I was recently at Barnes and Noble Union Square, trying to decide between picking up some Jhumpa Lahiri or a collection of essays Aldous Huxley wrote while he was tripping his face off, when I stumbled upon Aimee Mann giving a free in-store interview and performance. Mann’s new album, @#%&*! Smilers (which Mann affectionately refers to as “Fucking Smilers), is a solid collection of her signature melancholic pop stylings, although it’s a bit more focused on characters and storytelling than the overtly personal, vulnerable content of some of Mann’s previous efforts. When asked about the meaning of the record’s title, Mann talked about how she is frequently asked why she doesn’t smile more, and why the content of her songs is consistently so depressing. “As if any good pop songs are ever happy,” she quipped.
This remark really stuck with me. While I ultimately think I have a strong tendency to agree with her, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether Mann’s comment is actually true, or more of a generalization to acknowledge the fact that so much great pop music (especially when it’s by white people) stems from abject misery and despair. In any event, the following list is my attempt to catalog the top ten pop songs that utilize positive themes without sacrificing quality. Let’s get joyful:
10. Stay (Wasting Time)- Dave Matthews Band
9. Everything’s Not Lost- Coldplay
8. Maybe I’m Amazed- Paul McCartney
7. You Are the Sunshine of My Life- Stevie Wonder
6. Every Little Thing She Does is Magic- The Police
5. Three Little Birds- Bob Marley
4. Lovely Day- Bill Withers
3. Happy Together- The Turtles
2. Good Vibrations- The Beach Boys
1. All You Need is Love- The Beatles
As you can see, I was clearly harder pressed to find recent recordings to fit this list. I could have easily put together a top ten that read like a Greatest Hits of 1964 compilation, or even a list comprised of exclusively Beatles songs (or even solo McCartney, but that gets tricky when one considers his insistence on multiple homoerotic collaborations with Michael Jackson in the early ‘80s), but I deliberately tried to draw from multiple eras for the sake of this piece. Still, I was really only able to come up with one from the last decade, which is pretty outrageous, and I’m sure selecting Dave Matthews as the representative from the nineties will be a controversial call as well. Why so serious, modern pop music?
The current disconnect between pop and happiness could simply be due to the fact that getting all happy has been done before, and artists are consciously trying to explore new lyrical and thematic territory. I doubt this is the case, though. Darkness in pop has been around forever. Once the bubblegum pop surge of the early to mid-sixties had died down, acts like Led Zeppelin (who frequently addressed black magic and/or J.R.R. Tolkien in their songs) and David Bowie (who frequently sang about his disillusionment with society, politics, identity, and the restrictions of having to settle on just one gender), became wildly popular, despite their heavier messages. In 1980, new wave bad boy and icon of cynicism Elvis Costello released the ironically-titled Get Happy!, essentially mocking the very concept of happiness and pop peacefully coexisting.
The point is, pop songwriters have been hating on happiness for almost as long as the genre has existed, and yet that hasn’t stopped folks like Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley and Huey Lewis (that’s right, I just put Huey Lewis in the same sentence with those other two) from doing some uplifting shit in the ‘70s, ‘80s and beyond.
And yes, while history has showed us that it’s certainly trickier to sustain credibility when your biggest songs are titled “Do You Believe in Love,” “The Power of Love,” and “Hip to Be Square,” it is by no means a condemnation of the concept of happy pop being capable of achieving awesomeness. I think, rather, that the absence of positivity in modern pop is a symptom of our cultural climate specifically, and has little to do with our place in the historical context of popular music. We are a generation of restless, neurotic, uncertain, self-conscious modern jackasses, without cause, direction, or purpose. Not only do we not feel happy, we’re also too afraid to publicly display any inklings of happiness so openly, lest we get characterized as naïve, sheltered or uninteresting. So, instead, we brood, and we demand that our pop heroes do the same. Until we can collectively celebrate the fact that John Mayer, despite being an all-around d-bag, is capable of taking a wildly jubilant guitar solo, we will continue to rely on the songs of Ben Gibbard and Conor Oberst to help us quietly cry ourselves to sleep each night. Fuck smilers, man.