Why isn't anybody on the pop charts these days having fun?
It seems an odd question on the face of it. Hasn't pop music always been about simple pleasures and easy enjoyment? Sure, any era's hit parade will have a certain number of sad songs, but they hardly define the tenor of the times. After all, who could imagine a generation that didn't generate its share of party tunes and silly love songs?
Or so I thought. But a couple weeks ago, after a colleague mentioned how she would love to see Madonna return to the innocent fun of "Borderline" and "Holiday," I found myself sneering. "Don't be silly," I said. "Nobody does that kind of happy pop these days."
At which another colleague turned to me and said, "My God -- you're right!"
We were stunned. None of us had any trouble thinking of happy pop songs from the '80s, '70s or '60s; some of us could even rattle off appropriate tunes dating back to the '20s. But the current charts? Everyone drew blanks.
Twenty years ago, even a band as nasty as the Rolling Stones could be heard on the radio singing about being "Happy." Ten years later, Cyndi Lauper was cheerily insisting that "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." What does today's radio audience get? Soul Asylum and "Misery."
Even the artists you'd think would take an optimistic view of life turn out to be wracked with doubt and despair. TLC, who seemed so upbeat and cheerful on their first album, are currently at the top of the singles chart with "Waterfalls," a song that warns against chasing after dreams and almost seems to suggest it's absurd to hope things will get better; among the more poignant images in the "Waterfalls" video is a mother grieving over the body of her just-murdered son.
Then there's Boyz II Men, whose current hit, "Water Runs Dry," finds the group taking the role of a man whose lover is on the verge of leaving him; rather than recall the good times, the song suggests they repair the relationship before "we make the biggest mistake of our lives." Not exactly the kind of tune most couples would want to call "our song," is it?
Even Bryan Adams, who previously had seemed such a good-time Charlie, has moved away from the raucous romance of "Straight from the Heart" and "It's Only Love" to wonder "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?" It's a pretty song, to be sure, but so drenched in melancholy that it's hard to imagine any listener greeting the end of this tune with a beery "Party on, dude!"
And so it goes, from Hootie & the Blowfish's "Let Her Cry" to Bon Jovi's "This Ain't a Love Song," to Annie Lennox's "No More 'I Love You's." Pop music is rife with songs about breaking up, losing faith, enduring depression and dealing with loss. But having fun? The closest the current hit parade gets is Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It" -- and even that views the evening as a success only because "All the gangbangers forgot about the drive-by." Par-tay!
Is life really so much more dreadful now than it was in decades past? Admittedly, few people are arguing that these are the best of times. Real wages are down, the economy is sluggish, violent crime is rampant, there's war in Eastern Europe, and Howard Stern is still the nation's No. 1 deejay.
But there was plenty to be depressed about in earlier decades. In the late '50s and early '60s, there was the bomb and the Russians to worry about; later on in the '60s, we had urban unrest and the war in Vietnam. Things were so depressing in the '70s that then-president Carter spoke of a national malaise, while the '80s found us fretting over crack, AIDS and international terrorism.
So how come nobody had trouble whistling a happy tune then?
What pushed fun out of the Top 40 had nothing to do with the harsh realities of modern life, and everything to do with our current concept of cool. Because, to be honest, the problem isn't that musicians aren't happy -- it's just that no one wants to get caught smiling.
Think I'm exaggerating? Then wander over to the newsstand and look at the music magazines. Spin features a stony-faced Michael Stipe on its current cover, while Vibe boasts the scowling visages of Jodeci, and Bjork frowns from the front of Melody Maker. Smiles can be seen on the cover of Rolling Stone, but only if the star being showcased is an actor. Hence, the grinning Drew Barrymore was preceded by a glum group shot of Soul Asylum.
Some of this hesitancy to appear happy comes from a desire to be taken seriously. Our culture has always associated deep thoughts with dour expressions (put a bust of Beethoven next to Boy George, and even a child can tell which is the serious composer), so any time a pop star wants to point out that there's more to the music than three chords and a couple million in sales, the first thing he or she does is scowl for the cameras.
It wasn't always this way. Being quick-witted and playful hardly kept the Beatles from being considered geniuses; if anything, it wasn't until Lennon and McCartney started acting like serious artistes that anyone doubted their depth. Likewise, there was a puckish humor and gleeful self-parody running through much of Bob Dylan's greatest work (think of the way he breaks into giggles at the beginning of "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"). Even the Sex Pistols couldn't help but smirk as they sang about "Anarchy in the U.K."
Things began to change in the early '80s, though, as fun and frivolity began to be seen as the mark of lightweights. It wasn't just that the pop charts were filled with cheery singles by such superficial acts as A-ha, Bananarama, Culture Club and the Stray Cats; thanks to MTV, we also got to see Debbie Gibson, Kylie Minogue or the Go-Go's lip-sync perkily to their latest hits.
Once that kind of dancing-and-grinning persona became identified with pop music's shallow end, artists hoping to demonstrate depth immediately had to put such fun and games behind them. Madonna, typically, was one of the first, testing the waters with the mournful, reflective "Live to Tell" before shedding her "Material Girl" past with the dark and daring "Like a Prayer" album.
Before long, though, she had plenty of company. Cyndi Lauper stopped having "fun" and started singing about obsession and depression; the members of New Edition traded their wholesome, youthful personas for snarling street savvy as they split off into Bell Biv DeVoe and solo careers; Duran Duran stopped writing flighty, infectious dance tunes and started covering the Velvet Underground. Even Hammer stopped smiling, in a desperate attempt to show that he really wasn't as much fun as everybody thought.
By the time the grunge movement rolled in from Seattle, it was all over. Depression and despair has become such an accepted part of pop music culture that no one was surprised to learn that Nirvana actually considered calling its last studio album "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die."
Even obvious pop acts, like the allegedly Abba-esque Ace of Base, seem shot through with depression. ("All That She Wants" and "Don't Turn Around" may be catchy, but cheery they ain't.)
It won't stay this way forever, of course. Pop culture is constantly shifting, and eventually the pendulum will swing back to shallow, happy pop music. Until then, though, it looks as if we'll all just have to grimace and bear it.