When Apple recently released a list of the ten most downloaded songs in the history of iTunes, it was in celebration of the 10 billionth download from the iTunes story. But when people got a load of the list, there wasn’t much celebrating. At least, those I followed on Twitter were linking to the list with comments that suggested they were linking to an article about the death of their mom. They were filled with grief, and disillusionment with the public who would embrace this music to the point of unequaled success. No, we’re not talking about the death of a parent here, but could we be talking about the death of a culture?

We could be. Or we could be falling victim to a common mistake, discounting something particularly because it is “popular.” My suspicion is that those who are most grieved by these songs haven’t really become acquainted with them. Nonetheless, there are tons of normal people out there who loved these songs enough to spend a dollar on them. What do they see in this stuff? And what does it all mean?

I hope to answer these questions by doing something that most of us refuse to do: taking these songs seriously. In the next few weeks, I’ll listen to and write about two songs at a time. Christ and Pop Culture has unwittingly ignored popular music for some time. This is unfortunate, because it’s clearly one of the biggest and more prevalent aspects of Popular culture that’s out there right now, even in the midst of its’ current downfall. Hopefully this series will begin to make up for this.

The Number Ten Most Downloaded Song of All Time: Ke$ha – ‘Tik Tok’
I have to say, we’re not off to a great start. There’s not a lot to like about this song, other than the undeniably catchy chorus. Nonetheless, the song is a perfect introduction to our series, being a startlingly transparent collection of pop music cliches and staples. From the opening needless cameo from rapper/mogul, P. Diddy to the straightforward description of hedonistic party life. Life’s purpose is the party, from the time we “wake up in the mornin'” and “brush my teeth with a bottle of jack.” What happens when the party’s over? Not an issue because, “the party don’t stop,” a classic pop sentiment that’s pushed to it’s logical conclusion here. In this life, who is the deity? The DJ: “You build me up, you break me down, my heart it pounds, yeah you got me. With my hands up, you got me now. You got that sound, yeah you got me.”

Really, it’s a song about social hedonism, a social contract that assumes that we are here for the sake of one another, though we have no actual responsibilities to one another. In fact, it is ourselves that is of primary importance: “The party don’t start till I walk in.” Ke$ha embraces a sort of stunted community in which the “boys try to touch my junk junk.” But don’t worry, she’ll “slap em’ if they get too drunk drunk.”

Bottom line? It’s an unsustainable lifestyle that refuses to acknowledge the very real dangers that follow from indulging. The social emphasis is commendable but not altogether surprising, and ultimately not helpful when short-circuited with a self-centered search for pleasure.

But gosh, it sure is catchy. It brings me pleasure. Ironically, though, I’ll be listening to this song (oftentimes on repeat) in the privacy of my own home.

The Number Nine Most Downloaded Song of All Time: Leona Lewis – ‘Bleeding Love’
On a list filled with self-centered, sentimental and vapid love and not-exactly-love songs, ‘Bleeding Love’ stands out. I like this song because it appreciates the love relationship without sentimentalizing it. Sure, it’s not a super-deep song, and it takes the frozen/closin’ heart metaphor a little further than it probably should (“My heart’s crippled by the vein that I keep on closin'”) but the song seems both sincere and a direct result of real emotional growth.

The song avoids blatant extremes that we see in other pop songs. Even those who try to keep her from the one she loves are friends looking out for her, not villains: “Yet I know that the goal is to keep me from falling.”

We could accuse the song of unabated emotionalism; the reasons cited for ignoring her friends advice aren’t exactly based on pure logic: “But nothing’s greater than the rush that comes with your embrace. In this world of loneliness I see your face.” Then again, how many of us always describe our love for someone else on purely logical terms? Does even Christ himself?


8 Comments

  1. Ok you got me Rich–I don’t know that I have ever even heard of Ke$ha much less heard this song. I think you are right to pay attention to popular music–the other day I was driving a couple of my soccer players to an out-of-town practice and I let one of them plug his iPod into my car stereo. This was quite an interesting experience. I suspect most of the music he listens to simply because of the catchy beats as you mentioned, but whoa, the lyrics were very much hedonistic.

    I may have ruined this young man’s appreciation for such songs because I brought this up and he no longer liked a couple of the songs. It ended with an opportunity to talk about the gospel.

    Interesting article Rich, I am looking forward to more of these.

  2. As I have thought more about my own music tastes–I would admit that a number of artists I love simply because of the beats or the music and I couldn’t really tell you much at all about the lyrics or the message which they present i.e. Sigur Ros, Passion Pit, and some Radiohead.

    I tend to connect more with music whose lyrics I do understand though, often times I disagree with what is presented therein but I find it challenging and thought-provoking nonetheless.

    There is value to all music from an artistic point of view, even popular music that I deliberately ignore. It may be true that popular music is actually more open and direct about their values and worldview as presented in “Tik Tok.”

  3. Good thoughts, Drew. The truth is that in a way I love Tik Tok, but not nearly as much as I would have had it been a little less… excessive.

    And like all media, it’s okay to listen to stuff we don’t wholeheartedly agree with, as long as we’re thoughtful and aware of those differences. Because of what you said in your first paragraph (2nd comment), music presents a particular challenge because of how subversive it can often be.

  4. Did you draw the short straw, Rich? :D

    Interesting, though. I bet my wife has heard of Tik Tok, but she likes to dance. I am a bit ashamed to realize that we own six of the ten. I’m not ashamed of three. And I freely admit to trying to incorporate the unbelievably catchy chorus of ‘I Gotta Feeling’ into a worship set.

    (Why did I think “I could only Imagine” would be on the top 10 list?)

  5. Good points. I catch myself listening to songs and even singing along, when I don’t fully agree with the lyrics (or understand them). That issue however is a direct result of not fully disagreeing with the lyrics, and sometimes lifestyles. Just one point. One of my favorite songs because of the music, is also not such a good thing. No matter how beautiful the music may seem the band is in one word evil. But the music is just…. Yep I really suffer from the sound loving. I apreciate any “different” music, or any well put together peice of music. On the other hand many bands have a flawed lifestyle yet their music can be uplifting still. Sometime I wonder how or if my radio presets will change once I have kids. We’ll see…..

    Leona Lewis has such a beautiful voice, and Bleeding Love is my favorite one she sings. Not a big fan of Ke$ha at all. But in the end sometimes we need to take a minute to read the lyrics, then you get a better sense of the direction of the song. Many of my freinds wonder how I know “that” when I explain a songs meaning to them. I just tell them I read the lyrics to get a better understanding of the song. And I do. Many times I go to Wikipedia (maybe not the best source) to read about a band. Then I have a better feel of the life styles and beliefs.

    Keep it up Rich

  6. Wow. I finally took the time to listen to those songs and I am absolutely outside the realm of those who rule the roost in terms of popular consumption. These songs are just not fun at all to listen to. And Ke$ha (Ke$ha?? Seriously?) needs to dump the autotune.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not really able to process song lyrics, so these performers respective lyrical content has nothing to do with my judgment of their music as undesirable. Frankly, it has wholly to do with the fact that they kind of hurt my ears. I listen to a good breadth of music all day long every day, but I don’t think I’ll ever apprehend the allure of these kinds of offerings.

    They are, to my ear, just bad. I can see junior highers digging them (and I’m sure that the largest segment of their iTunes downloads could be tracked to junior highers using their mom’s credit card or iTunes gift cards). But junior highers aren’t really known for their anything beyond their paucity of taste. (After all, in junior high, I thought Metallica and Motorhead were the height of musical genius. Lamentable, I know.)

  7. Hey man Metallica is a musical genius. However they will never be as genius as the musical “classical gas”.

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