While on tour last summer, I passed a few happy moments eating a crudely assembled sandwich under the awning of a gas station on the outskirts of Memphis. Much to my chagrin, the soundtrack to this precious moment was the One Direction song, “What Makes You Beautiful”. I’d heard it before, of course. The song was practically the definition of ubiquitous last summer. But in that moment I heard that song for what it really is- an incredibly subtle psychological ploy to ensnare young female fans.
Take a look at the lyrics of the chorus:
“Baby you light up my world like nobody else,
The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed,
But when you smile at the ground it ain’t hard to tell,
You don’t know,
You don’t know you’re beautiful.”
See, great pop songs do two things: illustrate a universal human truth, and leave enough room in the narrative for the listener to feel that it was written just for them. Take “The Dock of the Bay”, for example. How the song achieves the first function of a great pop song is what kept it at #1 on the charts for a month straight (uh, that and Otis’s untimely death, pour some out for that hero). It’s about getting nowhere in life no matter how much you or everyone else in your life wants you to. There are few things more natural in life than to feel want and frustration, and the sweet, melancholy chords that that sentiment is laid over really get at something very true about being alive.
But how “The Dock of the Bay” fulfills the second function of a great pop song is part of what’s made it a timeless classic. The way I see it, there are only four concrete details in this song: 1) The main character is sitting on the dock of the bay, 2) He left his home in Georgia, 3) He headed for the San Francisco bay and 4) Despite what he and others want, he can’t change. That leaves an incredible amount of space in the narrative for a listener to insert their own details. Sure, Georgia and San Fran are pretty specific, but when I listen to this song, what I feel is, “I left my home in Phoenix, headed for the New York bay”, because that’s how my own story fits into the framework of the song. Even if you’ve never left your hometown, there’s probably a part of you that longs for something bigger and better, and that’s the feeling that this song taps into. It’s what makes it great and timeless.
Now, I’m not going to claim that this One Direction song is classic, timeless, or even good, but one thing that it does incredibly effectively is allot room in the narrative for the listener, in this case by and large tween-age girls. “You light up my world like nobody else”, “the way you flip your hair”, “when you smile at the ground”-all incredibly vague sentiments, yet schmaltzy enough to light up the shallow emotional/pleasure zones of a 13 year old girl’s brain. But the tour de force of this song is the last line of the chorus: “You don’t know you’re beautiful”. See, what this line does is engage every young woman who’s ever thought she was ugly, and very smoothly but very forcefully, tells her that she’s been wrong this whole time. She’s really beautiful! Not to be callous, but this song sold millions of copies because it gave every young woman who has ever thought that she wasn’t beautiful (I’m guessing most?) the momentary high of feeling desirable in another’s eyes. To unpack the misogynist philosophy at the heart of this song is a task beyond me. Suffice it to say it’s there and it’s used to move units.
One Direction is hardly the only pop act to use this subtle brand of pop (music) psychology. Carly Rae Jepsen’s break out hit, “Call Me Maybe”, employs the same tactic “And all the other boys/ try to chase me/ but here’s my number/ so call me, maybe?”. You picking up on this? All of the other boys chase her around, but the implication is that she doesn’t give them the time of day. There’s something special about you, so Carly’s willing to be a little crazy and give you her number. If you also believe that there’s something special going on between the two of you, take a chance and call her, maybe.
Or how about Taylor Swifts’ “You Belong With Me”? It’s a tale for the under dogs, a hegemonic sales pitch to the 90% of high schoolers who don’t belong to the Cool Club. If you don’t wear short shorts, aren’t on the cheer squad, or don’t own a pair of high heels, then you probably identify with Taylor’s character in this song. Best of all, this “calling all weirdos” anthem is being sold by a beautiful young starlet, which makes it function almost like an invitation to come and join the conventionally desirable. It’s brilliant, but it’s also pretty distressing if you look at it too closely.
So what does Bob’s Burgers have to do with this? Well, in keeping with their 3-season long traditional of excellently crafted original music, the recent episode “Boyz 4 Now” riffed hard on psychologically manipulative boy band music.
“Will you be my coal mine?” Brilliant.
The hilarious original music for this episode sharply satirises the music of bands like One Direction and Carly Rae Jepsen, but it iss the rest of the A-plot that really hits the nail on the head. Tina and Louise sneak onto Boyz 4 Now’s bus and uncover the dirty secrets of the band- Matt’s really old and has a kid, and Boo Boo’s so young he has to be strapped into a infant’s car seat when he rides on the tour bus.
It’s no secret and nothing new, but boy bands and the majority of Top 40 artists are artistically bankrupt and morally ambiguous. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have anything of real musical value to offer, but it does mean that they should be seen for what they are. Big ups to Bob’s Burgers for having such fun with it, and here’s hoping that Top 40 writers will learn to use their manipulative powers for something a little better than selling records- after all, these are trying and bizarre times to be a human, and if the work of art, both high and low, is to illuminate the nature of being alive, then let it show us something a bit more profound than our vanity.