As a tween/young teen in the 1970’s, I was a pop-aholic. I guess it all started around ’72. I turned eight that year, and for Christmas, I got my very own Panasonic ball-shaped radio that looked exactly like the one on the left. What more could a kid want? Suddenly, I could listen to AM radio any time, anywhere at all.
Most of the time, that was in my bedroom. And since I lived in suburban Massachusetts, there was only one radio station that mattered: WRKO in Boston, which played Top 40 music. (RIP, Dale Dorman, legendary Boston DJ.) Of course, I didn’t love every song on that station, but I’d listen to it all, patiently waiting for my favorites to come on. Then, when one of them did, it would feel like a victory. I remember sitting on my bed with a notebook, writing down the lyrics to the songs I loved as they played, because I wasn’t sure when I’d hear them again.
Yes, it was all about the lyrics. Sure, the melodies were infectious, but the words were so much more important. I wanted to know them so I could sing along, think about them, imagine what the singer was thinking as he or she sang them. At the time, I had no idea why, but as an adult, it’s clear to me that I was drawn to lyrics because almost every top 40 song in the 70s was about love, or dating, or relationships of some kind. In one way or another, those songs taught me that romantic love involved deep, complicated feelings.
Some of the songs I remember liking best as an elementary/middle/ young high school kid were Tony Orlando and Dawn’s Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree, about a guy coming home after being in jail for three years (for robbery) and wondering if his girlfriend still loves him; Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle; Diana Ross’s Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To?) about the heartache of lost love; The Captain and Tenille’s Love Will Keep Us Together; Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together; The Manhattans’ Kiss and Say Goodbye, in which the singer tearfully explains to his girlfriend why they have to break up (presumably, one or both of them is married, but it’s still terribly difficult); Barbra Streisand’s The Way We Were; Barry Manilow’s Mandy, another ballad of lost love; We’ve Only Just Begun by the Carpenters; and Shannon by Henry Gross, about a beloved lost dog. And while all of these songs are about relationships, not one of them is about the importance of physical beauty. They’re all about emotional connections.
Now shortly after I got into high school, I became introduced to a new thing called FM radio, and new stations that played rock & roll. And sure, the songs on FM were about lots of things besides love. But I didn’t discover FM until I was fourteen or fifteen. At that point, I rejected pop and refused to listen to that “cheesy crap” any more. But the pop years were my formative years, and I feel certain that hearing all those sweet songs about true love made a huge impact on my ultimate goals in life. I went through some rough times in my teens and twenties–and was in some pretty bad relationships–but I never lost sight of my desire to be with someone who loved me the way Jim Croce loved the woman he sang to in Time in a Bottle. I knew there was someone out there that I’d love even if he went to jail for three years, like the guy in Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree. And because of that faith, I found him.
That’s why the current state of pop music bothers me so much. Because kids—elementary and middle-school kids—listen to pop. Not all of them–of course there are exceptions—but pop tends to be the music that gets played at school dances, shopping malls, bowling alleys, sporting events, and other places kids frequent. Remember listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40? Well Ryan Seacrest is in charge of that operation today, and kids still love to listen to it. But as the mother of an eighth grader, I’m often dismayed when she and her friends get in the car and turn it on.
Why? Well not only because most of the songs are about sex in one form or another, but also because of the huge emphasis most of the songs place on physical appearance. Yes, there are some artists (John Legend, Sam Smith, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, to name a few) who are still able to get airplay for sincere songs about love and relationships, but the main focus of most Top 40 songs these days seems to be on booty, breasts, legs, lips, body parts that people want to touch, body parts that people aren’t allowed to touch, drinking, partying, and sex (with no talk of love). And before you call me a cranky old lady, have a listen for yourself.
I’m not a prude and I don’t believe in censorship for artists, except in extreme situations. But I can’t understand why pop—fun, pure, pop—has become so body-focused. More importantly, how are these messages affecting our kids? What do they think when they sing along with “Talk Dirty to Me”, “Anaconda”, “Bang Bang”, and “Chandelier?” Is it possible for them to still believe in the existence of true love, or do they think sex, looking hot, drinking, and having the right kind of booty are more critical?
A few years back, Adele was all over pop radio—and she offered some real hope—but even she seems to be gone from the airwaves these days. One of my daughter’s friends recently asked me who Aretha Franklin was, and my heart sank.
I want to believe though. I want to believe there are artists out there–on pop radio–who have their hearts in the right place. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post titled “Are Lyrics Dead in Pop Music?” and it got a good deal of feedback. People wrote to tell me about the amazing lyrics in contemporary rap, indie, alternative, and country music. And I’d never dispute that. There are some incredibly gifted artists writing in those musical genres. But most middle school kids aren’t listening to that stuff. Most of them are listening to pop, and I really wish more pop artists would sing songs that feature lyrics about relationships that go deeper than physical attraction and one-night-stands.
Do you know of any such artists and/or songs? If so, please let me know. Feel free to comment on this post, or, of you prefer to use Twitter, please consider using the hashtag #PopMusicAboutLove. Here are a few songs I’ve heard that I think are in that category, and I’m going to tweet them.
Thank you for reading, and again, I welcome any and all feedback!