In silico veritas.

Commoditizing earnestness

Posted: April 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Culture | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

As a simple matter of habit, I don’t often listen to the ever-changing, nebulous product we call pop music. But I am certainly not immune to its effects. I recently had one of the commonplace problems of any avid music fan occur to me — an earworm of a tune had temporarily lodged itself inside my head. Oddly enough, it wasn’t one now topping the charts. In fact, it was a two-year-old song by San Francisco band Train, called “Hey, Soul Sister”.

As the song’s chorus began to subtly loop itself in my head, I somehow managed to actually examine what was being sung, and on an apparent whim, I stopped to attempt to draw out some meaning. For those unfamiliar with the song, I have reproduced the relevant lines below:

Hey, soul sister
Ain’t that Mr. Mister on the radio, stereo
The way you move ain’t fair, you know
Hey, soul sister
I don’t want to miss a single thing you do

I hadn’t the faintest idea what to make of this. (In fact, it wasn’t until I was doing the research for this post that I discovered that Mr. Mister was actually an ’80s pop band, and not some nonsensical lyrical construction specific to this song.) It led me to wonder, genuinely, what the song’s countless fans (it’s gone 5x platinum in the U.S.) saw in these words. What did this song mean to them? The answers would doubtless be almost as numerous as the people giving them. But one overriding theme seemed to stand out to me: the sheer force of earnest, emotional will by which the band’s frontman and vocalist seemed to affect the listener. Separated from their performance, the lyrics seem gauzy, if not downright silly. Nonetheless, the record sales speak for themselves.

So, what do we make of all this? Angela Watercutter wrote last year that we are entering a new, post-ironic era of earnestness. She posits that the rise of such shows as Glee, and their performances of hit songs (yes, of which “Hey, Soul Sister” was one) demonstrates that we are ready to leave irony behind. Granting her this for the sake of argument, it’s not hard, then, to see how music labels aim to profit off our newly-rediscovered sentimentality. This song, along with so many others written by similar bands, certainly appears to be able to revive, however temporarily, the feelings of compassion and earnestness that seem increasingly absent from the world. People buy this music to feel again. But at what cost?

The artistic goals of the members of Train notwithstanding, we are witnessing the shrink-wrapping of the heartfelt emotion. Like the imperceptibly shrinking containers of food at the supermarket, we are being given the appearance of fullness but receiving much less than we expected. What’s worse, earnestness is ill-equipped to resist such appropriation; a cathartic track or record filled with thinly-veiled metaphors for the greed of music labels neither evokes nor suits groups like Train. Such an approach is more typical of and frequently carried off better by indie bands (admittedly also a blanket term fraught with complications), whose songcraft often features lyrics that are equally allusive and elusive. (In some cases, this can be true to an excessive degree.) This, of course, brings us firmly back into the realm of the ironic, to the dismay of Watercutter’s earnest brigades.

None of this is to say that groups like Train don’t have a place in the vast sweep of the musical world. But perhaps we would do well to apply to yet another of our daily endeavors the classic maxim: caveat emptor.