Pop music sold us on consumerism, one single at a time

Two years ago, Ariana Grande took the sting out of a very relatable personal upset with a very unrelatable coping mechanism. Fresh off her breakup with comedian Pete Davidson, the pop star hit luxury jewelry retailer Tiffany’s with six of her friends, and proceeded to sip champagne as they shopped for diamonds. The outing immediately inspired her to write and record the song “7 Rings,” which she released early in 2019. The consumerist, feminist anthem — on which Ari proclaims “Wearing a ring, but ain’t gon’ be no ‘Mrs.’/Bought matching diamonds for six of my bitches” — became a cultural firestarter almost as soon as it became a hit. Along with accusations of plagiarism and cultural appropriation, the song stirred up discussions about materialism, a theme as commonplace in pop music as money not being able to buy love.

The spiritual emptiness of American consumer culture, and pop culture by extension, is a constant boogeyman in the birthplace of credit cards and Black Friday sales. Pop music is one place where the tension between artistic expression and the forces of production and consumption are particularly jarring. When a pop artist speaks on why they wrote a certain song, the answer is rarely, “Because of my contractual agreement to a record label that needed something to sell.” And yet, pop music and the market are one, shaping and reinforcing one another as major label releases are bought and sold just as coldly as any other commodity.

Meanwhile, Grande’s praise of retail therapy broadcasts the ubiquitous message that consumption is a valid form of self-care, especially if all that money is “yours.” She and other pop music superstars use their “started from the bottom” press release narratives to make acquiring things sound that much more sweet and justified. “It’s mine, I bought it,” she sings, alluding to the success that got her to that financial point.

Grande’s got a point that buying things can, unfortunately, feel absolutely amazing. But as many have pointed out over the past several years, the popular conception of materialist indulgence as “self-care” is a twisted reinterpretation of Audre Lorde’s idea of a radical act. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” she wrote in her 1988 essay “A Burst of Light: Living With Cancer.” “It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Less eloquently put, that fancy moisturizer in my shopping cart may help keep my skin supple, but it won’t get me closer to social and economic liberation any more than Grande’s success can help pull up legions of struggling, independent artists. Instead, what “7 Rings” and other consumerist hits share is saying out loud the subtext of any product of the major-label music industry: We made this for you to desire and consume so we can make lots of money.

As any artist with even a fraction of Grande’s fame and resources may tell you, inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere. The document of expression that results is just that, a snapshot in physical and emotional time. When it comes to mega stars working in mass-produced and distributed media, however, there are larger social forces at play. “7 Rings” may have been inspired by Grande’s attempt at self-care, but the result was an immediate product, born of and reinforcing the consumer culture that first brought her to Tiffany’s. Consumerism’s influence on the subject matter of pop music is conspicuous — we hear it in songs like “I Like it” by Cardi B and “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea — but music’s effect on our understanding of our own consumer desires is, perhaps, where the real cultural force is felt.

While romantics like to insist that the artists at the top have become increasingly materialistic over time, pop music has only evolved along with the rest of society, in which more products and services are available to consumers than anyone born in earlier centuries could have ever imagined. Pop music and the culture around it that we know today got its footing in the post-World War II generation, high on newly disposable income and newly available consumer goods. Shopping represented the freedom, wealth of choice, and individualism central to the American mythos. So along with cars and blue jeans, Americans scrambled to spend their incomes on in-home entertainment and mass media technologies like TVs, radios, and the hi-fi record player, first introduced by Yamaha in 1954. Since then, the number of packaged consumer goods available has skyrocketed, with about 30,000 new products launched every year, each one in desperate need of promotion.

To be clear, “pop music” here means the sounds of Top 40 charts and TikTok dance challenges. It’s as much a genre — catchy, repetitious, youth-oriented — as it is a term for whatever’s grabbing the world’s attention, and dollars, at any given time. It’s unabashedly commercial, accessible, and aiming to please, which makes some ashamed to love it so much. Brazen, crass consumerism notwithstanding, these songs celebrating a lifestyle most of us will never have are still damn fun to listen to. But overall, pop is the sound of our cultural concerns, money (and spending it) being a huge one of them.

An early materialistic hit came in 1955 with Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.” Though not about shopping or spending money, the song famously chronicles a drag race between a Cadillac Coupe DeVille and a V8 Ford. That decade, automobile production and sales hit new highs as more and more Americans became car owners. As Americans’ buying power and options developed, so did materialist themes in pop. Elvis’s dewy-eyed 1956 “Blue Suede Shoes” gave way to tongue-in-cheek zeitgeist anthems like Madonna’s 1984 “Material Girl.”

Meanwhile, major artists that didn’t specifically glorify consumerism were still caught in the thrill of making enough money to join a new aristocracy, even those praised for their supposed artistic purity. “Somebody said to me, ‘But the Beatles were anti-materialistic.’ That’s a huge myth,” Paul McCartney told journalist David Fricke in 1990. “John and I literally used to sit down and say, ‘Now let’s write a swimming pool.’ We said it out of innocence. Out of normal, fucking working-class glee that we were able to write a ‘swimming pool.’ For the first time in our lives, we could actually do something and earn money.” Notably, Elvis only acquired his iconic pair of blue suede shoes after the single about them became a hit.

More recently, as hip-hop has become the sound of pop, it has become the main site of anxiety around materialism in the subjects of songs. In 1997, when Sean Combs went by Puff Daddy, he released his debut album No Way Out chock full of tax-bracket-climbing anthems, including “It’s All About the Benjamins.” Since then, Combs has very deliberately made luxury his brand. Launching from his Bad Boy Entertainment label, he now has Combs Enterprises, a portfolio of brands he has stakes in, including DeLeon Tequila, Revolt, a cable music network, and Sean John, his iconic streetwear brand. One of his most successful brands, Ciroc, helped push his personal fortune to $740 million in 2019. In pop and hip-hop, the vodka brand name is now shorthand for expensive indulgence, as in Future’s song “Fuck Up Some Commas” or Rick Ross’s “Diced Pineapples.” Along the way, Rihanna took that same model and perfected it. The singer and entrepreneur’s music career and persona came with a fan base that was a boon for her wildly successful makeup and lingerie brands, that are in many ways extensions of Rihanna merchandise. Moguls like Jay-Z and Beyoncé also parlayed the lavishness they sang and rapped about in their songs into lucrative business deals and brand partnerships that capitalize on their celebrity.

As Questlove pointed out in his 2014 critique of hip-hop for Vulture, songs of the genre were reaching comically new consumerist heights just as the industry was nurturing more and more inequality between priority and rising artists. “[Jay-Z] would never want to be in a club that would have you as a member. But this doesn’t offend his audiences. They love it,” he lamented after comparing the lyrics of the rapper’s song “Picasso Baby” to those of Run DMC’s “My Adidas,” quaint in comparison. However, alongside the ascendance of consumerist songs celebrating out-of-reach lifestyles, this new iteration of our capitalist soundtrack has spent the past two decades hammering home the idea that consumption can be the same thing as empowerment.

Though she wasn’t the first to do it, one of pop music’s biggest peddlers of this myth so far has been Beyoncé, who on her 2006 duet “Upgrade U” with Jay-Z compared buying her husband luxury goods to the civil rights work of Martin Luther King Jr. As a solo artist, Beyoncé ran with the themes of female empowerment and independence that Destiny’s Child made their bread and butter in songs like “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Independent Woman.”

But songs about taking pride in being able to support yourself hit different from an up-and-comer than from one of the biggest stars in the world. Rising from being concerned about her telephone bill to rockin’ chinchilla coats, Beyoncé is one of many artists who flaunt her wealth in her music as a symbol of how far she’s come. Consumption and overconsumption — as in her 2011 #feminism song “Run the World (Girls),” shouting out the girls “that’s in the club rocking the latest/Who will buy it for themselves and get more money later” — is a main pillar of her self-empowerment brand. It’s built not only through her music, but through the documentaries and interviews that she greenlights, participates in, and shapes.

There’s an unfortunate truth in the “consumption as empowerment” narrative she and many other artists push. In the world as it is now, money really can buy the conditions for happiness and self-empowerment. The most fulfilling things in life — supportive, loving relationships; a stable, comfortable home; access to everything you need to be healthy and pursue your passions — are infinitely easier to get and keep if you have the money to fund it.

The other side of that coin is an insidious but common political standpoint: that everyone who is rich got there because they earned it. Songs like Drake’s “Worst Behavior,” Kanye West’s “The Good Life,” and Gwen Stefani’s “Luxurious” reminisce about their rises to superstardom and the monetary flexes that came with it all. Meanwhile, Fergie’s “Glamorous” and Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny from the Block” do the same with added humblebrags about managing to not be an asshole. At the heart is the idea that it is not just hard work or talent that rocket an artist into the 1 percent, it is both at once. But how many of us know a hardworking singer, songwriter, or musician with world-class talent who just never got that mysterious jolt of luck and resources it takes to get to the top? Pop music’s constant conflation of consumption with empowerment, and the music industry with a meritocracy, is a uniquely American kind of propaganda that keeps our capitalist hellscape burning.

Meanwhile, its leaders must feign concern about it under the guise of Christian morality. “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,” President Jimmy Carter lamented in his 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech. He went on to reassure that the American people were learning that “piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” It was immediately apparent just how wrong he was. The decade that followed in American culture became known for glamorizing decadence, materialism, and greed.

To be fair, some of the world’s biggest pop artists have pushed back on the materialism of their industry at the height of their fame. But any pushback on the system from a successful pop artist is fraught with the contradiction of the call coming from inside the house. For example, though Tracy Chapman included the anti-capitalist song “Mountains o’ Things” on her 1988 self-titled debut album, most people who heard it did so by buying a product of Elektra Records, now owned by Warner Music Group, a corporation in the business of selling mountains upon mountains of things in the forms of digital music, physical albums, and associated merchandise.

In 1991, Sinead O’Connor withdrew from the Grammys in protest of the music industry’s materialism. “There is an emphasis (in pop music) on materialism and it’s not right to give people the message that they can fill their emptiness with material things,” she told the Los Angeles Times the following year. “They’ve got to try to fill it with truth, which we’ve got to try to show them by being ourselves rather than trying to cover up with loads of makeup or a hairdo or loads of diamond rings.” The sentiment was somewhat undercut by its appearance in an interview advertising her upcoming album.

Even Lorde’s 2013 megahit “Royals,” a lament on the materialism of pop music (with lyrics like “Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece” ​​that seemed to focus on hip-hop and Black culture entirely), could only be anti-consumerist to a shallow point. The single propelled the singer to stardom and helped her debut album Pure Heroine reach $1 million in sales just a few months after release.

There’s no separating pop music, literally music that has proven popular, from consumption and sales. And yet many reviews, and both formal and informal criticism, hold it up to a utopian ideal, as if pop music can change society and not the other way around. The music landscape can seem bleak until you turn your attention to those operating outside and on the fringes of the major label and advertising machines. Operating in their makeshift studios, self-mixing and publishing their work, there are artists out there to turn to for non-cynical celebrations of community, mutual aid, support, and commiseration. But when you’re trying to temporarily mute the horror of modern life by buying a bathing suit with the last $30 in your bank account? That’s the perfect time to turn on “7 Rings” or whatever dystopian consumerist bop comes next. Because if there’s anything that’s relatable in consumerist society, it’s wanting, coveting, and loving stuff. Considering pop music’s indivorceable relationship to the market, that’s not going away any time soon.

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