On Sunday evening, post-VMAs (Video Music Awards), I found myself in awe. I have been overjoyed with the marvelous news of Beyonce’s pregnancy (a hearty mazel tov to her and Hova). I have wondered why “Tyler the Creator” lacks a more expansive vocabulary and shuns helping verbs. I have even mistaken Bruno Mars for Lady Gaga at least once. As I scour my Twitter feed idly in the night’s odd hours, examining the VMA hashtags, I start to wonder — who will still be relevant among those names in 10 years? Or, phrased differently, when is the dawn of a post-Bruno Mars era?
Pop musicians have a notoriously short shelf life. Just as glowing youth fades to wrinkles or spritely associate professors become tenured warlocks, time frequently saps beauty, especially in popular music. Any new album will be unwholesome and undesirable after six weeks, the musical equivalent of campus dining. Unwitting DJs become sadists. After those consecutive listens, Adele will be no more desirable than the “tik tok” of Ke$ha’s beats or the best Drake ever had. You will pretend that airplanes in the night sky are like shooting stars (this reference acknowledges its age) as you wish people would stop quoting particular tracks on Facebook.
Interestingly, however, some names loom in pop music for decades.
Since the days of NWA, Dr. Dre has remained relevant. Beyonce, too, has persisted longer than most women in show business. Eminem could spend an entire album talking about cutting coupons or seasonal vegetables, and we would likely still buy it. Persisting in music is accomplishable.
However, consumption and immediate gratification until expiration is far more likely. A number of items in your life probably follow a very similar path — a new car, a new relationship or campus dining. At first, these things are perceived to be genuinely enlivening. Over time, the pleasure decays as we accustom ourselves to each of them. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, who has never been mentioned within 500 words of Eminem, has written extensively about this inverted “U” of pleasure, a parabola over time, most notably in his 2010 book, How Pleasure Works. At first, we only sort of like novelty. After a few secondhand listens from a friend’s iPod, it catches. The only route to happiness seems to be a $1.29 iTunes download. We listen, and listen, and binge until all the consumption seems to suffocate the desire, when we resolve to harm the next radio disc jockey who believes “Rolling in the Deep” is still tolerable.
As I type away to R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix),” I acknowledge that some pieces are perhaps eternal and not fated to this path. Kanye’s “My Dark Twisted Fantasy” still gets high marks for quality almost a year after its release. Bloom might argue that this is because Kanye’s tracks have a steeper shape to their parabola — it takes more time to appreciate it fully, given the complexity. Drake raps about topics which suggest a man who grew up in a neighborhood with decent public schools and a strong sense of community; he might not last the decade, but those who strive for a more baroque, textured listening experience can consistently intrigue us. “Watch the Throne” does not channel Jay-Z’s The Black Album or Kanye’s Late Registration — subject matter has changed, styles evolved. The Beatles spent a decade reinventing themselves — “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” are vastly different sentiments by the same songwriters.
Maybe, then, the secret to a post-Bruno Mars era lies in the fact that Bruno will probably not reinvent himself and remain “vanilla pop.” Being slightly difficult to grasp, as Kanye and Paul Bloom might agree, can in fact be an asset, a preservative for the pop genre. We yearn for enough novelty to spark inspiration yet enough familiarity to sustain interest. The artists who play off this remain on our playlists; those who do not “dougie” into the dustbin of pop music history. So, Bruno, I beg you: be novel — surprise us just enough, exploit the joy in anticipation and we’ll see you next year at the VMA’s.