Covach says that in some ways, the Mod culture that The Who was writing about in “My Generation” had similar threads to today’s pop.
“[The Mods] took amphetamines and danced all night and were very concerned about their appearance and the way they were viewed by others. ‘My Generation’ was kind of the theme song of the Mod movement and what made them feel like they were distant from their parents’ generation,” he says.
Covach adds that the message in pop music poses a sort of chicken/egg question. Did the message come first, or did pop create it? “Music is not so much a cause as it is a symptom,” he says. “Music can tell you what’s going on under the surface of a culture.”
While seemingly trivial, pop is worth paying attention to, says Robert Fink, a professor of musicology at UCLA. But this isn’t the first time Top 40 stuff has gotten a little morbid. Fink points to the do-what-you-want-now attitude that Prince hinted at back in 1982 with his hit song “1999.” To refresh your memory on the chorus: “Yeah, they say two thousand zero zero party over/Oops out of time/So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999.”
But the key difference between “1999” and today’s apocalypti-pop is a reason for partying. In “1999,” Prince talks of Judgement Day, war everywhere. “That song was an interesting touchstone because it basically says … ‘we could all die any day but before that happens I’m going to dance my life away,” Fink laughs. “The only possible solution to annihilation is to party.”
It’s an attitude that may have been reflective of that time. In the 1980s, America was caught up in the Cold War and pop culture reflected a fear of death by nuclear weapons (the 1983 TV movie The Day After, which focuses on characters living in post-apocalyptic America, was initially viewed by 100 million people). Fink says that might be why we’re hearing this “party since we’re about to die” attitude in today’s pop songs. The economy has crashed, political lines are deep, the government shut down, there’s global warming, Syria, Iran, the Taliban.
“You might be able to make a link periodically between moments in the culture where there is more of an apocalyptic feeling, like it’s one of the things floating around the culture,” Fink says.
But he also says this theme of living fast and dying young, something that has long fascinated rock and roll artists and fans, is arguably a byproduct of something bigger and more deeply-rooted in the psyche of pop consumers.
In 1957, Norman Mailer penned his controversial essay “The White Negro”—a piece in which he discusses the fascination with jazz and swing music that so captivated young whites that they began to adopt black culture as their own.
“His argument is that there’s a way of being where you live in an existential way, that you could die at any moment,” Fink says. For blacks in the 1920s jazz scene, for example, that certainly was a reality, and Fink says that’s still something relevant for many African Americans today. Just being black poses a certain risk, regardless of your own personal choices (see: Trayvon Martin). “You’re basically living a dangerous life. You go through life and every encounter could end in violence.”