How Today's Young Women Learned to Sing the Truth About Hookup Culture
After Hanna Rosin's glowing praise for promiscuity in her new book The End of Men, articles about the hookup culture are popping up all over the web. Is it really good for women? Do they actually like it? Is replacing forward men with on-the-prowl women really progress?
Intentional or not, many of this summer’s pop rock music releases offer songs about the truth and consequences of the hookup culture. Three of these artists in particular boldly sing about love; as products of their generations, their songs can teach us about the hookup culture. The early songs of Alanis Morissette, P!nk, and Katy Perry provide a window into how these ideas progressed from Gen X women to Millennial women. The rockers’ latest works (Alanis’ havoc and bright lights, P!nk’s The Truth About Love, and Perry’s "Wide Awake") are about how they are coping, or not, with marriage and, in the case of Alanis and P!nk, motherhood. What truths about love and happiness do their songs tell us?
The results are counterintuitive for the Rosin types who think that the hookup culture empowers women. Surely the eyes-wide-open, independent Millennial Perry is the one who has it all together? According to her songs, she is not. The truth-teller P!nk, perhaps? She is holding together if only because she hates goodbyes. No, it is angry Alanis who seems to have found peace in spite of all the havoc and bright lights. And her relative lack of experience with the hookup culture can explain why.
The hookup culture and the rock stars' early songs
Back in 1995, Alanis Morissette’s jagged little pill shattered many rock records, and the lyrics are as well-known to my generation as "Summer Lovin’" and "Greased Lightening." Jagged little pill might not have contained the first scorned woman song, but it was the first concept album about mistreated women. It was also the angriest to date.
Contrary to pop psychoanalysis, this anger was not empowering but did evidence a modicum of self-respect and greater expectation. We saw the transition to the hookup culture, which is so “essential” to women’s professional success today. We, therefore, still had expectations of traditional courtship. When our expectations of traditional dating and romance met the growing reality of untrustworthy men, we were given to bitterness and anger, which Alanis expressed with vigor. She had been Canada’s wholesome pop star who was used by men she had trusted. She sang the ugly truth of betrayal and, for every story of abused faith in Alanis’ lyrics, a Gen X woman could either directly relate or had a friend who could. Alanis was our primal scream.
But anger is hard to sustain. Women got used to men who were rarely ready for commitment or responsibility. What other option was there? And so anger melted into resignation. Compare the lyrics of "You Oughta Know," released in 1995, to the video of P!nk’s "So What," released in 2008.
The anger is evident in"You Oughta Know" before Alanis layers on the alternately cold and shrieking vocals.
You seem very well, things look peaceful/ I'm not quite as well, I thought you should know./ Did you forget about me, Mr. Duplicity?/ I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner./ It was a slap in the face/ How quickly I was replaced,/ And are you thinking of me when you fuck her?
'Cause the love that you gave that we made/ Wasn't able to make it enough for you/ To be open wide, no./ And every time you speak her name/ Does she know how you told me/ You'd hold me until you died?/ 'Til you died, but you're still alive.
And I'm here, to remind you/ Of the mess you left when you went away./ It's not fair, to deny me/ Of the cross I bear that you gave to me./ You, you, you oughta know.
"You Oughta Know" challenges the man to acknowledge the pain he caused, which she is laying bare. "So What," however, is a song about burying the pain and acting like everything is fine when it is not.
P!nk makes us laugh with hair on fire, highway rides on a John Deere lawn mower, and naked red-carpet strutting. She gets a bit of childish revenge with the urine in the beer bottle. But the part that always gets me is when she shakes off tears while taking a chainsaw to the tree with the carved lovers' heart.
Regardless, P!nk doesn't actually move on.
Both P!nk and Alanis experienced broken homes and otherwise difficult childhoods and both have had rocky love lives, but unlike Alanis, who had long since broken with the men she ranted about, P!nk's love life has mostly involved her longtime boyfriend and now husband Carey Hart. Many of her other popular songs, notably "Who Knew," are about him. She sings about his various shortcomings. But yet, she stays. P!nk is self-aware enough to admit at least some womanly responsibility for relationship woes in her lyrics, as in "Please Don't Leave Me" and "I Don't Believe You," but in her videos she exacts all sorts of revenge on him.
The truth that P!nk sings: as the hookup culture solidified and men became less dependable, women resigned themselves to the new normal and became less angry and more likely to stick around. That women had to put up with lesser men was hardly progress. That they satisfied the remnants of their anger in petty revenge and airing of dirty laundry wasn’t progress, either. (Airing of dirty laundry is common. Carey Hart got off easy in comparison to the husbands of the authors of The Bitch in The House.)
Eventually, probably in emotional self-defense, women stopped caring about men at all. For Millennials, it doesn’t matter what the guy is like. They have so few expectations that they have no need for anger. It is all just fun... for now.
The pursuit of fun is the truth Katy Perry sang last summer. "Last Friday Night" would make an excellent anthem for the hookup culture. A riff on the innocent, last horseman of the pop music apocalypse, "Friday" by Rebecca Black,"Last Friday Night" is a not-at-all-innocent song about what girls do on Friday nights. Friday night involves drinking a lot of alcohol, forgetting assorted antics, waking up with strangers in bed, and piecing the night together using photos posted on Facebook. Mistakes, or "epic fails," are just what a girl does on Friday night. Regardless of the consequences, next Friday night, "we'll do it all again."
And this is supposed to be a good development.
So, how did this all play out for these rockers?
Love and Marriage in the Rockers' Latest Hits
About two years ago Katy Perry married actor Russell Brand, only to divorce him less than 18 months later when they had differing wishes about having children. Her latest song,"Wide Awake," is about her divorce.
Swept away by a Prince Charming in a whirlwind romance, she was on Cloud 9, everything was wonderful, her man made falling so sweet, but somehow — she has no idea how she read the stars so wrong — she woke up on the concrete. The video layers on meaning with Perry venturing through a maze of many of her naive young girl songs, punching Prince Charming through a hedge, and watching her girl self ride away on a pink banana-seat bicycle.
She’s grown up now, but while she tries for the façade of a tough modern woman in verse two, "Not losing any sleep/ I picked up every piece/ And landed on my feet," in verse four she cries, "Thunder rumbling/ Castles crumbling/ I am trying to hold on." She asks how she read the stars so wrong. She doesn't ask "what did I do wrong," but "what complication did I not see?" She thinks she missed a sign. With that, she stumbles upon one of the terrible truths about the hookup culture.
Beyond the sexual promiscuity and its physical complications, the judgment-free environment that the hookup culture requires to thrive robs the young of any notion of responsibility. If “right” is just what one felt like last Friday night, then there is no responsibility because there was no mistake. Consequences, good and bad, simply happen, like lightning. Accordingly, young women needed a way to tell when love was happening to them. The Happily Ever After of the Love Myth fits their worldview.
The Love Myth is the notion that when you find The One, then love is easy, it never dies or changes. Love is. It happens. It finds you as you are and requires nothing from you. In her movie Part of Me, Katy Perry addresses her divorce, essentially stating the Love Myth. "I thought to myself, 'When I find that person that's going to be my life partner, I won't ever have to choose [between my partner and my career]."
Before anyone thinks that this is just the silly and self-centered musings of a Hollywood starlet, this notion of easy love that never requires compromise passes for thoughtful feminist discourse these days. In an interview with WBEZ in Chicago, Hanna Rosin favorably quoted a young woman on her "not half bad" wants for relationships:
We want a relationship of freedom—the freedom to be there for each other and available sexually when it suits the both of us, and also emotionally when it suits the both of us. We want it to be fun and maybe involve some dates and long talks over coffee. But we certainly don't want these "relationships" to be entered into with an expectation of long-term, or to get in the way of the other important things in our lives. Compatibility isn't even all that important. Amusement, affection, affirming attention, sexual fulfillment, the ever-elusive "fun"—that's what we're after. We (both women and men) are putting ourselves first. Some might call that selfish; we call it smart and independent and secure.
Anyone who has ever been involved in any romantic relationship, from friends with benefits to longtime marrieds, should see the punchline: just how often does this young woman—or Rosin, who should know better—suppose the stars align with sexual and emotional needs suiting both partners at the same time?! And exactly how are these independent and secure people supposed to give “affirming attention” without regard to what the other person needs? This is the unicorn of relationships. It sets up expectations that will never be met, hence fun that is “ever-elusive.”
If one simply walks every time such ridiculous expectations fail to materialize, then there will be—there is—an awful lot of walking away, much of it not mutual. The practical problem of the hookup culture: it gives people practice at leaving.
Michelle Branch’s 2006 song "Goodbye to You" has always stuck out to me as the essence of this practice. From the third verse,“I want what's yours and I want what's mine/ I want you/ But I'm not giving in this time.” (Link is for the version from a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, "Tabula Rasa," because it is the best version of the song.) We have taught young women never to give in, never to sacrifice any part of themselves to a man, always to remain an island. Women either remain alone or eventually "settle" for some man who is not The One and then resent him for any compromise the relationship requires. This path leads to the dinner party of self-styled harpies complaining about how no one takes care of them.
Self-centeredness is not compatible with marriage. Marriage is about mutual sacrifice.
P!nk seems to have figured this out, although she is more resigned than happy about it. In "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)," P!nk fantasizes about walking away when sexual and emotional needs do not coincide. Unlike Perry, P!nk doesn’t walk away but instead vents her frustration at her husband’s shortcomings. The song is full of contempt—that is evident in the title—accusations of sexual inadequacy, and dreams of returning to the responsibility-free hookup culture.
I mean what I say when I say there is nothing left/ No more sick whiskey dick/ No more battles from me/ You'll be calling a trick/ 'Cause you no longer sleep/ I'll dress nice,/ I'll look good/ I'll go dancing alone/ I will laugh, I'll get drunk/ I'll take somebody home...
I think that life's too short for this/ Want back my ignorance and bliss/ I think I've had enough of this/ Blow me one last kiss
Based upon other songs in the album, it is obvious that "Blow Me" was just her thoughts about this moment of deciding to walk away or to stay. In "The Truth About Love," she sings about the truth: “It’s all a lie/ I thought you were the one, and I hate goodbyes.” This isn’t very romantic, but it isn’t exactly wrong, either. The truth that she, to her credit, has realized: marriage isn’t just about romance. Marriage is at its best when romance and commitment work together, but commitment makes or brakes all marriages.
Even the steamiest of unions eventually come to a decision point. The clothes-ripping sex is in the past. Life administration is unending and sharing the practical load becomes an affection-deadening game of scorekeeping. (See this Norwegian study about the higher divorce rate of chore-sharing spouses, or the harpy dinner party link, above.) What keeps people together at the decision point is choice, either because they simply want to stay or because they stood in front of God and men and made a promise that they are honorable enough to keep. The latter is much stronger motivation than the former, but that is a post for another day. The point is, eventually people stay together because they choose to battle on.
This moment of choice is a common song theme. Train sang about it a few years ago in "All I Ever Wanted." "The Way It Was," the third track on The Killers’ new album Battle Born, is another song about that moment of choice:
I remember driving/ In my daddy's car to the airfield/ Blanket on the hood, backs against the windshield/ Back then this thing was running on momentum, love and trust/ That paradise is buried in the dust.
If I go on/ With you by my side/ Can it be/ The way it was/ When we met/ Did you forget all about those golden nights?
If one goes on, the relationship won't be the way it was, although the passion will come again. Successful marriages go through this moment of choice, and then the passion and romance return in moments that shine brighter and deeper than anything from the golden nights. But it takes a leap of faith, in yourself and in your spouse, to get there.
Havoc and bright lights is about this leap of faith, and its rewards. Alanis had her moment of choice yet neither resents the need for choice nor shies away from her responsibility to uphold it. Unlike the unwilling Perry and the resigned P!nk, Alanis rises to her responsibilities.
The first release, "Guardian," is about what she owes herself, her husband, and her child.
I'll be your keeper for life as your guardian/ I'll be your warrior of care, your first warden/ I'll be your angel on call, I'll be on demand/ The greatest honor of all as your guardian.
When I first heard the song, "warden" rang out to me. The hookup culture’s notions of love or empowerment are about self-service, never self-restraint. That insight alone — it is not always what we want that matters — sets this song apart from most modern songs about love. Alanis seems to have anticipated that this song was different and did a short video explaining:
She sings about what we should require of ourselves. Another favorite of mine,"havoc," ironically scored like a lullaby, is a confessional:
I get reduced by my own willfulness/ As I reach for my usual God replacements/ ‘Cause I am rich with sanction and lax in my steps...
I am beaten by my impulsiveness/ By this uncanny foreshadowing of regret/ 'Cause I'm repulsed by restriction/ at least that's my excuse
I'm slipping again/ I'm up to old tricks off my wagon/ I have no defense/ I'm wreaking havoc/ Wreaking havoc and consequence
In the vast wasteland of relativist, amoral pop culture, havoc and bright lights is a rare find. And through all the difficulties she endured, based on interviews, she is finally happy.
Looking back, this was foreshadowed. One of the most popular songs on Alanis' jagged little pill was "You Learn." (The "jagged little pill" was a metaphor for things that we learn the hard way.) Even back then, in her years of bile and anger, Alanis didn't merely blame the men. She recognized that each experience could teach her something. The truth she sang: we learn from mistakes; that is what they are for. But this seems an unknown concept to young women today. The carefree posture of the hookup culture robs women of their ability to see mistakes, much less learn from them. Without a sense of consequence, there is no sense of responsibility. Younger rockers sing that pain and heartache is someone else's fault.
And that is why, when Katy Perry woke up on the concrete, she blamed someone else and walked away. When Alanis Morissette woke up on the concrete, she found her inner guardian and stood her ground. Alanis is not looking for anyone else to make her happy, and yet she is finding to her joy that they do anyway.
Related at PJ Lifestyle on generations and relationships:
Kathy Shaidle: The 3 Biggest Myths About Generation X
Hannah Sternberg: Kristen Stewart Cheats, Millennial Women Weep