David Brooks takes on pop music

And its "emotionally self-sufficient and unforgiving" heroines.

Topics: Broadsheet, Music, Gender, David Brooks, Love and Sex,

I can’t believe I’m about to write this: I almost agree with David Brooks’ latest column. I’m typically less than charmed by the one-note conservative curmudgeon (though, that pink tie!) and, it’s safe to say, that won’t change anytime soon. But, his column yesterday makes a point about “angry young women” that resonates with me, an (only occasionally angry) young woman.

The basic gist of his argument — taking a page directly from Laura Sessions Stepp — is that young people today are confronted with a post-apocalyptic dating landscape where the traditional rules for courtship no longer apply. The “rules” have “been replaced by ambiguity and uncertainty.” Cellphones! Facebook! And text-messaging! It’s all so socially confusing to young women and leads to a sort of emotional trauma, Brooks argues. And, in traumatic times, Americans turn to an “autonomous Lone Ranger fantasy hero,” he says.

Young women — who, nowadays, face “two decades of coupling, uncoupling, hooking up, relationships and shopping around” — have found their fantasy heroine. She’s the “hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, fedup, emotionally self-sufficient and unforgiving” character found in this summer’s hottest pop songs, says Brooks. He continues: “She’s like one of those battle-hardened combat vets, who’s had the sentimentality beaten out of her and who no longer has time for romance or etiquette. She’s disgusted by male idiots and contemptuous of the feminine flirts who cater to them.”

Let’s take a look at his evidence. Exhibit A: Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” a song about a woman who catches her boyfriend chatting up a “bleached-blond tramp” in a bar. The song’s heroine tells of trashing his car with the hope that “maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.” Exhibit B: Pink’s “U + UR Hand,” which Brooks describes as a song in which a woman out on the town with her girlfriends “snarls” at men who try to buy her a drink. (Of course, Brooks ignores the fact that this comes only after a jerk gropes her at the bar.) And finally, Exhibit C: Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” a song about a girl who likes a guy and hates his girlfriend … hardly an original premise for a pop song.

I agree with Brooks that these pop heroines exaggerate their emotional independence. But, it’s no surprise that there’s posturing in courtship (or pop music about courtship). Most basically, he fails to make a crucial cultural connection: These “hard-boiled” heroines are in contrast (or response) to pop’s puffed-up male heroes. After all, on the charts, Pink’s I-don’t-need-you-to-buy-me-a-drink anthem neighbors T-Pain’s, ehem, “Buy You a Drank.” (“Imma Buy You a Drank /Then Imma Take You Home With Me … We in the Bed Like /Ooh Ooh Ohh, Ooh Ooh.” You get the idea.)

Brooks narrowly sees this as a response by young women to this “new stage of formless premarital life and the anxieties it produces,” rather than an expression of anxiety over a cultural cognitive dissonance; gender roles are fast changing while society’s still catching up. Ultimately, even if a stage of “formless premarital life” produces a more obvious outward struggle than old-fashioned courtship, it doesn’t mean it isn’t actually preferable. Brooks’ argument here seems an iteration of his argument during last year’s stay-at-home kerfuffle that women are just so much happier in the domestic sphere. He seems to think that young women would be so much happier if they gave up the silly independence act and just settled for domestic bliss.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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