Let me pick up where I left off with Jeremih and Adele the other day. This is why I find myself reaching for the pop radio stations even more frequently than my iPod when I’m in the car these days: It’s a cavalcade of “Holy shit, did you hear this?” moments. There are absolutely any number of awful boring songs on there, from Bruno Mars’s novelty turd about sleeping late to the mercenary house tracks delivered by Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez. But in between you have these oddball amusement-park rides/sideshow attractions, like Katy Perry and Kanye West dueting about alien anal probes as a metaphor for strange love; or Britney Spears mounting back-to-back comeback hits with choruses that are a gag from Monty Python’s “Hungarian Phrasebook” sketch and simply the word “oh” repeated respectively; or pop’s slattern-in-chief Ke$ha having the sheer cajones to call a song “Blow,” packing not one not two but three entendres into a single syllable. Yes, I even enjoy Ke$ha now, at least as far as the material from her follow-up EP Cannibal goes: When one of her songs comes on I can listen till the end and know that for better or worse I will never get bored, which is a lot more than I can say for Usher.
If you’re detecting a degree of cultural condescension here…well, you’re probably right. I do not listen to this music exclusively, nor in chunks larger than a single at a time more often than not, and as such I’m going to react to this stuff differently than would someone for whom it’s their entire musical environment. When I get tired of the bombast and spectacle I can retreat to the new Wild Beasts record. Radio pop is certainly not a genre I turn to for subtletly: After all, Lady Gaga’s “Judas” is straightforward enough to be passed off as an outtake from Jesus Christ Superstar, yet compared “Hey Baby (Drop It to the Floor)” it’s goddamn Finnegan’s Wake.
I think that’s the problem it’s faced on the charts, more than Gaga fatigue or faux-controversy backlash or annoyance with that herky-jerky beat or the feeling we’ve been here before but better with “Bad Romance”: It’s not 100% clear, in completely idiot-proof fashion, what she’s singing about. Most songs on pop radio today are about wanting to dance or wanting to fuck, and they come right out and say it. “C’mon get me on the floor, DJ what’cha waitin’ for?” “Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it.” The booming subgenre of affirmation pop is just as blunt: we are who we are, the show goes on, I’m on the right track, etc. To the extent that pop has employed metaphor at all over the past several years, it’s usually done so with all the complexity of a Madlib: people are fireworks or extraterrestrials, they wear halos, their love is an umbrella. Gaga’s not really doing much more than that in “Judas”‘s love triangle — she’s just using proper nouns instead of regular nouns. But because she casts Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene in the leading roles, suddenly it seems like you’ve got some kind of Da Vinci Code to crack. Does she mean the real Judas? Hand to God, I heard a DJ ponder this aloud. And thus she breaks radio pop’s current custom: In a dance song, you sing about dancing. In a love song, you sing about love. In a sexy song, you sing about sex. In an empowering song, you sing about empowerment. In a break-up song, you sing about breaking up. This leaves very little room for kings with no crowns or “in the conjugal sense, I am beyond repentance.”