“Run the World (Girls),” the new single by superstar Beyonce, is the worst pop song of all time. More toxic than Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” insipid enough to make Paul Anka’s “She’s Having my Baby” look like Mozart, the song is a greater threat to America’s reputation in the world than the recession, Weinergate and Abu Ghraib combined. Upon hearing it, or rather being battered by it, one is left wondering if popular music can ever recover. It is so aggressively awful it threatens to become a black hole that sucks better pop music into its dark vortex.
“Run the World (Girls)” consists of martial drumming (imagine a high school marching band) and Beyonce shouting slogans of aggression and feminist affirmation to “the ladies.” That’s it. “Who run the world?” she blares. “Girls! Who run this mother? Girls!” And: “My persuasion can build a nation.” I should note that I have no problem with simple lyrics in pop songs. One of the achievements of American popular music going back to Louis Armstrong is that once we were freed from the bland moon/June conventions of lyrics and the restriction of having to enunciate each word perfectly, we could give the soul expression. The lyrics to the Beatles’ “When I Get Home,” one of the most ecstatic rock and roll songs of all time, are as follows:
I got a whole lot of things to tell her
When I get home
One of the paradoxes of pop music is that songs that are often labeled light, ephemeral fluff and dismissed have the most staying power. The degradation of the love song is largely due to the influence of rock critics. In the 1960s it was decreed by the left that the best songs were the songs that had “important” lyrics; thus Bob Dylan’s political songs — “Masters of War,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” — achieved totemic status while his far superior love songs were considered secondary. The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” became an anthem despite the fact that it is a bloated mess (even if it has been embraced by the right as a rejection of liberalism); “Getting in Tune” and “Bargain” are much more worthy of praise. Love songs have such transporting power because they deal with the truly important question: How we encounter and respond to love, a question that has eternal repercussions if you believe in the soul. Anyone can complain about the government. But as H.L. Mencken once put it, a woman is “the only grand hazard man ever truly encounters.”
Yet if you are insistent on writing a protest or self-empowerment song, do it with some wit. One thinks of Sting’s political oeuvre, songs like “Russians” and “We Work the Black Seam,” which have some poetry with their agitprop. Or Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Or even U2’s cries for world peace (although Bono’s cries for inner peace are always more compelling). Recently, I’ve been listening to another song with the word “girl” in the title — “Girls” by the 1980s-influenced Welsh pop singer Marina. It’s a protest song — about other girls:
Girls they never befriend me
Cause I fall asleep when they speak
Of all the calories they eat
All they say is “na na na na na” (na na na na na)
Girls, oh girls, wag your tails to the beat
Girls Aloud, all the journos in heat
Write such good stories
Oh their mothers must be proud
Making money off your insecurity and doubt
Marina’s song has a quirky sound, but it comes across as totally honest. Beyonce’s “Girls” lacks what is absolutely essential in pop music: honesty. In rock and roll, people can tell if you’re faking, and “Who Runs the World (Girls)” is a phony-ass song. To be sure, it reflects a sad reality. In the last 40 years there has been a catastrophic breakdown of the black family. Drained of initiative by welfare and drugs, more and more black men abandoned their duties as fathers. It became increasingly difficult for single black women to find good men who would commit. These social conditions are behind “Who Runs the World (Girls).” Beyonce’s screed is a bookend to “All the Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” a song that kneecapped men who wouldn’t commit. But human beings are made to desire and commit to each other, and the inability to do so is sad. To not admit that, to try and wash the desire away in a shower of self-empowerment set to a punishing marching beat, is to come off as someone in denial. Indeed, the more Beyonce ratchets up the beat and go-girl sexual scolding of her music, the more desperate she seems — or rather, the more canny a marketer, since there are a lot of women, both black and white, who are fed up with men these days. But a woman who was truly self-confident could just walk away and sing about something else.
In the 1970s — the era of musical female-power’s Ur-text, Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” — the great social critic Christopher Lasch published a groundbreaking book, The Culture of Narcissism. In it he discussed the totalitarianism of a lot of the then-new feminism. Although Lasch emphasized that feminism was absolutely necessary because the misogyny of the times had to change, he argued that if the result is the rejection of any kind of criticism or acknowledgement of sadness or desire or human vulnerability, what you are left with is a narcissistic eruption without wit or soul or grace. You begin to think that you run the world.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.