Not So Fresh: Pop Music and its Problems

Words by: Thiamando Pavlidis
Art by: Madison Marshall

I am a trashy pop music apologist. My taste in music has been described as “bad”, “objectively bad”, and even expressed by just groaning. Spotify once even told me to “chill out”. 

Over the years I’ve been a K-Pop fan, a Eurovision/Europop-enthusiast, a So Fresh CD collector and a ’90s house/Eurodance tragic. I haven’t willingly listened to an acoustic guitar in years. 

With bad music comes bad lyrics, and oftentimes bad artists. ‘Bad’, however, can mean many different things, from questionable, to downright criminal.

So, how do we distinguish between songs that are products of their time and artists with unforgivable actions? More importantly, how can we learn from these past mistakes?

Bad Lyrics

I distinctly recall that my primary school had optional after-school programs. One of these was a hip-hop dance class, where we were taught choreography to The Black Eyed Peas’ ‘My Humps’. 

I also owned a So Fresh: Hits of Autumn 2006 CD to ‘My Humps’, which led to eight-year-old Thiamando singing about “making you scream” because of “all my humps”. While the lyrics themselves are nothing strange (remember, we’re living in the age of ‘WAP’), So Fresh including that song in a CD set marketed mainly towards children and pre-teens, and an after-school program teaching a dance with said song speaks more to an institutional desensitisation of pop lyrics than to the intentions of the artist. Not all music is supposed to be kid-friendly, and it’s up to those in charge to distinguish between what should and should not be accessible to children. 

Where lyrics in songs like ‘My Humps’ are inherently sexual, certain ‘problematic’ elements of pop music are less defined, and not addressed the same way as sexually explicit lyrics are. Therefore, it’s more difficult to filter out for younger audiences. 

Historically, pop music is riddled with misogyny and exploitation. Artists over the years have emerged to condemn explicitly problematic past lyrics in their popular hits, including Hayley Williams of Paramore. Williams has since retired what is arguably the band’s biggest song, ‘Misery Business’, from live shows due to the lyric “once a wh*re, you’re nothing more”. 

What if the song’s intention or lyrics are not as clean-cut?

Songs about women trying to outdo or spite others were the norm of the early ’00s, and groups like the Pussycat Dolls became instant hit-makers with songs like ‘Don’t Cha’. The general sentiment of the song is “I’m going to steal your man!”

Danish Eurodance group Aqua shot to fame in the late ’90s with their song ‘Barbie Girl’, a deceptively candy-coloured, lighthearted bubblegum pop track which describes a woman as a sex object for a man’s pleasure —“you can touch, you can play, if you say, “I’m always yours.”” 

In the current socio-political climate, it is doubtful that songs like these So Fresh staples would be produced today. 

That being said, we shouldn’t just ‘cancel’ these songs; progress is about understanding the mistakes made in history, and without them, we would not have anything to learn from. While the lyrics may be questionable, we must understand these songs as a product of the past. Despite certain lyrics, the artists themselves have done nothing wrong.

Bad People 

CW: Brief discussion of sexual assault. 

It’s one thing for a song to have questionable lyrics/intentions — but what if the artist themself is an alleged (or established) criminal?

We know about R.Kelly and Michael Jackson from the documentaries detailing allegations of crimes committed against underage victims. Now, fans are reconciling with the fact that their favourite musician has done something inexcusable.

If you were a hardcore second-generation K-Pop fan like me, you’d be familiar with the supergroup BIGBANG. Signed to YG Entertainment, the five-piece group debuted in 2006 and had global hits such as ‘Haru Haru’ and ‘Fantastic Baby’. For those not familiar, it’s important to mention that for a decade these guys were the biggest thing in the industry, basically changing the genre’s landscape as we know it.

The Korean Pop industry is renowned for its sanitised portrayal of its idols, meaning fans were shocked when in 2019, BIGBANG’s Lee Seung-Ri was arrested for embezzlement of funds and mediation of prostitution (among other charges). For context, Lee was a creative director/shareholder of nightclub Burning Sun and sex work in South Korea is illegal. 

It was later announced Lee was a part of a group chat created to share sexually explicit videos of women without their consent. The incident, known as the ‘Burning Sun Scandal’, has tarnished the squeaky-clean perception of idols that K-Pop fans knew well, leaving many to grapple with how to continue enjoying BIGBANG without supporting Seung-Ri. 

In light of the scandal, Seung-Ri has since left the group and label. It is unclear whether he still receives any profit or residuals.

It’s one thing to illegally download Michael Jackson or R.Kelly’s songs. They are solo artists and all profits are theirs or their estate’s. When it’s a group where only one member has done something unforgivable, how do you continue to support them?

I love a K-Pop throwback — it was a big part of my adolescence — but it’s difficult for me to listen to BIGBANG’s hits knowing one of their members has since been outed as a predator. While it’s easier to boycott their music altogether, what about the other members, who allegedly had no involvement? 

While it’s a bleak reminder that public image can be fabricated, for Seung-Ri’s actions to come to light with legal repercussions shows us the world is changing the way it forgives its celebrities. Gone are the days where adult celebrities dating underage girls was the norm — looking at you, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis

By holding stars accountable for their actions, we set a behavioural precedent for emerging artists. With technological advances, we may even develop ways to separate the artist from their art. 

Currently, we don’t have clear-cut solutions. The way a person consumes art is unique to them and is, therefore, dependent on the choices they make; no matter how ‘bad’ or ‘good’. 

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