Massachusetts Daily Collegian

No legitimacy in pop music

By Benjamin Clabault

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GabboT/Flickr

(GabboT/Flickr)

I can still remember the first time I heard Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” My girlfriend and I were casually sipping wine when we remembered reading that she had a new song out. We turned on my laptop and gave it a listen. We hated it.

What was this garbage? Where was the old Taylor Swift? I had never been a huge Swift fan (or at least that’s the stance I’m maintaining in public), but I admired her talent as a songwriter. She had always spoken to her audience with an emotive, narrative style.

Taylor the artist had been replaced by Taylor the consumer product. It seemed a transition that robbed her of a certain legitimacy. “Teardrops on my Guitar”esounds like the artistic expression of a heartbroken teenage girl. “Shake It Off”fseems like the product of board meetings and marketing experts trying desperately to create a product that sells.

I felt pretty sophisticated for my nuanced take on Swift’s new material. Then a month later I was back at the University of Massachusetts for the fall semester. It was a Friday night, our friends were all over, and I was drunk. “Shake It Off” came on and everybody started dancing. I started dancing, and I loved it. I’ve had nothing but good things to say about the song ever since.

So, who was right? Pretentious me, who said pop music lacks the legitimacy of “true art?” Or late-Friday-night me, who dances to “Shake It Off” with abandon? Reflective me says both sides have a point.

A certain disdain for commercialized pop music is completely understandable. As critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued, culture itself has become an industry, with producers, as ever in a capitalist society, creating a “cycle of manipulation and retroactive need.” Can anyone be blamed for resisting overt manipulation?

But then I must also question pretentious me’s fervor for “legitimacy” in music. I love the Beatles and Bob Dylan. When I hear “In My Life” or “Boots of Spanish Leather,” I immediately appreciate the sincerity of the emotion and the beauty of the lyrics. But just a little research reminds me that plenty of manipulation (or marketing, call it what you will) was necessary in bringing this music to my ears as well. The Beatles were a rough and tumble outfit until manager Brian Epstein insisted they switch to their iconic suits and present themselves as the long-haired-yet-respectable bunch that got off the plane in America in 1964. Dylan spent his time in Greenwich Village spinning wild tales of various childhood escapades that had never happened, and even adopted a Woody Guthrie-esque persona to enhance his folkie image.

So maybe, then, legitimacy in art is something impossible to define or not really worth looking for. In a recent Dylan documentary, Allen Ginsberg described poetry as “some sort of subjective truth that has an objective reality because somebody has realized it.”

I’m beginning to think that’s how all art is. It has meaning because somebody says it does, whether that meaning has been manipulatively propagated or not.

So for now I’ve learned not to judge. Some songs I like, others I don’t. Take Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean” for example: I hate it. Well, until late Friday night, at least.

Benjamin Clabault is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

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