Identity is simultaneously everything and nothing in pop music: artists are constantly criticized for borrowing ideas and being carbon copies of someone else, but they also seem to try very hard to show that they are individuals. Most of the time though, their attempts are ill-conceived and often prove their detractors right. Christina Aguilera’s “Not Myself Tonight” springs to mind. After Back To Basics scrubbed Aguilera’s image squeaky clean, the logical step for a typical pop star would be to try to “do something different,” which in this case turned out to be an exact mirror image of the start of Aguilera’s career. Years ago she went from the innocent yet innuendo filled “Genie In A Bottle” (the girl next door laying fully clothed on a beach) to “Dirrty” (hookers engaging in sweaty wrestling matches; probably the first thing a lot of young boys masturbated to). Back To Basics saw her emulating the singers of the 40s and 50s, which means she wore white dresses and curled her hair and put on a lot of bright red lipstick, and four years later, the video for “Not Myself Tonight” featured Aguilera wearing a bunch of different S&M outfits. So really, “Not Myself Tonight” should have been titled “Myself Eight Years Ago.”
It’s hard to defend pop music when such faux pas are so commonplace. Even though Christina Aguilera is generally one of the better pop stars, you have to fault her for things like that when even fucking Ke$ha is doing something similar. The album cover for Animal was an awful picture of Ke$ha looking unintentionally frightening and ugly, and the cover for her followup EP Cannibal is an awful picture of Ke$ha that’s supposed to be INTENTIONALLY frightening and ugly. The implication being: “This is a new side of Ke$ha, she really let loose with this one! It’s so crazy that we ripped her face in half and altered her in Photoshop to look like Amy Winehouse would look if she had been dead for a month.” But was there really a difference in sound or personality? Not at all. It reinforces every bad thing that anyone has ever said about pop, namely that it’s all about image and not about integrity.
It begs a question that I truly hate to ask: are pop musicians really that shallow? The very newly popular Nicki Minaj has four or five “alter egos” that she impersonates throughout her music and guest spots. I understand the history behind them, but now that she’s escaped her troubled early life and is famous, why does she still think that she needs a separate personality for every emotion or mood? That’s the real problem with pop music. Have you made an album full of bouncy, happy pop songs? Then you’d better craft your whole image around that sound. You’d better wear yellow sun dresses and dye your hair blonde and get your songs in commercials for Volkswagon Beetles. Is your sophomore album DARKER, an adjective that for some reason goes hand in hand with MORE MATURE? Then throw away your sun dress and wear black leather, because otherwise people won’t take you seriously, right? Many people would love to think that beneath the pop industry’s fabricated sheen, these pop stars are aware of what they’re doing, and they’re only doing it because they know that’s what it takes to be successful. But I’m not so sure. When you’ve got such a big number of pop stars buying into things like “alter egos” and “split personalities,” then that’s a real problem and it sheds a spotlight onto why so many people hate pop music.
One of the reasons that genres like indie and metal are so respected is because, by their very nature, they encourage progression, experimentation, and originality. Pop music shouldn’t necessarily aspire to such great heights, but it sure as hell shouldn’t be so one dimensional, and pop stars shouldn’t back their superficiality so passionately. Nicki Minaj utilizes her supposed split personalities well, for the most part, but because of them, you can’t separate her from that gimmick. No one will say, “Nicki Minaj really killed it on that track because she’s talented.” They’ll say “Nicki Minaj killed it on that track because of her alter egos and funny voices.” Her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” is one of my favorite moments on that entire album, but when I hear it I can’t help wondering if I’m hearing Nicki Minaj or Harajuku Barbie or Roman Zolanski and it always reminds me of just how stupid it all is. She is obviously someone with potential, and that’s perhaps the most disheartening thing of all – that someone like her, who had a real chance to change things, succumbed to the gimmicks and tricks of the rest of the pop industry. What a shame.
My point is that there is nothing wrong with changing an image or a sound. The problem is when we’re meant to think that some amazing thing has occurred if a pop star does something different. Beyonce released an album and created her Sasha Fierce personality for the bangin’ club songs. Was that necessary? Couldn’t she have just released the album without the alter ego? It simply bothers me when pop stars play into one dimensionality like that, as if they’re not whole people, but a bunch of puzzle-piece personalities that don’t quite fit together so they need to differentiate between each one with a new name or a new sound. The way I see it, all of these sounds or images could just as easily be filed under one single name, because that’s how people work in general. Why should pop be any different?