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Pop Music and the Rise of the Party Anthem

If you’re worried about what the children are listening to these days, you’re not alone. I’m not worried, but Demi Lovato is totally on it in her observation about pop music. Pop party anthems have been on the rise for the past several years now, and they’re only getting more popular. I’m going to warn you now, this post is going to be pretty video heavy, because I’ve just got too many of these types of songs to share with you. I recommend listening to them as you read on.

Pop party anthems are characterized by Top 40 music, often with a heavy beat, and with a tempo between roughly 80 and 132 beats per minute, where 80 bpm is perfect for a slow-motion partying nostalgia music video, and 132 bpm is a perfect club beat. See below for a comparison.

Where pop music of the 90s and early 00s was either awkward, cynical, or disingenuously angry (also, it involved a lot of guitars), the tone of the party anthem, like any anthem, is often celebratory. You can also characterize it as bold, impetuous, and foolishly optimistic. This is such an intense trend that even previous disingenuously angry artists like Pink and Avril Lavigne have hopped onto the bandwagon with songs like “Raise Your Glass”—which opens with Pink singing, “Right, right, turn off the lights; we’re gonna lose our minds tonight” in preparation for a party—or “Here’s To Never Growing Up,” which is about being young forever, drinking, and dancing on bars, and generally lacking any self-awareness.

Other artists are more naturally equipped to handle the genre, and have, in fact, had flourishing careers with it. These artists are generally women whose music deals with unrestraint and unladylike lewdness, which shock listeners who cannot believe a young woman would behave this way, and thrill listeners who embrace the freedom of behaving this way. Katy Perry is one such example, since her first single was about same-sex smoochie activity, and now she has singles about youth, like “Teenage Dream,” or ones about partying, like “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” Kesha is another example with singles like “Tik Tok,” “We R Who We R,” “Die Young,” and her most recent (and my favorite), “Crazy Kids.”

But the genre has also been very good to will.i.am, who has had a hand in producing a number of party anthems for himself (click this one if you want to hear Britney affect an English accent!), and other well known artists in pop music, and has been featured in multiple anthems by other artists to, you know, add that party spice. And while young female pop artists dominate the party anthem scene, dudes are by no means exempt from the genre. Only months ago, Jason Derulo released “The Other Side,” and in late 2010, LMFAO released “Party Rock Anthem,” which quickly became a summer anthem for 2011.

These songs cover themes such as partying, binge drinking, dancing, substance use, shirking responsibilities, living in the present, rejecting authority, freedom, zero consequences, not caring, making memories, staying up all night, going big or going home, fun times, and sexual promiscuity. Basically, doing anything that would make your parents cry, and doing it all with a smile. Party anthems are a new way for an even younger generation of people to upset their parents, who have since become accustomed to the objectionable themes in punk music. While punk rock was, and arguably still is, a marginalized genre, pop is mainstream, accessible, and catchy like gonorrhea. Think about it: would you rather your kid be wearing weird clothes, doing drugs, and being constantly angry with you like Greg Ginn, or wearing weird clothes, doing drugs, and twerking it with Miley? And don’t say Greg just because you like Black Flag more, because then you’re just being your parents.

For a second there, it looks like punk rock and pop party anthems are the same type of rebellion, only repackaged. They’re not. Because it’s not about rebellion, it’s about youth.

The voice of the anthem is often a young one, even if an old Dogg like Snoop is performing it. Snoop is a hair over 41, and the video for “Young, Wild & Free” still shows him in high school, walking down a locker-lined hall in a fog (fog”?) of nostalgia. The same goes for songs like Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” which features a 26 year old Katy Perry singing about teenagerdom. The song has the same ring of nostalgia to it because it seems to be the one angle that artists who are not teenagers can take when they’re singing as though they are teenagers.

With the rise of the party anthem comes the rise of what the anthems celebrate. Even if you don’t like partying, this type of song celebrates tenets of youth culture, or what youth culture is made out to be. Partying feels desirable, like something we should be doing. When I listen to “Teenage Dream” I remember memories I don’t have about road trips, and bonfires, and crappy motels. Craig Ferguson has an interesting (albeit awkward) bit on what happened when we started deifying youth. Like Ferguson observes, it’s important to note that youth isn’t just being physically young in years. Youth is about inexperience, adventure, bad decisions, stupidity, carelessness, and spontaneity. The same foolish optimism that’s touted in all of these songs, the same sense of invincibility. Our celebration of that in music and popular culture tells us that young people are valuable, and that everything they do has meaning. That’s why everyone wants in on it, even Snoop. The best way to stay relevant is to stay young.

A Levi’s commercial aired in 2009 titled “Pioneers” as part of Levi’s “Go Forth” ad series. It showed young, attractive people, running through the forest, spending time together, laughing, dancing, and voicing over the ad is Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Whitman reads, “Get your weapons ready. Have you your pistols? Have you your sharp-edged axes?” The ad cuts to people putting on their Levi’s in preparation of today’s adventures.

In the context of the ad, Whitman calls these people “O you youths, Western youths,” “We, the youthful sinewy races,” and “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” He uses strong, grassroots-type language, and like the party anthem, it celebrates a certain type of person. He writes of exploration: “Fresh and strong the world we seize.” The poem is originally about Westward expansion. While it still carries a similar sense of American idealism, the context has changed. When you think about what these people are doing in the video, they’re really just hanging out and running around in the forest. It’s not that cool. I mean, I did that a couple weeks ago and I didn’t feel all majestic and pioneering (I saw some goats though). But the backdrop of the poem changes all that. It is a call to action. It’s romantic. And it tells these people in the ad—or more importantly, it tells you—that your youthful issues, your drama, your desires to be free and fearless, are important.

That’s why when Miley sings about doing whatever she wants, dancing until morning, and owning the night, it’s not about rebelling. (It’s popular music; everyone likes it. Who are we rebelling against exactly?) When I hear Whitman describe the Levi’s youths as “So impatient and full of action” I hear Miley singing, “We can’t stop, and we won’t stop.” It’s about being something that old people can no longer be, and having something that old people can no longer have. It is a romance with yourself, of a time when you were braver and cooler. Oh, to be young and free again.

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