Forever Young: Pop music’s fascination with time

by Mary Kate McGrath / Beacon Correspondent • September 29, 2016

I lied about my car this summer. When anyone asked, I told them the aux jack broke, and if we were going to listen to music, it had to be via radio. Not Pandora or Spotify or Sirius, but classic AM or FM. If I wasn’t lying, it might be a terrible fate to be trapped between limited broadcast stations, but the auxiliary input in my car is fine. I was just too lazy to buy a new cable, and enjoyed the excuse to listen to the odds and ends played between the 88 and 109 tunings.

Most of the channels were fuzz. One played dad rock, another ear-splitting country hits, and the rest were, as you might expect, brimming with pop music. This is how I ended up listening to the same rotation of pop songs, over and over, for the entire summer. 

After a few weeks, I began to notice patterns. It’s no secret that pop music has a somewhat uniform sound. A recent scientific study out of Medical University of Vienna in Austria showed that the genre has dramatically simplified over the past decade to feel more familiar and appeal to a mass audience. What surprised me in my latest pop music binge was the all-consuming obsession with youth. 

The desire to live forever is a pervasive concept with contemporary artists, and it’s ironic how the singers and groups destined to be one-hit wonders embrace it. This is not the work of pop artists with critical acclaim; seasoned stars like Drake or Beyoncé dig into more meaningful content for their work. This summer, the obsession with adolescence appeared in The Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” with its repetitive verses declaring “We ain’t ever getting older.” Troye Sivan’s all-caps anthem “YOUTH” speaks for itself. Alessia Cara’s “Wild Things” uses the allusion to Maurice Sendak’s children’s book to make listeners feel young again. It’s possible these artists are trying show awareness of their fragile careers and how brief their moment in the spotlight will be, wielding this concept of eternity to fight their short-lived reality. More likely, they are hoping to appeal to the broadest possible audience.          

The allure of freezing time goes back to the pop music of the ‘80s, which was the most formative decade for the genre as we know it today. Alphaville’s 1984 single “Forever Young” seems to be a defining moment for this idea, and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” similarly tries to capture the romance of youth. Unlike the ephemeral one-hit wonders of younger artists, these songs endured over the years, but since they are aging songs about eternal youth, they evoke dissonance. When you realize how insincere the lyrics are, it feels distinctly nostalgic or sad. Many teen movies, from Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion to Napoleon Dynamite, take advantage of these nostalgic songs in prom scenes, an event viewed as one of youth’s peaks.

It’s possible contemporary performers were inspired by the way these artists preserved the feeling of youth, and the themes in their music reflect this. Teenagers relate most to invincibility, and the industry is likewise tailored for their consumption. The pop music world is a positive feedback loop, and the influx in songs about youth and eternity indicates that the industry has successfully marketed this feeling of immortality. 

The marketing even occurs in the song construction. Synthetic beats paired with repetitive lyrics becomes an almost tangible celebration of youth—it’s almost hypnotic. That’s why you hear pop music in social settings, like proms or parties or clubs. They’re intended to create an environment where it feels like actions don’t have consequences.

The premium on youth in the pop genre creates a culture of ageism, and older artists don’t fit in because they shatter the illusion. To truly sell songs about adolescence, labels need to sign artists who are young. Few artists on the charts overcome the age obstacle; when “Cheap Thrills” by Sia became a no. 1 hit in August, it was the first time a female artist over the age of 40 held that position since Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” topped in 1989. Sia’s unconventional presentation—masking her face with wigs, using stunt doubles during performances—allows her age to be a nonentity. The audience isn’t confronted with her mortality, or perhaps her humanity at all. Therefore, her age doesn't mar the message of her music.

With impossible age requirements, the pop industry quickly cycles through artists and singles. More than any other genre, we consider these songs disposable, and there are too many new artists to keep track. Yet, when a pop song is about living forever or pausing time or eternity, it is somewhat successful; its short shelf-life makes it a time capsule for a specific place and time. Whenever I hear these songs in the future, I will remember exactly how I felt the summer the aux cable in my car didn’t break.