“The differences [between the two Books] seem slight to outsiders.”
One of the only podcasts I regularly listen to is I DON’T EVEN OWN A TELEVISION, a podcast about two men trying to review bad books while getting sidetracked approximately 100 times per episode. The above quote is an excerpt from SLOW BULLETS, a Hugo-nominated sci-fi thriller from Alaistar Reynolds that host J.W. Friedan considered among the worst they ever reviewed. The Book at the center of the story is an obvious analogy for the Bible or Quran, and the main conflict in the narrative’s universe occurs between two people who each have their own version of The Book. Said quote epitomizes one of Friedman’s major issues with SLOW BULLETS: How the degradation of religion is an easy way to be seen as enlightened and intelligent within speculative fiction. I think I have found the musical equivalent to this shortcut: in metal or punk, denigrating pop music is an easy way to get cred. It’s such an accepted worldview within those scenes that Sharptooth’s video for “Say Anything (In The Absence of Content)” has been hailed as radical when it could be a lot more challenging.
Sharptooth are a self-described “co-ed melodic metallic hardcore” band signed to Pure Noise, the same place as Knocked Loose and Senses Fail. In preparation for their sophomore record, TRANSITIONAL FORMS, they released the single “Say Nothing (In the Absence of Content),” a satire of those who only use punk as catharsis without absorbing its lessons or demanding lyrical substance from it. On its own, it’s a fine update of “In Bloom,” and a pretty good choice to start off the record. In the accompanying video, the band performs the song while frontwoman Lauren Kashen dresses up as various pop stars: Taylor Swift circa “Shake It Off,” Katy Perry and her cotton candy clouds from “California Girls,” Lady Gaga circa “Bad Romance” with the blocky glasses and massive blond wig, and Kesha with her multi-colored glitter from “We R Who We R” or “Blah Blah Blah.”
In her own words, Kashen claims “I wanted to take the sonic aspects of a genre that is so rooted in hypermasculinity—often to the point of toxicity—and steep it in things that a lot of culture looks down on, and that I absolutely happen to adore: femininity and mainstream pop music.” It’s a noble goal, but there are many missed opportunities here. The video is simply them putting on these costumes while playing music that is typically not associated with these images. This obvious juxtaposition is expected, and while the intention is to be fun given how Kashen is smiling the entire video, it feels like such a shallow defense. Given how the song is a meta-commentary that calls itself vapid, the video could be construed as merely something to gawk at, or worse, the opposite of its intentions, and it’s important to talk about the latter three pop stars mentioned above and the opportunities missed here.
Out of the three, Katy Perry adheres closest to the crudest view of pop music given how far her star has fallen from the heights from the likes of “California Girls” and “Firework” and how she does not have the devoted fanbase of a Kesha or Lady Gaga. There’s also plenty that a punk band could spoof about Perry given the backlash she received for work the Clinton campaign and the well-intentioned attempts at “wokeness” on WITNESS. But Perry herself already tried to point out the failings of pop music on 2017’s “Chained to the Rhythm,” a myopic attempt to scold the audience for enjoying pop music that dissed listeners as “wasted zombies” who wanted to live in bubbles. Instead of attempting anything as subversive, Sharptooth just put on a costume and set from “California Girls.” A response to Perry’s dour sentiment, a defense of pop music from a very un-pop band, an acknowledgment that there’s time for both “fun” and “thoughtful” music from a band like Sharptooth that wants to be seen as intelligent, could be amazing but feels toothless.
One could make a credible argument that Lady Gaga, particularly in the BAD ROMANCE-era, did not have a lot of lyrical substance to back up her visual weirdness and gimmicks, yet there is no denying that she dominated the public zeitgeist for a couple years and pushed the boundaries of pop music on a visual and musical level; for our editor-in-chief, her first two records were instrumental to him moving beyond his preconceived notions of pop. Furthermore, in her review of Dua Lipa’s FUTURE NOSTALGIA, our own Jesse Herb poked fun at white gay men that make up pop starlets’ audience and put them on a pedestal, often at the expense of artists of color. As far as I know, Lady Gaga has more than earned her status as a gay icon and has done plenty of philantrophic work to end intolerance and stigma around mental health. Hell, she branched out from pop music to earn awards for acting and became the first woman to win an Academy, BAFTA, Grammy, and Golden Globe Award for “Shallow” from in A STAR IS BORN. Here again was an opportunity to show how pop music matters, yet Sharptooth’s approach amounts to little more than showing off her weird outfits.
And finally, we come to Kesha, who sued her producer Dr. Luke for being locked into a contract with a man who sexually, physically, and verbally abused her, and her 2018 release RAINBOW and its lead single “Praying” were praised as powerful and well-earned self-empowerment anthems in the #MeToo era. Again, there is plenty about her life and the Dr. Luke saga that could make for good material given how public the story was. In the aftermath of the lawsuit, Dr. Luke got a number one earlier this year with “Say So,” which was framed as a redemption story by several outlets who should know better. Instead of imitating the aesthetic of “Praying” or making any of these points, Kashen covers herself up with glitter with good intentions but little to say beyond, “this thing you don’t like can actually be cool.”
In our site’s review of CHROMATICA, Thomas starts his review by saying, “Having been cultured to avoid pop music by my cadre of jackass male friends in high school…” I am not arguing that disliking pop music is inherently misogynistic, that would be ridiculous. Instead, the reasons for hating pop music can be hypocritical and rooted in sexism. Kesha especially was blasted for being a vapid party girl who was only interested in sex and drugs, but the people making those points rally around classic rock tracks that are all about those topics. I think the band’s intention is to fight against this, yet that point is not driven home as hard as it could be, especially when the lyrics are all about punk music.
Perhaps I am asking too much for a video with under 50,000 views at the time of this writing, and maybe they did not have the budget to do what I ask. I’m sure that Sharptooth are aware of everything I’ve pointed out, and perhaps they intended to get across some of what I am asking for, or simply start conversations like the one I am having. And don’t get me wrong: they deserve credit for trying to defend pop music in their own scene, a tepid statement that is sadly probably enough to trigger a backlash from myopic punks whose worldview does not extend beyond “heavy music good, pop music bad.” It’s just a shame that a band with so much to say, who wants to challenge their audience and force them to think through their own biases, couldn’t do more, and the fact that this obvious juxtaposition could be seen as radical is a sad indictment of the hypermasculinity in the scene at large.