My Unapologetic, Critical Love of Pop Music
BY SERENA IMANI KORN
For the first 10 years of my life, I was passionately dedicated to the boy bands and pop divas of the 1990s. I wasn’t ashamed that I could lay out an entire dance routine to my favorite Backstreet Boys song, but couldn’t tell the difference between Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Blur’s “Song 2.”
One day in 5th grade, at a school in Westside Olympia, my classmates were gloating about which famous people they shared birthdays with. I ecstatically exclaimed I have the same birthday as my favorite pop diva, Britney Spears. One of the cool girls in class exclaimed “I hate her!” There was a resounding consensus that Britney Spears was NOT. COOL. At that exact moment, I felt something inside me change. In the blink of an eye, I felt ashamed and guilty for loving pop music. I felt so uncool.
After that, I was always worried about the music I listened to and the clothes I wore. I became entirely anti-pop. I wouldn’t admit it then, but I can now say that I tried hard to be cool. I never wanted to feel that sense of shame and being uncool ever again. In high school, I got into the straight-edge/hardcore music scene. Even when I bought the right records and wore the right shoes, I still wasn’t cool. People made fun of me and made me feel unwelcome. I learned my lesson, best represented by lyrics from “Lessons Learned” by The Gossip: “I used to try to be somebody else but now I know. People like you make me know that I don’t wanna be stuck in a scene that only puts me down and judges me.”
I spent so much of my life being afraid to fully express myself and the music I liked. I let others make me feel guilty and ashamed for liking certain music. I will no longer let that happen.
That’s why I am proud to announce that, at 23 years old, I unabashedly, emphatically love One Direction. I fell in love with these five boys when they appeared in December as a musical guest on “Saturday Night Live” with Paul Rudd. When Harry started singing with his sweet, husky voice, something awoke in me that died long ago. I became a screaming fangirl again. When I listen to One Direction, or see their sweet baby faces, I want to scream and cry like it’s Beatlemania.
When I first told my mom how much I love One Direction, she scoffed and rolled her eyes. My three best friends and family all told me to shut up. I know I don’t get any “cool points” by loving this boy band. I’m sure if there were an International Cool Committee, they would revoke my cool points credit card. They are quintessential corporate-driven pop, but I can’t help giving in to the bubbly melodies.
One Direction is supposed to be a “guilty pleasure.” Like that one Miley Cyrus song you like, or that bad ‘80s hair metal band you still listen to, we are supposed to label our enjoyment “guilty,” going a little red when we admit we like it. But I do not believe in guilty pleasures. If you like something, like it. Do not feel ashamed for liking it. I spent half of my life feeling guilty for my pleasures, and I will not do it anymore. I won’t let people make me feel embarrassed for loving One Direction. Even if I’m 23 and the only people I can relate to are in middle school.
I unapologetically love One Direction, but my love is not unconditional. I am very committed to being a cultural critic, especially of media. One Direction does not escape my critical gaze just because I melt at their perfect smiles and bright voices. As a feminist and committed anti-racist (among other things), I am very vocal with my critique of One Direction. They are problematic at best.
Several of their songs include lyrics that romanticize insecurities — making low self-esteem and things we hate about ourselves “beautiful” and attractive. The main message in their hit “What Makes You Beautiful” is that a girl is beautiful because she doesn’t think she’s beautiful: “You don’t know, oh oh, you don’t know you’re beautiful; oh oh oh, that’s what makes you beautiful.”
In “Little Things,” a single off their second album, the boys list things a girl hates about herself: “I know you’ve never loved the crinkles by your eyes when you smile, you’ve never loved your stomach or your thighs, the dimples in your back at the bottom of your spine.” They continue to assure that they love all these “little things” the girl hates about herself—that she’s perfect. But what supersedes that message is that they won’t tell the girl not to hate these parts of herself – they won’t actually tell her these things are beautiful. Girl, you will “never love yourself half as much as I love you,” the boys sing.
These messages are toxic, especially when the One Direction fanbase is full of thousands of young girls. These lyrics romanticize insecurities, which promotes having a negative self image, and negative self image can lead to depression and eating disorders. This is very concerning to me, especially as a feminist who is dedicated to body positivity. I don’t want young kids to listen to One Direction and grow up thinking negatively about themselves or others. They are beautiful. Everyone is beautiful. And knowing that you’re beautiful is beautiful.
Appropriating black and hip hop culture
Appropriating black and hip hop culture is damaging because it perpetuates stereotypes and allows an oppressive group to make a mockery of a marginalized group. When members of One Direction throw up a “Westside” or “peace” sign, or appropriate African American Vernacular English with some turn of phrase, it’s “funny” or “ironic.” But when black people do this, they are demonized and painted as a threat. That’s racism.
In December of 2012, young Harry Styles retweeted and laughed at a photo that presented Harry in virtual blackface. Someone Photoshopped a picture of Harry, making his skin dark brown and adding stereotypical accessories – chains, hat, a grill. Blackface is racist, plain and simple, whether it’s virtual or not. By reblogging and laughing at this photo, Harry perpetuated and endorsed racism.
Being the critical citizen I am, it is hard for me to reconcile loving One Direction. But it’s important to be critical of the things you love—it’s essential for us to do so. As the only One Direction fan I know that isn’t a parent or a kid, I know I can’t always bring them up. I don’t want to annoy my friends, so I will try hard to contain my One Direction mania. But I won’t, for a second, apologize for being a fangirl.
Illustration by RUBY THOMPSON