Why Does Pop Romanticize Dying Young?

Narcissism, the economy, and a fascination with gangster culture all play into the resurgence of "live fast, die young" themes in today's pop culture.

Swedish duo Icona Pop, known for the single "I Love It." (Danny Moloshok / Reuters)

Bieber with his swag, Miley with her tongue, Skrillex’s stupid haircut ... There are tons of reasons to tune out modern pop music that don’t have a thing to do with the music itself.

But if you do listen—really pay attention—you might find something in today’s pop that’s a lot more bothersome. There’s an apocalyptic, we’re-all-gonna-die-anyway theme that keeps popping up—a YOLO-style message to do whatever you want right now because tomorrow you might be in a box.

Icona Pop’s song “I Love It” is an ode to crashing cars, throwing someone else’s stuff down the stairs and essentially doing whatever the hell they want, all the while proclaiming “I don't care, I love it." In “Die Young,” the always-prolific Ke$ha tells someone she just met to "make the most of the night like we're gonna die young." There’s Fun.'s "We Are Young," One Direction's "Live While We're Young," Rick Ross and Kanye West's "Live Fast, Die Young."

None of these people expect to actually drop dead tomorrow, I assume. But could this message be reflective of something bigger? And is the fact that songs like these resonate with so many young Americans a kind of glitter-coated cry for help?

Dr. Jean Twenge, a psychologist and the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, says that music, alongside TV shows, movies and books, is always a product of what’s going on in a culture.

“[It’s] a way of seeing what our culture values,” she says. “I think cultural products are a really good way of capturing the zeitgeist, the spirit of the moment.”

Twenge has done some studies of her own on pop music. In a paper she co-authored, Twenge and her colleagues studied hit songs from 1980-2007 and found that pop lyrics have slowly started to be less communal, and more individualistic. There’s far less of that sweet “I Want To Hold Your Hand” vibe than there once was in pop music. That’s not to say it’s gone (remember “Call Me Maybe?”), but Twenge’s team observed a steady upswing of narcissistic themes and first-person singular pronouns—words like “I,” “me,” and “mine—in pop music.

“Changes in popular music lyrics mirror increases in narcissism over the past 27 years, with musical lyrics becoming increasingly self-focused over time,” they wrote.

“Everything in the ’80s was ‘love, love, we’re together,’” Twenge says over the phone. “It was sappy and insipid, but it was about togetherness.”

This shift is reflective of her studies and book, which find that young Americans are increasingly extraverted and confident, albeit narcissistic. And so when pop music gets death-obsessed, it is reflecting those attitudes. “Narcissism is correlated with risk-taking,” Twenge says. “And we know that narcissism is higher in this generation than other ones.” So, she says, of course music with “me” themes would appeal to them, and messages of taking risks because you’re likely to be dead soon would resonate.

This isn’t to say the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” days of pop were dominated by church-going teetotalers unwilling to get a little crazy. Jim Morrison, who sung “Hello, I Love You,” was no stranger to the bottle. And even pop darlings such as Whitney Houston in the 1980s were struggling with pill addiction while they were singing of “we” and “you.”

But, if drug-use statistics are a gauge of generational recklessness, then young people certainly are reckless. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has seen a steady rise in illicit drug usage in people aged 18-20 over the past six years (particularly in Ecstasy use—a drug both Rihanna and Miley Cyrus reference in some of their most popular songs).

But John Covach, director of the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester, says youth recklessness and a dramatization of death has always had a place in pop. He points to the “splatter platters” of the 1950s and ’60s (songs like “Leader of the Pack” and “Tell Laura I Love Her”) and The Who’s “My Generation.”

“If you dig deep enough, not only just in rock culture, but in post World War II youth culture, you can find this kind of attitude of live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse,” he says. “That part of [pop music] is not new. The die-young, James Dean deal—that goes back to the ’50s.”

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.”

“There’s a sense that [Mailer] links to jazz… he links that to the kinds of experiences when you have to throw down in the moment and be real,” Fink says. “There’s a kind of cultural matrix where the music of African Americans has a certain kind of code of [living] with death at the door. If you want to trivialize that you’re going to say you’re going to party like it’s 1999.”

Today, Fink says, “live fast, die young” isn’t embodied by the James Dean motorcycle rebel, but by the African American male—and not necessarily by choice. Hip-hop has been the focal point of popular music for the past 15 to 20 years: a genre where rappers like Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.—two young men who lived fast and died young—are seen as patron saints. Legions of rappers embodying that same lifestyle have followed, and like Mailer’s white kids embodying the jazz life, white America has begun to idolize this gangster character, too.

“There’s this unusual moment where the history of rap was about parties. And then at a certain point it becomes about gangs and crime. And now it’s about parties again,” Fink says. “It’s all about being in the club and making it rain. The truth is the people in the club making it rain are in the position of being gangsters.” And, unlike the “Leader of the Pack” motorcycle rebel who died tragically, the gangster lives in a world dictated by random violence.

And so eventually, after years of extruding the African American experience through a pop music filter, saying to “live fast and die young” is to say you’re hard. You’re tough. You’re gangster. And you might as well live it up in the club right now because, who knows, tomorrow you might get blown away.

And the most interesting part, Fink says, is that pop music and pop culture has been saturated with this attitude for so long now, that a song doesn’t even have to sound like hip-hop—the very thing it derives its inspiration from—to carry the same message.

“It’s a cultural position that is almost in the air that people breathe.”