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On Pop Songs

In 1996,  Ani DiFranco released her meta-breakup album Dilate. It was one of a series of two or three records that helped propel her from a little-known, cult folk singer to a broader cultural phenomenon. It was also her first album to focus more or less entirely on interpersonal relationships and eschew overt feminist and leftist politics (although I’d say her  politics still shape the relationship songs, and vice versa: relationships play a role in shaping her  politics). Dilate is a self-conscious breakup album — throughout, Ani is aware she is implicating herself in the  singer-songwriter cliche of the bitter, broken-hearted woman, and continually calls listeners’ attention to this awareness. She pokes fun at her excess emotion while also wallowing, reveling in it.

Her song, “Done Wrong,” becomes a breakup song about singing breakup songs:

It’s a cold rain/It’s a hard rain/Like the kind that you find in songs/I guess that makes me the jerk with the heartache/Here to sing you about how I’ve been done wrong

And in “Superhero,” she sings about how, in her compromised emotional state, she has found herself identifying with that most shameful of melodramatic cultural products, the pop song:

And every pop song on the radio/ Is suddenly speaking to me/ Yeah, art may imitate life/ But life imitates t.v.

Given my own love affair with melodrama, with melo-dramatizing my own emotions and with, you guessed it, pop songs, this has always been one of my favorite lyrics.

Part of the magic of pop songs is their blankness as texts. How, with their generic sentiments, and accessible melodies that rapidly signal which emotion they’re meant to represent, they are easily appropriated. You know, like — ” Omigod, omigod, she’s totally singing about me.”And the best pop singers are the ones who know how to deliver this sentiment as though they’re singing directly to you.

It’s kinda like what Scissor Sister Jake Shear says abt pop icon Kylie Minogue in a recent article in OUT magazine:

When we were writing lyrics together, sometimes she’d put something down and I’d think, Oh, my God, that is the lamest thing I’ve ever heard! And then it comes out of her mouth and it’s absolutely brilliant. That’s the beauty of her and that’s the beauty of great pop music—taking something very, very simple and injecting it with meaning and emotion.

As storytelling, pop songs often lack particularities of character, setting, etc. They are built around abstract sentiments. They suggest more than they reveal. They are customizable.

This week, I can’t stop listening to “Unthinkable.” by Alicia Keys. It’s a mood piece. Its sound is sultry, but with a touch of angst. Its most memorable lyrics is Keys’ repeated assurance that she’s “ready.”

Ready for what?

Something involving the dude she’s serenading, a dude who makes her feel good, love-type feelings, things she’s “never felt before.”

Something that makes her consider doing, “the unthinkable.”

Though upon first listen, it’s less noticeable,  Keys sings the word “unthinkable” almost as many times as she says she’s “ready.” And it’s no coincidence “Unthinkable,” and not “I’m Ready” is the the title of the song.

Like many classic pop songs (ie, Madonna’s “Live to Tell”) “Unthinkable” acquires its force via the ambiguity at its very center. What is the “unthinkable”? Why is it unthinkable? The mysterious “unthinkable” makes more ominous what was otherwise a semi-forgettable series of platitudes. It also invites the listener to fill in their own details.

For myself, I’m convinced the “unthinkable” is sex between the teen narrator of the young adult novel I’ve been writing and his friend in his late 20’s. Keys’ insistence she’s ready mirrors my own narrator’s assurance that despite his youth, he knows what he wants. Keys’ opening verse, where she announces to her intention to communicate honestly precisely what’s on her mind, also aligns nicely w/ the dramatic structure of my “scene.” Omigod, omigod, Alicia Keys wrote my soundtrack. I should totally make a movie.

But I think Alicia Keys has another idea.

In her video for the song, the “unthinkable” is an interracial relationship with One Tree Hill’s Chad Michael Murray, replayed in five different decades:

(Read Thea Lim’s critique of the video’s race politics at Racialicious).

But this isn’t the only narrative Keys has supplied.

Pop songs meanings’ have always been shaped in part by the metanarratives of the lives of the divas who sing them, and within the context of recent events in Keys’ personal life, the “unthinkable” becomes something altogether different, a reference to her once-extramarital, now remarital affair with producer Swizz Beatz.

Our attention is drawn to another lyric, also repeated, which previously passed by relatively unnoticed. “And I deserve it, I know I deserve it,” Keys sings, as though justifying something to herself, the the object of her song and to listeners. The song is suddenly recast as defensive.

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