks. He has a radio which he can turn up to scream-drowning-out volume, presumably without adverse consequences. How many of the listeners who hear--and we may assume, empathize with--these selfish assertions lack those same comforts?

That's really the irony, though. That this song whose main message is, "wah, wah, you don't understand me and I'm all alone and will wallow in my misery" is popular because people empathize with it. In other words, many, many people can understand precisely "what it's like" because they share the same feelings of isolation and loneliness. Thus the fact that the song is popular enough to make it onto my store's iTunes refutes its main premise.

Here is another song, also on the playlist at work, which approaches almost the same set of feelings but does so in a way which is much more positive. It is "Story of my Life" by Smashmouth.

I get to the party, but I'm too late
And I got stood up on my very first date
I listen to country and everybody goes rock
I get to the dance floor, that's when the music stops

It doesn't matter what I do, I just can't seem to win
But here I go again

And I say
Hey that's the story of my life
I had a good plan but it didn't go right
Oh no I'm overdrawn
I check my account and the money's all gone
Why me I don't know what to think
I finally get aboard and the whole boat sinks
Seems to be the story of my life

Here the speaker takes an almost amused attitude towards his misfortunes. He doesn't accuse others of not being able to understand his misfortunes; rather, he describes them and implicitly invites others to share in his frustration. This is reinforced by the fact that multiple voices chime in to sing the chorus, mimicking the internal voices of listeners who see their own stories reflected in the words to the song.

There's really not much in the way of instruction or even encouragement in this song--not in so many words. Instead it comforts those who are experiencing frustration and loneliness with the message that they are not alone, that their frustration is universal. Also, I like to think there's a certain amount of self-aware irony here. "Sure, I've got troubles just like these," the listener is meant to think. "Yet the guy who wrote this is a famous musician who probably has lots of money and a hot girlfriend, so maybe things won't stay this bad!"

Which is what pop music is supposed to be all about. It doesn't make you think very hard, doesn't shake up your mind or wring out your deepest emotions. It just makes you feel a little better and a little more able to face the frustrations of the day.