No one remembers who Petula Clark is anymore, but, her upbeat songs in the 60s like “Downtown” and “My Love Is Warmer Than The Sunshine” will live on forever in shopping malls and feel-good Christmas imagery. The music video for “Downtown” was made with little thought: There was no clear distributive avenue for music videos then, so Clark sings against a backdrop of urban imagery. But the video nevertheless reflects a wholesomeness that is as pure as its lyrics. You go downtown to “get away from all your troubles” because “there are movie shows,” not to pleasure someone.
It goes without saying that music is a barometer for showing what a society values. But it’s not as simple as saying music from one period reflects the values of that time period — far from it, the music that survives shapes how we think about that period today. What we choose to preserve says a lot more about us than it does about the past. This idea necessitates an element of forgetting, and among all the artists you can look at — the roving folk bands, the indie punk kids, the chilly EDM D.J.s and the rising rap stars — the best measure of them all might be the hyper-exposed pop stars that consistently top the charts. Many songs are forgettable, but pop is an amorphous catch-all genre that is the most forgettable of all. You can’t really understand punk music and forget who the Sex Pistols are, but you can understand pop music today without hearing the big swing bands of the ‘30s.
Big Pop may be the musical genre whose evolution is as fast-paced as politics. It was not always like this: Frank Sinatra, for example, started out crooning over jazzy and swingy music in the ‘40s, and his dramatic career transformation in the ‘50s with In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning just had him singing over quieter blues and jazz. Pop music budged a bit when Elvis and Bill Haley moved from country blues to rock and roll, but it was only when The Beatles came from nowhere with its self-written polished rock songs that Big Pop took on a breakneck pace of adopting the latest musical trends. The Monkees lifted the psychedelic rock of The Doors for its own bubblegum pop. Madonna brought in Eurodance. Britney Spears threw in dubstep. And Rihanna, in a recent SNL performance, even embraced “Seapunk” to the extent videos of Atari computer graphics and dolphins can be considered a musical genre. Also, every song nowadays seems to feature a verse from a guest rapper.
Forgetting, in this context, is a passive act but it is not independent. Rather, we make a deliberate decision to remember certain things, and our limited memory capacity does the rest. By melding genres, pop songs entice us to consciously remember them. What we choose, however, says a lot about ourselves. We memorialize Elvis but not Fats Domino, and in doing so we forget rock and roll’s African-American origins, shaped by racial tensions. We remember “Downtown” and generate a pastoral and idyllic image of the ‘60s, but we treat the decade’s social upheaval separately.
With songs still as memorable as a cloud in the sky, Big Pop hasn’t changed much. Frank Sinatra was to Bobby Soxers as Justin Bieber is to Beliebers. Huge acts that win Grammys will be obscure in 20 years. Reactionaries will still turn around and make their own left field music, like the punks did.
And if that’s the case, which songs of today will survive the passage of time? Will we remember “Gangnam Style” next summer? What about “The Motto?” The over-the-top things that Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj do are less about social liberation than they are about liberation from collective forgetfulness. Try not to feel uncomfortable when you see Lady Gaga in a meat dress or when Nicki Minaj is making a face. In the end they all want to avoid the fate that “Downtown” suffered: the blatant trivializing of their music as their own personality fades away.
But here’s one thing that everybody will be happy to forget about: the outfit Justin Bieber wore when he met the Canadian Prime Minister. Can you believe that happened? Oops, sorry for reminding you