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Pop profundity

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Jason Hardy is a junior English writing major with a music minor.

I’m not too fond of constantly being bombarded with the goings on of celebrity lives whenever I turn on the television. I would at least like to pretend that my own life is too exciting for me to worry about Britney’s new haircut. Although I must confess that curiosity sometimes gets the best of me when the evening news gives reports of Paris Hilton’s escapades, my party-line position on the matter is that the elevation of the minutiae of celebrity lives to the status of “newsworthy” is generally a bad thing for society.

Still, celebrity reporting is interesting to me insofar as it affects the music I listen to. A peculiar element of the pop song often taken for granted is the perception that the message put forth in a particular song comes from the heart or mind of the person singing it.

When Gretchen Wilson sings “Redneck Woman,” for example, we assume that she is referring to herself. For the most part, audiences perceive songs as subjective to their performers, and that perception has interesting implications when we, the listening public, know the gory details of our favorite performers’ personal lives.

Case in point: this year’s Grammy winner in the “Song of the Year” category. We’ve all had a good time chuckling smugly at Amy Winehouse and the irony of “Rehab,” given our knowledge of her recent stints in the very place she promised us she wouldn’t “go go go.” Indeed, our Amy has certainly gone off the deep end on more than one occasion since “Back to Black” became one of 2007’s biggest buzz albums. She has entered drug rehabilitation centers at least twice since the album’s release, was seen smoking a curious-looking pipe in an online video and was photographed aimlessly wandering the streets of London armed only with a pair of jeans and a brassiere to protect her from the elements. (I found all of this information by typing ‘Amy Winehouse’ into the search field on Breaking news indeed.)

When “Rehab” first hit the radio waves, however, the public had no knowledge of the singer’s taste for self-destruction. At that point, we were perhaps more likely to buy the argument she puts forth in the song. For all we knew, she was just a heartbroken young lass who had taken a brief dive into the bottle to drown her sorrows. Lines like “I don’t ever wanna drink again / I just need a friend” seemed like reasonable enough evidence that her taste for firewater was not, perhaps, a destructive lifestyle but merely a momentary lapse into escapism. Now that the Associated Press has made us all too aware of her history of substance abuse, the lyrics to “Rehab” tell us something else entirely.

If you think about it, “Rehab” is now a song about denial. It doesn’t matter that Winehouse may not have meant it to be about denial; our knowledge of her troubled personal life means that we all know that when she sings, “there’s nothing, nothing you can teach me/ That I can’t learn from Mr. Hathaway,” she’s just plain wrong. By feeding our hunger for celebrity scandal, the media has created a persona of Amy Winehouse that presents her to us as a strung-out, utterly confused celebrity. Whether she likes it or not, we hear “Rehab” on the radio and hear that persona denying amid sixties-esque horns that she needs help in her endeavors to conquer addiction.

The irony of the situation is that poets and fiction writers have historically gone through great intellectual toil to create personas through which to express their ideas. T.S. Elliot delves into the depths of his literary genius to craft the persona of the narrator in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” All Britney Spears had to do was behave negligently enough to lose custody of her children. William Faulkner musters his great literary prowess to take his reader into the depths of his characters’ psyches in “The Sound and the Fury.” Bono needs only to flash a peace sign when being photographed with President Bush. Pop stars, whether or not they are aware of it, have the unprecedented ability to conjure up interesting personas for their songs by simply stepping out of their places of residence and being themselves in front of the ever-present cameras. While I’m certainly not saying that the expressive depth of Amy Winehouse’s work measures up to that of Elliot’s or Faulkner’s, she has unwittingly added a dimension of meaning to “Rehab” that poets and writers have had to strive valiantly for in their own work.

So there you have it. Our song of the year for 2007 is about denial. But only because we’re addicted to celebrity sensationalism. If the first thought that comes into your head after reading that last sentence is, “What? I’m not addicted to celebrity sensationalism,” then perhaps Natalie Cole is wrong and the Recording Academy chose wisely.

February 28, 2008

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•Fall break clears campus for debate
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•Time to text, time to call, and time to shut up

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•Pop profundity
•Three volumes to add to ‘must-read’ list
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•Bruins guard Rockwell has strong bonds with adoptive family, Belmont friends
•‘Mean Bruiser’ one big, bad, blue bear