In looking over the year-end lists, it is hard not to reflect back on the ’90s. Enthusiasts of refined taste will recall the decade for modern rock (né alt-rock) or hip-hop’s second golden age or perhaps the slow, intractable rise of electronic dance music. For all of that, the span from 1989 to 2001 was given over to another music entirely. The fall of the Evil Empire and the seeming economic restoration that followed provided the context and the tonality. This was America’s belle epoque, the false summer’s gold disguising a deepening autumn that had begun around 1973. The music was teenpop, named as much for its consumers as purveyors. By any measure, it stood over those dappled days like no single genre has ever dominated an era. We were children then. Or, somebody was.
Then it ended, with a suddenness that makes culture seem sometimes less sundial than stopwatch. The data tell us that belle epoque teenpop was driven by the spillover profits of the equity boom, offering up one flash in the brainpan after another. The tech bust brought this to a punctual close, and it was time for something else. But what? The aughts struggled to yield up a definitive music, even if you count Beyoncé as a genre. There was a bit of vacuum and disarray. By decade’s end, teenpop had returned.
This cannot be terribly surprising; styles are wont to come back again, and the ’90s were scarcely the first go-round for a genre that was old when Michael Jackson was young. Moreover, the incomparable auteur of teenpop, Swedish producer Max Martin, had managed to stick around and even to recover much of his premillennial magic. Moreover, his protégé and sometimes collaborator, Dr. Luke, came into his own.
It seemed a little soon. We did not really have time for teenpop to grow fond in memory, or to acquire a deeper patina of kitsch than it began with. Still, there was something changed about it. Teenpop of the teens has proved discomfiting, a bit off, as is so often the case with the dead brought back to life. The presentiment was clear enough a couple years back, when Ke$ha debuted a single whose list of teen pleasures proferred whiskey as an oral hygiene regimen. “TiK ToK” would sell more than 14 million downloads, a post-teen pop delight that smelled of vomit.
It will not be hard to find a nothing-new-under-the-sunner who will point out that teenpop has always played the double game of innocence and sex for sale, notably of the schoolgirl variety. Enough ink has been spilled over Britney’s decisive “…Baby One More Time.” But this is to miss the distance between the teenage queen and Ke$ha’s feral anti-ingenue almost entirely. It is the difference between the perverse and the corrupt.
Neither of these terms is meant pejoratively, and it would be foolish to dismiss either artist (both released tremendous songs this year, one with Pitbull and the other with Smurfs). “Corrupt” in particular should be understood not in the sense of your congressman, but corruption of the flesh, the splendor of putrefaction. Teenpop’s return is the corpse of the ’90s come walking, a desperate attempt to reanimate that summer feeling wherein ka-ching! was the theme song of Pax Americana. It was a lie then, but a real lie; it was meant to be believed. This is not even a fake golden age. The shambolic corruption of the United States scarcely needs detailing. From Abu Ghraib to economic collapse to the NSA, matters have become biblical, and not in a good way. Sugar, we’re going down. Consent of the governed gives way to rule by riot cop. Our national sport is drone-bombing weddings.
Which brings us to Miley Cyrus. The face of neo-teenpop, she proved the flashpoint for the most lively debates. Some of them were perplexing, as in denunciations of her appropriations of African-American culture and her capital-complicit sex-baiting. These accusations are impeccably true. They also describe the underlying operations of mass culture itself and have precious little to say about what might be particular to this case.
More innovative is her stunning corruption, as if Peaches had mated with a hedge fund manager, a delirious inversion of teenpop’s ethos. This, she cannot stop suggesting, is what kind of angel is possible now. It isn’t pretty. But it’s fantastic.
It is worth saying that the songs are great, one after the next. “#GETITRIGHT,” not yet a single, does thrilling things with deracinated West African–sounding guitar. But it is “We Can’t Stop” that stands as the year’s most majestic song, the kind of power ballad that ditches romance for sheer affirmation, boosting hip-hop’s “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” formula to do so. There is something hilariously awkward about it: “we run things, things don’t run we” is almost Rebecca Black–worthy.
For all that, it’s epic, moving imperiously from part to part, getting further in four minutes than most songs will ever go, and coming back around again changed. And yet it never takes off; it can’t quite summon the pathos or transcendence that are its context. We can’t stop because we can’t start. The affirmation is total and a trap: the endless singing of virtues for the life that we know by now should really be burned and buried. This is the song’s lateness, its corruption: it knows that the world it sets out to rule has one foot in the grave. It’s a dirty epic, not dirty-sexy but dirty-stained, stinking of rot.
The best culture will henceforth be the worst, unable to abandon the pretense that we might live again, conceding at every turn that this is pretense. We are a young country but a decrepit empire.