Since the days of Elvis and the Beatles, popular music has never been praised for its promotion of moral virtue. Not much has changed there. But there is something new and disconcerting in the tone of many of today’s popular songs, especially the subset of pop music that might be called “party anthems.” They tend to be about drinking, partying, and having sex, which itself is not terribly surprising or novel. What is new, however, is a combination of melancholy or desperation with a focus on these activities as if they constituted the totality of human existence.
These songs sketch a world in which work is a necessary, boring drag, if you can even find a job; stable relationships do not exist and perhaps cannot exist; and leaving the party before sunrise betrays a weakness of character. On the flip side, one-night stands are transcendent and “the weekend” has eclipsed the Sabbath.
Take the beginning of the popular rapper Pitbull’s “Time of Our Lives”:
I knew my rent was gon’ be late about a week ago
I worked my ass off, but I still can’t pay it though
But I just got just enough
To get up in this club
Have me a good time, before my time is up
Translation: life is one long unsatisfactory slog, punctuated by nothing interesting or exceptional except a night of drunkenness.
Or take the party anthem that launched Kesha’s career, “Tik Tok”:
Don’t stop, make it pop
DJ, blow my speakers up
Tonight, I’m-a fight
‘Til we see the sunlight
The circumlocution “fight” as a substitute for “party” would strike most people over 30 as bizarre and self-absorbed. Not to mention the idea of brushing one’s teeth with Jack Daniels.
Finally, the refrain from The Wanted’s “Chasing the Sun”:
We’ve only just begun
Hypnotized by drums
Until forever comes
You’ll find us chasing the sun
These words sound almost spiritual, but watch the video, the song is obviously about nothing other than nocturnal (and mindless) bacchanal.
These lyrics, and others like them, reveal two odd and relatively recent characteristics of our music, and by extension of our society: The elevation of debauchery to a kind of sacred rite, and a profound, almost existential sense of loneliness and isolation.
The standard social conservative answer to this—that we can blame unlimited personal autonomy, moral decay, and “if it feels good, do it”—only takes us so far. We do indeed have a hedonistic culture that our pop culture both reflects and promotes.
Yet something more is at work, for even as our music appears to celebrate hedonism, there is a subtext of despair, as of people who are left with nothing else. A society that afforded more opportunity for meaningful work and family life might not produce such music. The closest analogue to the “desperate party anthem” in earlier years was probably blues, informed by the miserable and grinding nature of life for black Americans under slavery and segregation. Are contemporary Americans less hopeful about life than they were?
A major culprit here, as with many other problems, is the loss of America’s manufacturing employment and industrial base. No, 1950s factory jobs are not the only means to a wholesome life and cohesive society. But it is an ironclad fact that the jobs of America’s industrial heyday were not only numerous and well-paying but productive, in the sense that they contributed to the modernization and uplift of the nation. One might be exhausted at the end of a hard day on the factory floor, but one could take a certain pride in assembling automobiles or rolling steel that is rather difficult to take in the reheating of a frozen burger patty or the sale of potato chips at a convenience store.
The world which party songs describe is one in which “work,” where it is imagined or referenced at all, is something dull, boring, unskilled, and draining—as apt a description as any of the dead-end service jobs that even college graduates are increasingly forced to take. Descriptions of love, which are usually of one-night stands despite the use of romantic language, mirror a world in which student debt and uncertain career opportunities make marriage and raising a family an increasingly remote prospect.
It was once possible to be in one’s twenties and already have a stable job, a family, a simple but serviceable home, one or two automobiles, and the promise of a pension. This vanished world of middle-class stability really existed.
Now, as jobs outside of the white-collar world shift to the low-end service sector in areas such as fast food and retail, and as foodservice is the fastest-growing sector of the economy, young people must either become highly stressed and indebted professionals or languishing service workers. They may be immoral and licentious, but they are also vaguely aware that somewhere in the world—China, perhaps—the vanished life of the American middle class is thriving still, or better yet, is just on the horizon waiting to be achieved. They are vaguely aware that after college, there is no guarantee of success or even of reasonable comfort and stability. They read articles that casually suggest house-sharing until their mid-30s. They know, if they choose to remember, that they will be in debt quite possibly until their mid-forties. They wonder, inchoately perhaps, whether the America they have been told about for the two decades of their lives is anything more than a vanished memory. And they party, drink, and have sex while they can.
Whether it is possible to turn back deindustrialization or transform fast food gigs into rewarding careers, and how this might be done, is an entirely different question. But its answer does not change what is true now.
It is oddly fitting—and perhaps not by accident—that “Time of Our Lives” is from an album titled “Globalization.”
Addison Del Mastro is Assistant Editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.