Opinion: The Problem with Pop Music

What’s the recipe for a good pop song? What makes it catchy, re-play worthy? Is it the emotion behind the song? Do you relate to the lyrics? My guess, is no.

As a radio listener, or maybe a YouTube surfer or someone who sits at sports bars and is occasionally subjected to a live performance by Carly Rae Jepsen on the television to your left, it may take serious will power to change a station, close your browser or walk out on your tab when a carefully-crafted pop song comes on.

According to an article by John Seabrook published in the New Yorker,  most pop songs combine the efforts of a producer and a “top-liner.” The producers make the beats and put together the chord progressions while the top-liner comes up with a melody. In the case of songs by pop star Rihanna, one woman, Ester Dean, is behind most of the famed hooks.

Although Dean is a songwriter and vocalist, her role in the making of a pop song can be likened  to entering the recording studio and singing nonsense lyrics that come from a stream of words typed into the search engine on her Blackberry. Dean writes songs, not for the artists, but for herself, according to an interview with Centric TV.  In an interview with Singersroom, Dean also claims, "I’m a very emotional writer. Emotion drives me. I’m not talking about just sad; like happiness…anything that makes my skin warm up…"

It's questionable, too, where Dean derives the emotion from. While some comes from her personal drama, she also said during an interview at the 2012 BMI pop awards, " I like to watch TV and take down the emotions and the things that people say on TV and actually make songs out of it, so, it's fun." Perhaps Dean has no real concept of emotional honesty.  After all, what can you derive from, “Come on, come on/ I like it like it…”?

Dean writes for a range of artists, including Usher and Justin Bieber. Even if she writes with emotional honesty, the lyrics are then rendered dishonest when they are sung by the artist themselves-it is questionable whether Rihanna and Justin Bieber share the same emotional baggage.  Although according to an interview she did last year with W, Rihanna was, “intimately involved with the lyrics [ on the album Rated R,] writing many of them herself and spending time with her collaborators (who included Jeezy, Justin Timberlake and Ne-Yo) explaining her emotions and working on translating them.”

During the course of the interview, it is also eluded to by the author that Rihanna cringes at the thought of her churned-out, vacant pop songs of the past. What kills me though, is that she has recently resumed that approach to success.

As with all great blunders of modern society, I attribute Rihanna’s decline as a respectable artist to something much larger than herself. Whether it be the support of fans or the money-hungry radio stations and producers, Rihanna has become a poster girl for meaningless, sexually submissive pop that becomes increasingly depressing once you consider her status as a victim of domestic abuse.

I’m surprised to learn that the hooks written for Rihanna were written by a woman. I doubt Dean had any anti-feminist intentions. Most likely no one was paying attention to the lyrics because the songs sound good- the lyrics fit the beat perfectly. I do believe, however, that songs for Rihanna are meant to be sexy, and therefore the beats and the lyrics are just that. I worry at what cost the studio ignores the unintended message of these songs. What do we sacrifice as listeners when we encourage and absorb the lyrics? At the very least, we are encouraging every Rihanna song to be about the same thing. And it’s getting ridiculous.

When Rihanna first started working with producer Ne-Yo, she hardly spoke up when it came to recording her own songs. Sure, she may be a strong, fearless woman, but as a musical artist she is quite submissive, and her lyrics serve that side of her much more than the strong independent side. Even something like S&M is more tactless than it is powerful. These lyrics do not feature Rihanna claiming her sexuality, but instead begging to be taken advantage of.

Take, for example, “What’s my name?” written in part by Ester Dean, which came out after Rated R, the album that Rihanna  wrote her own lyrics for and supposedly grew from: “So I surrender to every word you whisper/Every door you enter, I will let you in…” Or one of her most recent hit, “ Talk That Talk,” : “What you saying now, give it to me baby/I want it all night, give it to me baby.”

Even though her hit, “Birthday Cake,” shows more control than submission, “I know you wanna bite this/Its so enticin'/Nothin' else like this/ I'mma make you my b---,” I still wonder how many songs about sex Rihanna's producers can pump out  before everyone gets bored.  The nonsense lyrics sound mechanical because they mean nothing to the person singing them, especially because that person  is far removed from the creative process. Beyond being soulless, the songs tend to imply that the only power a female artist has is her sexuality, making the two-step pop-song process a potentially dangerous one.

Photo by Jørund F Pedersen via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0.