Music plays a hugely important role in my life; just ask the people closest to me. Everything from my obsessive-compulsive habit of clicking “Buy” in the iTunes Store to my propensity for breaking into song after being prompted by key phrases in conversation shows the depth of my love for the art form.
But recently, a friend visited my room and commented on the dark mood of most of the R&B songs in my library. When she left, I took notice of the “woe is me” tone of my music and how self-centered much of it sounded. I began to ponder exactly what about depressing music strikes a chord with me and many other people. Amy Winehouse scored five Grammy wins Sunday on the strength of her darkly self-reflective hits “You Know I’m No Good” and “Rehab.” Consumers and critics alike are heavily embracing this mood music. Billboard’s current top album, Alicia Keys’ “As I Am,” is the product of grieving a family loss.
This begs the question: Why does personal travail and the baring of soul account for a good portion of today’s popular music? Some artists have been able to capitalize by creating a niche for themselves in the industry. Mary J. Blige created a new sub-genre in R&B Music during the mid-’90’s by focusing on her drug problems. More recently, artists like Kanye West have been able to turn established hits around to deal with tragedies, in his case giving new meaning to his hit single “Stronger” after the passing of his mother.
Yet music does not have to be introspective to benefit from personal downward spirals. The most recent manifestation of this is Britney Spears’ “Blackout,” a purely dance-pop album aimed at the nightclub scene that, on some level, attempted to draw attention away from the increasing pressures and losses the artist continues to face in her seemingly indistinguishable career and personal life.
Much of popular music, dance-oriented or self-reflective, appears somewhat formulaic. But could that trend also be coupled to an increasing air of borderline-egotistical introspection on the part of today’s popular artists? For some reason or another, several artists of our generation have felt the need to relate to the consuming public by griping about what they see as their own miserable existence, and Americans love it.
Could it be possible to infer the mindset and opinions of people based on the music they listen to? Could the popularity of songs about self be another reflection of the “me generation” that currently dominates the consumer market for music and is especially reflected in the attitudes of many Princeton students? Why is it that we need our favorite artists to go through some personal tragedy to make music that makes us want to either groove to “Gimme More” or harp on constantly being women (or men) scorned?
Sadly, there are no modern-day commercially successful equivalents to the likes of Marvin Gaye’s concept album about the Vietnam War, “What’s Going On,” or to Stevie Wonder’s political protest songs about former president Richard Nixon, “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” and “He’s Misstra Know-It-All.” Nor are there any insanely popular charity songs to repeat the dynamic impact of 1985’s “We Are the World.” It is true that several present-day hip-hop and rock artists make political statements here and there or even dedicate whole albums to them, but they usually fall on deaf ears. R&B artists emulate the greats like Gaye and Wonder in vocal style only, not in lyrical content.
This leaves two types of musical material that currently dominate the R&B genre: radio-ready dirges with repetitive hooks and the ever-present T-Pain guest spot, or what I would dare to call faintly insidious tunes that in reality are just more ways for the artist to complain about his or her sad life. Will this generation of artists be able to address the political and social problems of today, turning the focus off themselves and their troubles? It would be great to see a concept album in the vein of “What’s Going On,” told from the viewpoint of a soldier returning from the war in Iraq. Instead of remaking U2’s classic “One,” Mary J. Blige could really prove that she is over the personal drama by making a song that deals with something other than the troubles of a vengeful black woman.
The same attention to others could be demanded of the audience for this music. I am sure that each of us, as Princeton students “in the nation’s service,” could learn a lot from the popular music we consume. Just one look at the current composition of the album and singles charts shows that we’re not ready to give up living Kanye West’s “Good Life.”
Walter Griffin is a sophomore from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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