Pop music has always been characteristically obsessed with youth. From the public outcry (and arousal) over Britney Spears' '90s sexy schoolgirl in "Hit Me Baby" to the shocked pearl-clutching over Miley formally renouncing her wholesome Hannah Montana image, we've been paradoxically titillated yet also condemnatory of the youthful sexuality behind top 40 pop songs. It is no coincidence that for all the tween starlets toying with a sultry image, there exist other pop stars -- more mature, more jaded, more world-weary (at least in how they present themselves) -- that play with the concept of death. From Lana Del Rey's Lolita-esque "Born to Die" to Ke$ha's "Die Young," pop stars toying with death can somehow appear alongside their lively, celebratory, youth-obsessed colleagues with no one batting an eyelash at the awkward juxtaposition of tone and aesthetic.
In terms of this death-centric motif that is alluded to in pop, some might say -- as Dr. Jean Twenge, author of a book on the subject and mentioned in a 2013 Atlantic article -- that the almost-macabre "live fast, die young" theme behind a plethora of modern pop songs is simply an expression of the "narcissism" that is so definitive of the Millennial generation. “Narcissism is correlated with risk-taking,” she says in the Atlantic piece. “And we know that narcissism is higher in this generation than other ones.” Perhaps that's true (personally, I would argue that it's less about arrogant narcissism and more about aware cynicism -- Millennials face incredibly more obstacles than other generations to buying a car, owning a house, and achieving careers they are qualified for; so, why not party if everything's fucked anyway?), but, even if you don’t believe pop always had a confident swagger, it’s overly simplistic to blame one generation for the majority of top 40 music. In a world where pop stars are frequently made, not born (here's to you, Disney), it's hard to credit someone like Miley (whose first album was released when she was 15) as wholly in control of her initial public-facing image. Debut pop songs may be sung by Millennials, but chances are they were conceived of (and written by) older generations. Let’s look at who’s in power here, people.
The obsession with youth in pop is perhaps more easily understandable. Being young and falling in (and out) of love is the standard if just for the reason that it’s ostensibly something everyone can relate to. More cynically, sex sells, and youthful sex objects are just by definition more, ahem, sexy to a mass market. But that’s a bit lazy. People are oddly perplexed and fascinated with ages “on the edge” – of adolescence and adulthood, innocence and impurity. There’s a reason the coming-of-age stories in fairy tales stick around for so long.
But what’s most interesting is not simply the paradox of these two different breeds of pop existing, but that so often it is the same artists who transition from one to the other, not just opposing artists occupying different tunes and themes. Before Lana del Rey, there was just Lizzie Grant. For all of the Disney Channel friendliness of mid ‘90s Britney, she burst out of her shell with “I’m A Slave 4 U.” And Xtina and Miley both rebranded as sex objects rather than teen icons with songs “Drrrty” and “Can’t Be Tamed.” This of course was meant to signify their newfound maturity and open them to a more adult listener base, but also jarring – why was this change expected as opposed to shocking?
But let’s get down to the point here. Pop music is about excess. Looking at just the auditory effects, lyrics about hyperbolic feelings of love, music videos with an ultra luxe aesthetic, or simply a lush, dreamlike, uber-produced sound grant pop an escapist quality that lets it sneakily get caught in your head but also add that guilty pleasure sort of shock that some of us might feel when watching, say, one of the Bravo Real Housewives franchises. In a way, our obsession with pop and its fetishization of youth or death transpires in the same way – human are raven-like in their obsession for all things shiny and shocking and excessive and appealing.
Pop is more than just an attempt to appeal to our base desires (youth) and fears (death). There is power in these desires, something transformational, even liminal. For those of us that are (count your blessings) less anthropologically-read, liminality refers to an “in-between” period. It can refer to baptism or marriage but also puberty or larger social change like war or revolution; it is the time or action of change in between two states of being. Adolescence and death are two qualities quite liminal in themselves, being the border between childhood and adulthood or life and the afterlife, respectively. When Britney sings “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman,” she gets at this concept quite eloquently. Indeed, there is something fascinating about transformation, about being in a state of change. By focusing on the liminal, we can reminisce on the past while also hypothesizing about the future. And, frankly, if Britney can see the merit in this, we all should.