From Plato, Aristotle, Horace, Longinus to Mazzoni and the present, the idea that art can serve a function is old. That art could inform people’s virtues, morals, spur them to civic duty, heroism, transport them, connect them with God (the transcendental) and even bring them consolation in times of difficulty. This idea is not without its merits, art does influence us, furnishes our ideas, perspectives and thoughts more often than any other form of education. Most of the art we consume will inform and nourish most aspects of our mental, ethical and social lives. In this way one can infer a society’s values, morals, beliefs, hopes and worldview from the type of art it consumes in large quantities and in most situations. For this post we will focus on music, specifically Charli XCX’s album Sucker as an example.
To someone it might sound like I picked Sucker out of the blue but there is reason for picking this album, it qualifies as an example by meeting the criteria of being successful and diffused enough in society to give us an insight into our society. Mainly it had good commercial performance, critical reception, massive airplay, online reception and collected accolades. According to Metacritic it has received generally favorable reviews, made it number 6 on Rolling Stone’s albums of the year and charted 28 in Billboards Top 200, its single’s music video Boom Clap has over a quarter of a billion views on YouTube. So I couldn’t dismiss Charli XCX as a girl who thinks there is lane from LA to Tokyo anymore (she doesn’t actually think that, she sings the line in Fancy where she is featured by Iggy Azalea). This is why I choose listening to it.
Needless to say, I was disappointed, it has all the tropes of most charting pop, which would be a good thing if it was done refreshingly but it isn’t. It is the same formula, mood, simplicity, predictability, repetition as any charting pop songs on the radio. The subject matter is the same as any other song on radio or that sells, sex, money, romance and partying, nothing wrong with the subject themselves, they just aren’t dealt with refreshingly. The lyrics are predictable, unimaginative, repetitive and make use of over used metaphors and when she does something refreshing she becomes annoyingly repetitive. The songs in this album quickly tire and trudge, becoming empty and non-engaging. For someone my age, yes I am born in 1992, I am worried about her level of thought, if the album is anything to go by. The only thing surprising about this whole thing is that this album is everything I thought it was before I saw the Rolling Stone accolade, and now I feel like every critic has lied to me about the quality of this album. In the end, the album comes across as reckless, sleazy and manufactured.
The more I thought about it the more I realized just why and how relevant this album is. It is a reflection of our over-individualized, self-serving, money hungry, party obsessed and over-sexualized society, the brighter side and lighter side of all this. Not the ugly destruction it causes to the lower classes, the environment, our children or the civic aspect of our society. It is an escapist album, from the rough reality of the most, swallowing the worries and concerns of an average citizen, a sedative for the masses, respite from their frustration, anger, discontent and exploitation. It’s just one album of the many hundreds of albums like these tendering our wounds. A profitable, kind and loving act. I’m not suggesting executives at big record companies are doing this on purpose, nor that there is a conspiracy here. I’m just pointing to the state of affairs in our world, everyone ignorant participants to the decay, passively and actively for a myriad of personal reasons. This album also highlights the self-destructive nature of ourselves as both individuals and a civilization in our actions, beliefs and recreational activities. The death of moderation, civic duty, community and virtue.
We listen, play, and broadcast more of this type of music than any other type of music, I suggest there is a reason for that. This album is a mirror of our society, its hopes, values, activities, beliefs and goals; at the same time it is a mental, ethical and civic feeding of those aspects of our society. The simplest example with have that demonstrate art can influence choices, or art used to influence choice, is advertising. Sir Philip Sidney, drawing from many prominent thinkers before him, theorized that art’s main purpose, although he was talking about poetry, was to stir us to the highest end, for some philosophers that is wholeness, to some moral virtue, justice or perfection. Although our conceptions of what is virtuous or good has changed with time, the idea still applies. He says that art takes what the moral philosopher does and the historian does and makes it digestible to the public, to turn knowing what is good into doing what is good, or simply knowing into doing. If we want a better society, we need a broader taste in music, people need a broader diet of music if their going to lead healthy lives, in both mind, body and the social. One shouldn’t just listen to hip hop, pop, heavy metal, punk, or classical, if we wish to instill a sense of the values we preach in philosophy classes, politics, religion and school as ideal, we need art and media that supports that and is inclusive of all or most genres of those sentiments. If our radio stations, TV channels or the internet won’t do that, we should start being more diverse in our tastes, we need to teach our children to have a broad art diet. We need to recognize that art is the consistent teacher, preacher, therapist and life-coach, subtle and seemingly inconsequential but effective. Charting pop, most of it, is the fast food of the mind, of global citizenship and ethics.
Having said all this and as terrible as Sucker is, I actually enjoyed it. It relaxes me, after listening to some conceptually challenging and engaging music it is a good album to just unwind to or party to maybe. It has very specific functions for me. As I have said before liking/enjoying something doesn’t mean it is good, quality and pleasure are not one in the same, maybe when it comes to other things but not in art. Also there are levels to pleasure. Me liking this album, which I kinda don’t, doesn’t make it a good album.
Here are some of the songs from the album that I enjoyed and some of the reasons I think I enjoyed them:
Sucker – The attitude of this song is what appeals to me, I don’t care much about what she says, she sounds flossy without being tasteless, care-free and adorable yet a little threatening.
Gold Coins – It is one of the less simple songs in this albums instrumentally, the music is quite layered and it changes quite a bit from section to section, well pinned and written. I don’t care much for the vocals on this track, they add an atmosphere but I think her choice of lyrics is very poor here.
Money (That’s What I Want) – this song sounds like her, it sounds honest, gritty and it is fierce. The music borders on the industrial, which I like.
Boom Clap – I really hate this song, but at the same I listen to it, mostly because of the tone of her voice in this song, it is quite sultry and intimate except when she sings the chorus and the pre-chorus. Everything else, the music, just feels like the usual drivel.
Now I will leave you with a track from one of the best transcendental musicians of all time: