It’s the year 2000. American Pie defines teen film. The whole world is listening to their radios, and they’re singing along to a song by a rock band called Wheatus: “Teenage Dirtbag”.
Fast forward ten years.
It’s the year 2010. Twilight defines teen film. The whole world is listening to their iPods, and they’re singing along to a song by a pop star named Katy Perry: “Teenage Dream”.
The songs have similar themes. Wheatus’ catchy acoustic/pop/rock anthem discusses a dream about a girl named Noelle, who rings the singer’s bell ’cause she rocks “in keds and tube socks”. However, Noelle doesn’t know who he is, and doesn’t give a damn about him. It is a song about intense longing and the teenage condition, communicating the honest, realistic feelings of an outcast teenage dude. Then, finally, in the bridge, Noelle recognizes who he is, and invites him to go with her to an Iron Maiden concert–his favorite band, and the outcries of dramatic emotion–“I NEED AIR”–remain; if in a more positive context this time around.
Perry’s song is about a dream as well, however shallow that dream may be. The Perry song is told from the perspective of an apparently sexy teenage girl, who believes that the guy she’s going out with is genuine because he thinks she’s pretty without makeup and thinks she’s funny even though her comic abilities are lackluster at best. Before he met her, things were “heavy”, but not anymore–whisking her away from tough decisions and drama that necessarily pervade the teenage existence–as they are in eternal, happily ever after love… and then they have sex. Seriously. That’s it.
Now, while Perry’s message has its merit (sex is good, we should have it, woo!), let’s analyze who she would be having sex with. Being a sexy teenage girl, she’s most likely dating a douchebag. And considering that her husband is this guy:
…it’s a pretty safe assumption. The song is about hedonism and ignoring the “heavy” stuff. It’s shallow and lacks soul, like the auto-tuned vocals, thin production and lazy beat that backs it. Not a bad thing, but not exactly realistic or particularly good.
Wheatus’ jam, on the other hand, combines an acoustic guitar and a loop in its backbeat, using cognitive dissonance to reflect the teenage experience: a soulful guitar mixed with superficial rhythms that drive life in high school. By the end of the song, however, the beats give way to driving, emotional electric guitars and a real drumbeat. The song’s dynamics and musical pattern reflect the teenage emotional rollercoaster. The lyrics discuss how Noelle’s boyfriend’s a dick, always bringing a gun to school and ignoring the protagonist, who he’d bully if he didn’t ignore him. The protagonist likes classic rock, not top 40 nonsense. The bridge, involving the singer wailing in his best chick voice (one of history’s best, I must say; Mrs. Featherbottom has some competition), reveals how Noelle is a teenage dirtbag too–subtextually insinuating that she gives a damn about him and that the ‘teenage dirtbag’ is something to aspire to be. The teenage dirtbag is the ideal, not the asshole. That alone makes the song ten times better, much less the fact that the song has emotion and soul.
So what’s happened to our culture? iPods and the internet have revolutionized the way we consume everything, but the things we consume are less real, less good than ever. Glee, once a beacon of hope in pop music, sold out, trading in Broadway and classic rock for Top 40 and tribute episodes to Lady Gaga.
Is pop culture on the decline? I think so. I think it’s about time for a 90s renaissance. But that’s me.
Choose for yourself:
Side note: What would have happened if Glee covered “Dirtbag” instead of “Dream”? That’s a fun hypothetical.