By DAVID BROOKS
If you’ve been driving around listening to pop radio stations this spring and summer, you’ll have noticed three songs that are pretty much unavoidable, and each of them is a long way from puppy love.
First, there’s “Before He Cheats,” by Carrie Underwood. This is a song about a woman who catches her boyfriend in a bar fooling around with someone else. But she’s not wounded or insecure. She’s got nothing but contempt for the slobbering, cologne-wearing jerk. She’s disgusted by the bleached blond girly-girl who’s leading him on and who doesn’t even know how to drink whiskey.
As she rages, she’s out there in the parking lot rendering a little frontier justice — slashing his tires, taking a baseball bat to his headlights, carving her name into his leather seats.
The second song is “U + Ur Hand,” by Pink. This is about a woman out for a night on the town, very decidedly without men. She’s at the bar doing shots with her girlfriends and she’s not in a Cole Porter frame of mind. She snarls at the pathetic guys who come up offering to buy her a drink, telling them: “Keep your drink, just give me the money. It’s just you and your hand tonight.”
The third song is “Girlfriend” by Avril Lavigne, which is done in the manner of an angry cheerleader chant, a sort of drill sergeant version of the ’80s Toni Basil hit, “Mickey.” It’s about a woman who tells a guy to make his loser girlfriend disappear so she can show him what good sex is really like. Or as she sneers: “In a second, you’ll be wrapped around my finger, cause I can ... do it better! She so stupid! What the hell were you thinking?”
If you put the songs together, you see they’re about the same sort of character: a character who would have been socially unacceptable in a megahit pop song 10, let alone 30 years ago.
This character is hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, fedup, emotionally self-sufficient and unforgiving. 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. She’s also, at least in some of the songs, about 16.
This character is obviously a product of the cold-eyed age of divorce and hookups. It’s also a product of the free-floating anger that’s part of the climate this decade. But as a fantasy ideal, it’s also descended from the hard-boiled Clint Eastwood characters who tamed the Wild West and the hard-boiled Humphrey Bogart and Charles Bronson characters who tamed the naked city.
When Americans face something that’s psychologically traumatic, they invent an autonomous Lone Ranger fantasy hero who can deal with it. The closing of the frontier brought us the hard-drinking cowboy loner. Urbanization brought us the hard-drinking detective loner.
Now young people face a social frontier of their own. They hit puberty around 13 and many don’t get married until they’re past 30. That’s two decades of coupling, uncoupling, hooking up, relationships and shopping around. This period isn’t a transition anymore. It’s a sprawling life stage, and nobody knows the rules.
Once, young people came a-calling as part of courtship. Then they had dating and going steady. But the rules of courtship have dissolved. They’ve been replaced by ambiguity and uncertainty. Cellphones, Facebook and text messages give people access to hundreds of “friends.” That only increases the fluidity, drama and anxiety.
The heroines of these songs handle this wide-open social frontier just as confidently and cynically as Bogart handled the urban frontier. These iPhone Lone Rangers are completely inner-directed; they don’t care what you think. They know exactly what they want; they don’t need anybody else.
Of course it’s all a fantasy, as much as “The Big Sleep” or “High Plains Drifter.” Young people still need intimacy and belonging more than anything else. But the pose is the product of something real — a response to this new stage of formless premarital life, and the anxieties it produces.
In America we have a little problem with self and society. We imagine we can overcome the anxieties of society by posing romantic lone wolves. The angry young women on the radio these days are not the first pop stars to romanticize independence for audiences desperate for companionship.