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On Lorde and PSY: Pop Stars Who Break the Mold

On Lorde and PSY: Pop Stars Who Break the Mold

By Dennis Loo (12/27/13)

Lorde (aka Ella Yelich-O’Connor, a 17-year-old new pop star from New Zealand) and PSY (Park Jaesang, a Korean pop star most famous for his smash hit Gangnam Style) are examples of the fact that what popular culture (read: mainstream, read: market moguls’ dominated) is does not necessarily mirror the putative shallowness of its audience. Put another way, pop isn’t what it is primarily because that’s what the masses want it to be. It’s something else.

Lorde’s hit, “Royals” has as of this writing over 129 million hits. As The New York Times describes it in its December 26, 2013 issue, in an article entitled: “Lorde’s ‘Royals’ Is Class-Conscious”:

[S]he sings about middle-class kids bombarded by music-video fantasies of bling and luxury but responding, “That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.” It’s palatial-sounding pop that doesn’t condescend to listeners of any age. The song and her debut album brought Lorde four Grammy nominations — including song of the year — although she was inexplicably denied a fifth, for best new artist.

“Teenagers are more complex than people think,” she said via Skype from New Zealand.

Teens aren’t all superficial mall-rats obsessed with themselves, their looks, the latest gadgets, and commodity culture? They're not just all brainwashed by capitalism's narcissism? They’re more complex than people think. What a refreshing attitude and revelation!

Says Lorde further:

“I’m a pop princess at heart,” she said. Yet her own pop raises the stakes. “Pop is about distilling what you want to say and making it easy. And the way I write isn’t about making things easy,” she said. “It’s a weird juxtaposition.”

It is a weird juxtaposition, but one that is pregnant with possibilities. This is roughly analogous to PSYs satiric Gangnam Style that takes K-pop sensibilities and turns them inside out. It’s true that most people who became fans of Gangnam Style don’t get that it’s a satire about the consumer-crazy lifestyle in Gangnam (see this fine analysis of Gangnam Style in The Atlantic by Max Fisher). But what both of these artists prove is that one can convey messages that are subversive of the style they are working in, and if they do so in creative, fresh, compelling ways, that an audience is there for their music and message.

Complexity and profound ideas can be conveyed in ways that are accessible to people, not by dumbing it down but by making it clearer. This is true in all arenas of life.

All too many people believe and will argue vociferously that the media - news and entertainment - simply reflect what the audience wants. And if media’s news and entertainment are mind-numbingly superficial and narrow, then blame that on the audience. What this common perspective that blames the public for what’s on the air and in print misses most of all is that leadership sets the standards – in all arenas. If the only ones who are setting the standards are setting them low, then the masses will tend to reflect that standard. If the leadership probes deeper questions and does so in ways that resonate with people, then the people will similarly respond to higher standards. This is true in music as it is true in every other area in social life, sports, inter-personal relations, and most certainly including politics.


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