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Freak Flag Empire: Rumination on a Pop Song

WMRE

October 24th, 2011

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By Rhett Henry

I worked at an ice cream parlor for most of my high school career. Being servants of the gustus populi, we employees kept the in-store sound system constantly set on an Atlanta pop music station. Two-and-a-half years performing minimum wage labor gave me plenty of time to familiarize myself with the pop music scene. I saw empires rise and fall. I saw people pass from hero to legend to forgotten myth. Messengers of new sounds came and become the new dogma or were dragged through the streets. And here I was, seeing it all.

All that time spent around pop music gives you an appreciation for the craft of it. The most excellently implemented pop song to my memory is Katy Perry’s ‘modern classic’ “California Gurls” (look at that repulsive ‘u’ in ‘Gurls’), the lead single to what is her second mainstream pop album Teenage Dream.

The genius of the song (and I use the word genius very seriously) was in its presentation. It appeared on radio waves about a week into the month of May. It was a supernova of pop genius: ridiculously listenable, catchy beyond comprehension, and just danceable enough to lend itself to club remixes and mash-ups. It was released several months before Teenage Dream was released, by which time Katy Perry’s cultural presence was so all-encompassing that millions bought the album simply out of habit.

And that’s fascinating. It can be easy to dismiss pop music, even as a listener of pop. Pop is often criticized for being cynical and profit-driven, but a brilliantly timed single and a massive push to sell it can change the sound of an entire time. To many, the summer of 2010 was an optimistic season. Things didn’t seem so bad in the nation, and “California Gurls”, with its grotesque ‘u’ and its feather-light attitude, was a perfect expression of this welcoming of better days. Even if it was only escapism, Perry enfolded millions into a world of pleasure and trifling joy.

Postscript–I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. The name is Rhett Henry, and I’m still working out just what we’ll be doing with this column, you and I. It’s a learning experience for both of us, fair reader, but we shall overcome!

You can catch Rhett Henry’s show on Monday’s at 9PM on WMRE.

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