Worried You’re Imperfect? Don’t Fret: Listen to These Songs
Alt.: Myths of Beauty, and Other Pop Lies
by Monica Hunter-Hart
Occasionally pop stars run out of things to say about sex, drinking, clubs, and making the most of life through dancing. In these moments of crisis, the runner-up subject matter is motivation. Katy Perry informed us that “Last Friday night we danced on table tops and we took too many shots.” Next, she instructed us to have faith in ourselves, because baby, we’re fireworks! But she’s not the only one. Pop artists want us to believe that they care about our emotional lives. In the absence of sincere and affecting musical examples, I don’t buy it.
Inspirational pop songs sell big. I taught at youth summer programs for years and witnessed kids frequently using their downtime to belt out these tunes. 7-year-old Ivy, for example, was a Selena Gomez jukebox that could produce music ceaselessly without being fed quarters. “Who Says”—Gomez’s foray into the motivational genre—was her favorite.
Parents often indulge their kids’ interests in songs with seemingly positive messages. “Sure, my kid’s being noisy,” they think, “but at least they’re singing something appropriate, right? Better than the rap that’s on the radio these days!” And it’s true that these songs are a far cry from lyrics like those found in, say, the Drake/Lil Wayne collaboration “Right Above It”: “I hit the strip club and all them bitches find the pole / Plus I’ve been sippin’ so this shit is movin’ kinda slow / Just tell my girl to tell her friend that it’s time to go.” I certainly wouldn’t want my children yelling those words, or those within other obviously indecorous, yet popular, tracks.
What these parents fail to realize is that there are still problems with the lyrics of these “inspirational” songs—they just happen to be more insidiously subtle than those of Lil Wayne. Motivational music often encourages listeners to find their liberation through unhealthy means. And more often than not, these songs are just not effectively inspirational. Sure, they sell. They’re catchy and peppy, so they can improve one’s mood. But their actual messages are almost never believable, so they can’t succeed in provoking in listeners any deep change in mentality.
Let’s journey a bit into this frothy musical practice. Bruno Mars is famous for writing over and over again about how much he really loves his woman—so he’s a fittingly chipper place to start. In “Just The Way You Are,” he sings, “When I see your face, there’s not a thing that I would change, because you’re amazing just the way you are.” Sweet, right? Wrong. He makes it clear in the rest of the lyrics that she embodies traditional standards of beauty: “When you smile, the whole world stops and stares for a while”—i.e., it’s not merely him who finds her attractive; “her hair falls perfectly,” etc. In confirmation, the female star of his music video is conventionally gorgeous. On the surface, this song is an anthem for being true to oneself. But really it’s an ode to orthodox beauty.
In “What Makes You Beautiful,” the young men of One Direction also praise the good looks of their love interest, though she doesn’t share their opinion. “You don’t know you’re beautiful,” they croon, “That’s what makes you beautiful.” Feminists have already—and rightfully—jumped on this idealization of female insecurity. Their heroine can only be considered lovely if she is unaware of it. Note: it’s easy to forget our cultural values within this confusing age of modernity—remember, readers, women should be humble and meek!
Selena Gomez picks up where One Direction left off in “Who Says.” “Who says you’re not perfect?” she asks, adding, “That’s the price of beauty,” i.e., if you’re perfect and beautiful, you necessarily don’t know it. “I’m no beauty queen, I’m just beautiful me,” she repeats, a statement brazenly contradicted by our awareness of Gomez’s appearance and by the flattering series of shots in this song’s music video. You’re perfect, girls, but only if you look like Selena Gomez! The question “Who says you’re not perfect?” is ridiculous, as we are bombarded every day by messages intended to make us feel inadequate for commercial gain (we’re imperfect without that lipstick; we need those jeans to be complete; etc.). It’s also deeply problematic that these songs define personal worth as originating in one’s physical appearance.
In response to Gomez’s query, we could cite Hannah Montana, who assures us that “nobody’s perfect” in her song of the same name. To inspire listeners, she focuses on the universality of flaws. However, this tactic is a guise for continuing to emphasize the ultimate importance of perfection. “I know in time I’ll find a way,” she says. To her, defectiveness is not a state to come to terms with in and of itself; it’s a state that can be reckoned with only by focusing its transience. You and I are messing up, she says, and that’s okay, but only because we’ll stop messing up soon: “I mix things up, but I always get it right in the end.” How wonderful to have the opportunity to aspire to Hannah Montana’s version of “right.”
Pink has also taken the opportunity to contribute to the pop music discourse on perfection. In “Fucking Perfect,” she sings, “Pretty, pretty please, if you ever, ever feel like you’re nothing, you’re fucking perfect to me.” Even though Pink sings to an unspecified “you,” it’s impossible to believe that she’s addressing us individually. She doesn’t know us. What kind of validation is this, then? I’m not going to trust an evaluation of my personal worth done by someone who’s never met me. Perhaps if I found anything to relate to in the character she’s describing, I would believe that the message was relevant to me. But Pink’s descriptions of the “you” are vague: the only detail we have is that this person is “so mean when you talk about yourself.” Nothing much to grab onto there.
Katy Perry’s “Firework” has similar issues. You don’t know me, Katy Perry, so why should I believe your assurance that “There’s a chance for you, cause there’s a spark in you”? The subject of the song does not trust her or her self-worth. If people believe only in their own dim obscurity, telling them the opposite—that they’re freaking fireworks—is not going to automatically cause 180-degree reversals.
In addition to being ineffective and unhealthy, the form of inspiration that these songs support is sexist. While brainstorming contemporary, motivational pop tunes for this piece, I noticed a pattern in my list: the only songs I could think of were either sung by women and directed toward a general audience or sung by men and directed toward a woman. Pop music constructs the need to be reassured or comforted as a female phenomenon. Is this really the source we should turn to for emotional encouragement?
That said, the basic idea of achieving uplift through music is a good one. Are there pop songs that successfully do this, while side stepping sexism and the reinforcement of beauty standards? Anecdotally, Beyoncé’s “Flawless” did work for me—until I saw the music video in which her calculatedly crafted appearance proves that she did not “wake up like this.” The most successful song for me has been Taylor Swift’s “Mean.” She admits to her own weakness more sincerely than Hannah Montana: “You can take me down with just one single blow.” Instead of attempting to find inner peace in the face of insult (I wouldn’t be able to relate to the ability to do that successfully), she focuses on the flaws of her offender: “All you are is mean, and a liar, and pathetic, and alone in life.” Swift doesn’t attempt to be perfect. She attempts to be vindictive. And who can’t relate to that?