Pop for Skeptics #1: Teenage Magic


With global warming, political unrest, and a cratered international economy serving as the shaky pillars of today’s world, we need pop music now more than ever. On one hand, you could argue that maybe pop music serves to distract us from the wars politicians are waging on civilians, but on the other, consider this: Pop has always been, even and especially with its most capitalist of intentions, escapism. As hopeless headlines continue to paint dark horizons for us, pop is one of the few lights to shine through and inspire whimsy. Even the harshest skeptic has no choice but to relent and give into the genre. That’s why we present Pop For Skeptics, a regular Flavorwire column committed to curating and commenting on the latest and greatest ear candy from the US and around the world.

In these tough times, one of the latest incarnations of pop to catch on is the sparkling revival of what we call “teenage magic.” While we experience teenage magic differently, at its heart, the phenomenon is unequivocally premised in the wide-eyed perceptions we have of the world around us. In trying to figure out how things worked as kids, we colored in logical blanks with wild speculation. More than that, at that age, only our points of view — no matter how wrong and misguided — mattered. We were suns in our solar system and everyone else was asteroids; we were brats, man.

For instance, I once thought that the term “baseball diamond” originated from the fact that there was a massive diamond in the center of the field (what a letdown it was to learn the truth!). Later, when I was asking girls out in high school, the prospect of uttering something like “Hi!” or even “Do you want to get a coffee?” created hypothetical scenarios that nearly sent me into cardiac arrest. The time I’d spend waiting for a response is when I’d wonder about all the wonderful ways in which my dates and I would go onto get married, rear children, and travel the entire world (again, what a letdown that all was when I figured out that I wasn’t into girls at all!).

Still, I look back fondly on the innocence and ignorance of those times. The tragedy is that once that sense of wonder disappears, it’s nearly irretrievable. With reality pressing down on us these days like institutionalized dystopia, the desire to go chasing after that innocence is overwhelming. It’s really no mystery that more of us want to see life through the fluorescent lens of teenage magic.

In pop, maudlin lyrics, syrupy vocals, and thematic tropes make us wistfully recall that kind of binary dead-or-alive logic of our teenage years. Which is why when Lana Del Rey turned up, an artsy Barbie doll reeking of teenage magic, we all fixed our gaze on her. She is a throwback to that time in all of our lives when we existed in a constant state of hyperbole. With her wacky moniker, big lips, and inflated sense of pop bombast, Del Rey is teenage magic personified. Her debut album, Born to Die, is so successfully spellbinding because it is at once epic and juvenile.

The trying-too-hard-to-be-deepness of the line “Baby we were born to die,” set against a luxurious string section is singularly representative of exactly how as teenagers, we were ignorant to the world outside of our desires. Del Rey spends the bulk of her record singing to a hypothetical lover, and the desperation of her lyricism is totally adolescent. It’s sweepingly reductive. The hip-hop hooks and cookie-cutter strings sections don’t help, either. All of Born to Die is comical in its melodrama. But! Despite being laughable, Del Rey’s work is curiously relatable.

If the 20-something navelgazing hub Thought Catalog were condensed into a record, Born to Die would be it.

Perhaps that’s why we don’t want to admit that we relate to her. We all cringe while listening to it because we know too intimately the feelings that Del Rey’s singing about. We cringe because we can’t believe we were that obsessed over such a lousy dude and expressed our feelings in a similar way. Misogynist music critics cringe, perhaps, because they can’t believe they were so obsessed with dreamy, unattainable women not unlike Del Rey.

I cringe, meanwhile, because it makes me think of a dalliance I recently had with a guy. He was obsessed with every track on Born to Die.

Several weeks ago, this same guy texted me: “Hey I just met you / And this is crazy / So take my number / And call me maybe.” First, I thought, “Aw, how incredibly gay.” Then I noticed the A/B/C/B rhyme scheme and thought, “Oh, it’s probably a fairly shitty pop song.” I Googled the saccharine string of words to stumble upon Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”

Everything in Jepsen’s video — her bangs, her eye makeup, the chiseled chunk of hard-laboring man-candy who she spends the duration of the video trying to bewitch with her flirtations — is evocative of that kind of OH MY GOD NO WAY DOES HE LIKE ME I’M GOING TO KILL MYSELF hysteria that many of us fondly recall as our primary response to any kind of flirtation in our formative years.

Even the production around this — “twee” at best — is feathery and precocious. But feathery and precocious is working for the world now. Jepsen, who was a third-place finalist on Canadian Idol is now breaking the Top 20 in America and “Call Me Maybe” is beginning to find traction across Europe.

While a stamp of endorsement from Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez helps this ditty gain popularity among teenagers, I’m finding that I’m not the only one on my timeline tweeting #CALLMEMAYBE. This song’s making headway among older listeners if only because Jepsen’s color-by-numbers reality is easier to stomach than what’s currently all around us.

My reality, unfortunately, meant that the guy who sent me that text in the first place is no longer in my life. At least I walked away with a listenable consolation prize.

But to think that teenage magic is premised entirely on the infinite nature of infatuation is silly. I’m also listening to Marina and the Diamonds’ “Primadonna” lately. Lifted from her sophomore album, Electra Heart, “Primadonna” espouses “selfish bitch” as a philosophy of life.

“Primadonna” is a unique gem because it touches on a darker side of teenage magic. Apart from the lines, “Primadonna girl / All I ever wanted was the world,” the song’s structure itself exemplifies the phenomenon’s bratty underbelly. The quiet sweetness of the choruses, framed by the crunchy, driving electropop of the verses, is like a kid who employs cloying politeness as a defense mechanism when he gets caught throwing tantrums and breaking things. Getting away with that kind of strategy is the quintessence of teenage magic.

When I listen to “Primadonna,” I think, “Fuck yeah, I’m a fucking primadonna girl.” And then I swirl around my living room, waving an oversize pashmina scarf. “Primadonna” makes me believe that any other reaction to that piece of music would be preposterous. It makes me think that anybody who says no to me is out of his freaking mind.

Which brings us to the one pop star who launched an entire album campaign on the back of this conceit but failed to inject her teenage attitude with anything approaching magic: Katy Perry. There is nothing enchanting about the way Perry delivers singles from Teenage Dream. “California Gurls” sounds robotic and “Firework” sounds cold and calculated; the spontaneity that makes me forget that I’m a grown man with bills to pay whenever I hear “Call Me Maybe” or “Primadonna” is absent from all of Perry’s work. I think of the video for “Last Friday Night”:

Never has a music video tried harder to look fun. I want to like it, but it comes off as nothing more than a piece of heavily researched marketing campaign creative: Rebecca Black? Check. Eighties throwbacks? Check. Incorporation of internet slang? Check. It’s so premeditated that it fails to persuade.

For any of us, teenage magic is the essence of a time in our lives when we notoriously lacked self-awareness. Both “Call Me Maybe” and “Primadonna” excel at this kind of obliviousness. That’s what makes them gems that easily transport us back to less complicated times. Neither present mind-blowing conceits, but they’re consistent.

But Perry seems painfully, mechanically aware of everything she does. We immediately recognize Teenage Dream as the focus-grouped marketing gimmick it is. Several beats into “California Gurls,” I already feel exhausted. We don’t judge Born to Die the same way because it is a showcase of Del Rey putting herself out on a limb. The circumstances around Del Rey may seem as cynical as those around Teenage Dream, but unlike Perry, this artist could very well disappear if her next single underperforms. Her willingness to reinvent herself in order to issue her own chronicle of teenage magic is, curiously, as honest as it gets. What’s more magical to teenagers, after all, than self-transformation into something shinier and more romantic?

Consider this: In an age before recorded music, fairy tales served as escapism. Teenage magic, then, is contemporary America’s answer to fairy tales. It’s not that we’re trying to forget the heavy weight of reality; it’s that we’re looking to a medium to help us alleviate that burden so we don’t end up collapsing into a heap.

That medium? Pop music.