My mother was horrified by The Beatles’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1964.) She felt that the song’s overly forward message heralded a downturn in decorum and general civility. The repetitive panting of the lyrics and the explosive tribal yodeling was a far cry from the songs of innocence and innuendo that were the experience of her own generation. Songs of my mother’s youth are the expression of a much more restrained society that valued forbearance, dignity and discretion in its adolescents.
Her discomfort was both prescient and instructive, a lesson for me in how music simultaneously reflects and shapes the culture of its age. The song’s narrator embodies the societal turbulence of the early sixties, with his libidinous public behavior, his dogged persistence, and the atmosphere of unrestrained excitement as he pursues his conquest. The lyrics of the bridge section, “And when I touch you I feel happy inside,” are barely articulate words expressing an adolescent’s irrepressible sexual appetite, which the song proudly celebrates and promotes. My mother was alone in her objections, or at least did not attract enough supporters to stem the sexualizing tide.
Before the explosion of Youth Culture in the 1960s signaled the arrival of a new social order, some music of the 50s was still deliberately old-fashioned, appealing to a less adventurous audience. Tastefully rising above the provocative gyrations of ascendant star Elvis Presley, who could be presented on TV only from the waist up, The Avons’ Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Back Seat (1959) is charmingly and innocently quaint. With its simple harmonies, childish nonsense syllables, and cutesie stereotyped gender roles, it is a picture of the suburban patriarchal society that restabilized the West after the Second World War. The scenario involves some luckless flirting – a fellow driver tries to lure away the Little Girls with the thrill of his triple carburetor, but they are not interested in fast cars and excessively forward young men; theirs is a life of contentment and domestic satisfaction that they will not give up. “Keep your eyes on your driving, keep your hands on the wheel, and keep your snoopy eyes on the road out there. We’re having fun, sitting in the back seat, kissing and a-hugging with Fred.”
While Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines (2013) also portrays an attempted pick-up scene, it is the product of a youth culture more than fifty years in the future. The locus of the action portrayed in the video is hard to determine because the self-consciously smooth protagonist and his scantily clad prey are cavorting inexplicably in front of a blank wall, the scene is buzz-killingly brightly lit, and with each participant fully cognizant of the camera. There are numerous simultaneous narrators, and no unified narrative. The storyline is explored exclusively from the predator side, and the baby-doll women have no response but blank acquiescence to lines like “But you’re an animal, baby it’s in your nature,” and “You da hottest bitch in this place.” This is not the world of postwar self-confidence and self-satisfaction, it is a world of objectified women, of unexplained and unquestioned masculine power, of attention-seeking men who need the involvement of the anonymous viewer, all with an undercurrent of threatened aggression and violence. The video caused such an angry outcry that there are numerous parody versions decrying the song’s message.
The Pop Music industry exists and has always existed to perpetuate itself, to make money from the market of youth, so its products are tailored to a specific cultural climate in order to encourage sales. Songs are structured to sell; accordingly, the chorus, which is likely to contain the title of the song, repeats three times verbatim so that the name of the product has been placed insistently in the listener’s ear. Each song is in effect an advertisement for itself, disingenuously disguised as artistic expression for the youth market.
3-minute format and never mentioning the title in the song. Sometimes such a strategy pays off. But it is a risky and often foolhardy gesture; it takes a band with a certain market security to bury the sales pitch in the most overlooked part of the ad, and call the song Some Day I’ll Wish Upon a Star and not Somewhere Over the Rainbow.