Selfishness: the new hit sound

John Lennon once joked that “The Beatles were more popular than Jesus,” but when you look at today’s biggest artists (read as: Kanye West), clearly they believe they are gods themselves, and sadly, this serves as an all-too-accurate encapsulation of many of the larger sentiments that dominate the current mainstream music scene.

The fact is that over the past decade or so, the musical mainstream has become a parade of disgustingly selfish lyrics, and the days of music being “of the people” and “for the people” are little more than a distant memory. It’s no longer about how the larger community can be lifted up; but the self-centered “look how much I have, compared to how little you have” tones that you can find in nearly every genre of popular music.

When you dig all the way back to the 1960s, you can hear countless songs of group enjoyment and empowerment from “dancing in the street” to “we shall overcome,” and a laundry list of similar sentiments. Along with these, the two best examples of the shift can be found in The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” and Bob Marley’s iconic “War.” These songs overflow with attitude of group mentality and an understanding that even though the musicians were better off financially, the songs they wrote were for people of any social status, and in many cases, they themselves still felt they were part of the community that supported them.

Even in the 1980s, a musical era known for excess like never before, there was still an overriding tone of community within the music, and whether it was Mötley Crüe’s “Girls Girls Girls” or Madonna’s “Into The Groove,” there was always a feeling that even the most simple and plain person around was still invited to the musical party. Many of the songs may have been about going way over the line in terms of partying, but it was never about a single entity being better than others; it spoke to a “more the merrier” idea instead.

Even going back to only one generation ago, the word and feeling of “the we” is all over the top of the charts, from Nirvana to Dr. Dre and everything in between. Even when it wasn’t being explicitly stated in the lyrics, there is a consistent sense of the artist being part of the community, as opposed to above it that cannot be denied. From more blatant examples like the song “Come As You Are” to the collective party tones that come through so clearly on tracks like “Gin N Juice,” the number of songs that fall into this category vastly outweighs any other.

Looking at the modern day scene, we are given songs like “I Got This,” “I Hit it First,” and a vast majority of the songs from Ke$ha which overflow with self-centered, above the rest sentiments. Even take a mega-hit like Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” and when you step back and consider it, he is asking the listener to sympathize with the problems of being overly wealthy in America. When you strip it down to its core, there’s just not that much thematic difference between this song and Britney Spears’ “Lucky.”

From the world of hip-hop to dance music to more straightforward pop music, it’s nothing short of offensive when you truly examine just how many artists are writing songs that contain little more than a list of bragging rights, forcing an even larger gap between their reality and that of the fans that pay for the lifestyle about which they sing. The ironic part of all of this is of course the fact that the buying public continues to overwhelmingly support these arrogant, completely disconnected performers, allowing their egos and wallets to grow exponentially, as well as give the impression that these songs of self-preservation are welcome.

Yes, there are exceptions to this rule in the current scene, but in the same way that there are certainly a handful of selfish songs from generations past, but it’s the fact that these are the exceptions, not the rule, that points to this sharp change in the overall direction and sentiment of the musical mainstream. Pick any week from the past decade, and the sales charts will show a disturbing presence of such songs, and when you look only twenty years ago, the difference is clear.

Taking this all one final step, this reality can be seen as a somber indication of where we are as a society, as one can easily make the case that art is an accurate representation of the current world culture. Looking at other institutions, such an accusation would be easily supported; with the difference being that in the past when there was a massive separation in classes, music played a vital role in closing that gap and lifting up the under-privileged and under-represented.

This is where the most concerning and dangerous realities live, as if the current world of mainstream music is raising a generation to believe that “the I is more important than the We,” it paints a rather stark and worrisome picture for what’s to come not only in the world of music, but in the future history of the world as well.


Joel Freimark hosts a daily music-related webseries HERE and you can follow his daily music musings and suggestions HERE as well.