Let us start by stating the obvious: 2014 was a shit year.
By almost any cultural metric, this year that’s about to finish was a nadir on several fronts for American culture from which, hopefully, we can go nowhere but up. Even to remain in place would be okay, as to dig deeper would be to descend into a realm of hopeless absurdity from which we might never recover.
All you have to do is open the newspaper or check out the wire on your favorite news and info site to know what I’m talking about. From almost start to finish this calendar year, we’ve taken it on the chin. I’m not going to lay it all out here, the run-down is simply too disheartening, but let me put it this way: if you thought this was a great year for American culture, you are part of the problem.
Now, I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s individual year. In my personal life, I had a pretty wonderful 2014, but it would be selfish of me to claim that things were great in America this year because I did well for myself. That idea, aligning personal fortunes with those of the broader culture, is another part of the problem, as though in a place where 315 million people share real estate, any individual one or two might reflect the whole. No, I’m talking macro here. Our trends, what’s popular, what’s done on our behalf, and the turmoil that results.
We’ve been on this trajectory for a while, and whichever of your pet nuisances put us on it, the fact remains that things have been trending downward for sometime. Point to politics and popular news, our biggest sports leagues, and our most popular celebrities, our movies and even, yes, our music: aside from the occasional sharp upswing that gets everyone optimistic for a hot second before it’s quickly beaten back down by more of the same old horseshit, most everything has been sliding in this same unfortunate direction for years. So much is less personal for the sake of more market-testing, and with less perspective, though more strife for strife’s sake, and too many of our most prominent movers and shakers obfuscate their cynical moral calculus instead of simply doing what’s right for, and helpful to, the greatest amount of people.
And make no mistake: this is ours. We built it. Every one of us. But just as we’ve allowed this to happen, we can also begin to dismantle it at any time, if we choose to do so. That choice comes in many different forms, but it is a choice that can be made every day, with each decision, the minute enough people start to actually give a shit.
That choice was not made in 2014, of course, at least not by a large enough number of people to change anything. And so, just as one example, what were the two biggest pop songs of 2014?
Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”
Pop music as social barometer is a specious theory at best, but I don’t find it to be an accident that in the grimmest cultural year since the most depressing depths of the Iraq War, two completely disposable pieces of nothingness dominated our charts so thoroughly. The chorus of Williams’ “Happy,” as you almost certainly know, advises simply clapping along in spite of problems because “that’s what you wanna do”, whereas Swift’s “Shake It Off” uses the worn out “Haters gonna hate” phrase that’s been in our lexicon for how many years now, ad nauseam, as an amped-up rallying cry to, you guessed it, tune out the world and keep dancing.
Neither tune’s energy can be denied, and both beats are insanely catchy and delicious ear candy. Furthermore, I’m not wishing or hoping for our charts to be dominated by political dirges and spoken word. It’s just that these two songs also became so massively popular, at least in part, because of their messages about forgetting all the bad stuff going down around you while clapping or shaking or whatever the fuck.
There’s a purpose served there, but this was not a year in which it paid to be blindly focused on staying upbeat in the face of counter-veiling stimuli. No, 2014 was a year to be pissed off about how badly so much has been fucked up by those in charge, and to maybe, finally, stand up and be counted among those who’d like to change things. Instead of clapping and dancing and shaking off the bad news when it arrives, it might do us all some good to start saying, “No, you know what? I am NOT happy about this, and I’d like something be done about it.”
Also, not for nothing: each artist was already a millionaire several times over at the time of each song’s production, so of course they’re happy! If either had a quarter jar in their kitchen for saving money to buy something nice, or had dealt with any problems in their public life beyond wearing weird hats and dating other rich and famous celebrities, perhaps we could take each song more seriously. Alas.
We have important shit to worry about, people. Things happened, and are happening, ones that demand attention and serious thought. As shitty as things got in 2014, we can’t really afford to just clap along or shake it off anymore. Are you happy? Are you really? Watch the news sometime: do we sound happy? Does it feel like we can just shake this off and go back to being good?
And if you think I’m just being a curmudgeon, keep this in mind: it’s not as though every year has songs about being happy and shaking off bad news in such dominant chart positions. Do you know when was the last time a song like these, with this sort of message, finished the year at #1?
The song was Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day,” and the year 2006. In other words, during the most depressing depths of the Iraq War.
So maybe there is hope after all.
Here’s a to a healthier, and much (actually) happier, 2015.