Justifying My English Degree: Music and Lyrics, “Pop Is For Morons”

To begin, my apologies for neglecting the blog, but I honestly can’t think of anything to post that isn’t shameless plugging for Community Service or political blogging which is, let’s face it, nothing I’m really qualified to comment on other than the fact that I read the newspaper. (Yes, kids, they still have those. 😉 )

Instead, I want to critique scenes from media that don’t have a lot of literary criticism leveled at them: popular cinema, television that isn’t Breaking Bad, video games that aren’t Spec Ops: The Line. While I was attending Goddard, we were required to read, on average, about 15-40 books per semester and write a 2-4 page paper on every book. We got to pick our reading lists, but they needed approval from our advisors. While I would later study under Rachel Pollack at Goddard, I started at first under John McManus, who added a lot of literary fiction to my list telling me that he wanted to “get me out of my comfort zone”. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t assertive enough at the time to explain to him that I hadn’t had the chance to actually be in my comfort zone throughout my education. I’m aware that Ulysses is a towering work of English literature and that One Hundred Years of Solitude is likely one of the finest works ever written (and yes, I have read it). But Joyce and Marquez have legions of defenders, as do every other major literary writer, and the minor ones have plenty of grad students looking to exalt them for course credit.

When I was in undergrad at Oswego State, Literary Criticism was a required course, and I was lucky enough to get a professor willing to let me critique Roseanne for my final paper, so long as I demonstrated that I knew what the Hell I was doing. I studied Transmetropolitan for my Queer Theory class. My creative thesis at Goddard was entitled “Archetypes of the Modern Wizard Protagonist”, and I critiqued Harry Potter, Harry Dresden, and Anakin Skywalker. And I actually enjoyed literary criticism.

Unfortunately for me, it has its side effects. So now, whenever I’m enjoying popular entertainment, I tend to deconstruct a scene I enjoy to understand what exactly I like about it from a literary, sociological, or psychological standpoint.

So, given that, I’ve decided to start critiquing selected scenes on the blog, and I’ll be starting with one of my favorite movies.

THE FILM: Music and Lyrics, starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, Warner Bros., 2007.

SYNOPSIS: A washed up singer is given a couple days to compose a chart-topping hit for an aspiring teen sensation. Though he’s never written a decent lyric in his life, he sparks with an offbeat younger woman with a flair for words.

THE SCENE: Rattled by seeing an award winning novel based on her, Sophie, a reluctant lyricist, is talked down by Alex, a washed up pop star trying to get her back on track.

THE SCRIPT (Since I can’t find the clip online, also snipping a tiny bit for space):

SOPHIE: Since then, every time I pick up a pen I’m haunted by those words that he wrote, you know? “She was a brilliant mimic.” You know. “She could ape Dorothy Parker or Emily Dickinson but stripped of someone else’s literary clothes she was a vacant, empty imitation of a writer.”
ALEX: First of all, you can’t listen to some jerk.
SOPHIE: He’s not a jerk. He’s a National Book Award winner.
ALEX: Well, then, get the best revenge, write a hit song.
SOPHIE: (dismissively) Honestly, I don’t think a pop song is gonna impress Sloan Cates.
ALEX: Oh, no, of course not. (rolls eyes) Pop is just for morons. Forgot that.
SOPHIE: I didn’t mean anything by it.
ALEX: Brain-dead, or taken too many drugs. You know what I’d say to you and Sloan Cates? You can take all the novels in the world and not one of them will make you feel as good as fast as: (sings) I’ve got sunshine/ On a cloudy day/ When it’s cold outside/ I’ve got the month of May.
That is real poetry. Those are real poets. Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, the Beatles.
SOPHIE: Okay, Dylan walks up to you and he says, “You are a horrible songwriter.” How do you react?
ALEX: I would be horribly depressed. Yes. I would. I would. But then, after, you know, months of brooding, I would find a lyricist and write a song about how horribly depressed I was. And it would be a big hit, everyone would love me, and I’d make lots of money. Suddenly I’d be less depressed than if I just sat around being a little bit self-indulgent, letting my misery eat away at me until I’d become an emotional wreck and creatively completely moribund. Yes, moribund.

THE CRITIQUE:

I began with this scene simply because it explains why I’m doing this to begin with. There’s quite a bit of long-repressed exasperation by Alex in this scene, especially in his statement, “Oh, no, of course not. Pop is just for morons. Forgot that.” It underlines the frustrations of pop lyricists, blockbuster screenwriters, and genre fiction writers: We’ll never be taken seriously. It’s even shown here when Alex remarks that Sloan Cates is a jerk for turning Sophie into a fictional harridan, but it’s immediately countered with “He’s not a jerk. He’s a National Book Award winner.” Sloan Cates’s personal behavior and methods are placed above reproach because he’s a respected literary novelist, while Alex, once one of the biggest acts in the world, now has to settle for offers of doing high school reunions and celebrity boxing with Debbie Gibson for a chance to sing.

There’s a story that goes around writer’s circles about how Stephen King and John Updike were once interviewed separately, and King remarked he was happy with the sales he had, but wished he received the respect that Updike was lavished with. Updike remarked he was honored by the respect he received, but he wishes he had King’s sales.

That he chooses “My Girl” is telling. It’s a great, upbeat number that marries uplifting lyrics with C Major (which is regarded as the “simplest key”) that gives the listener easy access to a lot of positive emotions in under 3 minutes. It’s not a challenging number, given its reliance on using a pentatonic scale as the hook, but much like John Popper explained with “Hook” (though in his case, he uses the most commonly used chord structure in music), it doesn’t mean that the songwriters didn’t know exactly what they were doing. “My Girl”, like a lot of pop music, relies on musical “cheat codes” to make them stick, but instead of insulting the listener with that knowledge (Like, for example, Popper does with “Hook”), it’s an offered pick-me-up to the listener. It might tweak the formula, but it remains loyal to it because that’s what the people like.

It boils down to the inaccurate duality of artiste and poseur that’s been bandied about the creative community since we started telling stories around the fire and painting on walls. One side makes “true art”, and the other apes it to make money. It can be disheartening, to be thought less of by liking what’s popular simply because it’s likeable, especially if you’re educated and have some knowledge of why popular culture is, well, popular. It’s easy enough to put yourself into an “us vs. them” mentality, to be snide and sarcastic, to say, “Pop is just for morons. Forgot that.”

The irony is that Alex, like a lot of pop artists, fears the artistes may be right. “They write dinner. I write… dessert” as he says later in the film. Even in the “pop is for morons” speech, despite the fact that Alex has a point, it’s obvious from his tonality and word choice that Sophie isn’t the only one he’s trying to convince. He sings The Temptations, but doesn’t name them as “real poets”. Instead he puts forth pop’s elder statesmen: Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan, and concludes with unassailable saints in The Beatles.  His recovery is his fantasy that he’ll write a song “and it would be a big hit, everyone would love me, and I’d make lots of money” and vindication will follow in the form of a royalty check. Plus, he gets in a nice little vocabulary dig, as if to say “even though you think pop is for morons, that doesn’t mean that I’m a moron.”

The point that Alex dances around in his defense of “My Girl” and pop music is that the best pop music that stays with the listener does so not just because of the “cheat codes” and major chords, but because of the emotional honesty of the lyrics that’s paired with them. The entire film is built around the writing of a song for a Britney-styled pop diva that contains that kind of emotional honesty as well as a lovely melody in B-flat Major. Pop may be for morons, but damn, do those morons have some great music to listen to.

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