Pop Will Save Us
by Adrienne So
illustration by Jake Watling
I LIKE Billboard Top 50 music. “Maneater,” by Nelly Furtado: She’s singing about me. “Get Up,” Ciara’s single: I listen to it every morning in the shower. I have made it my personal mission to bring sexy back to all my friends and acquaintances, sunk in their post-graduate existential depression, drinking microbrewed ales and listening to Radiohead on repeat in their CD players. My fixation annoys those who have the time and energy to find music that you can’t hear while standing in line at Jamba Juice. I’m prepared to deal with that.
But let’s face it, folks: Pop might be the thing that saves us. We as a country have chosen to go down the route of fierce cultural and political polarization—urban versus rural, red versus blue, us versus the rest of the world—and the gap continues to grow. What could possibly bridge it? I’ve mulled over many possible solutions. Switching to a macrobiotic diet, perhaps, or honking if I love Jesus. But I’ve come to the conclusion that Top 50 music might be the only viable solution to our country’s problems.
Freshman year, my first day: My family and I troop like stoic ants up and down four flights of stairs to my new dorm room, carrying endless boxes of shoes, books and clothes. My mom is fussing with invisible wrinkles on my new sheets when my new roommate Sarah and her family burst through the door—all four of them, all over six feet tall, all blustery, big-boned and blue-eyed. My dad, standing up to his full five feet, six inches, barely brushes against my new roommate’s shoulder. We are speechless. We are stunned.
We are also, as Sarah admits to me much later, the first Asians she and her family have ever met. There are awkward greetings. Sarah’s little brother—at 6’3”, not the littlest little brother I have ever met—stands by the doorway and doesn’t say a word. After my parents leave, I stand in my room, mouth agape as Sarah pulls out a matching leopard-print carpet, comforter and rug. Am I going to be living in a bordello? Is she close, personal friends with George of the Jungle? The James Dean poster on my side of the room scowls disapprovingly. I make a quick excuse, say goodbye and leave.
The first few weeks are rocky ones. My stained Converse sneakers and fondness for the movie Trainspotting are initially underappreciated. Likewise, Sarah’s sorority stories and daily revelations find in me an unsympathetic audience. “Hey, guess what?” she says, soon after we moved in. “I met my first Jew today!”
But then one day, she comes home early from chapter meeting and finds me dancing to Hanson while doing my laundry, and the barrier between aloof would-be indie rocker and sorority girl melts without a trace. Nelly and 50 Cent find their way into our room’s CD shuffle in between the Pixies and George Strait, and we start to bond while listening to Ludacris—blasting “What’s Your Fantasy” through open windows and doors and mooning the Ultimate Frisbee players below. She brings her groaning sorority sisters to opening night of my performance in The Vagina Monologues, and doesn’t protest when I wear sneakers under my dress as her double-date to a fraternity dance, where we sing along to the lyrics of “California Love.”
Sophomore year, mid-winter: My friend Alisa calls and tells me she’s getting married in the same way she breaks all important news; in three words, the minute I pick up, allowing me 30 seconds to reaffix my jaw to my face. We are 19. She is a premed student in her second year at Harvard. We haven’t seen each other in months, not since we left for college. Still, since we were best friends through high school, she would like me to be in her wedding.
Her bridal party is at the Muslim Center the night before her wedding. I arrive early to help set up. A platform, decked in red velvet and gold, has been set up in the middle of the room, and as I hang streamers from the ceiling, girls flitter in and out, chattering in English, Farsi and Kashmiri, carrying enormous pillows and platters of food. When Alisa finally arrives, it is to a burst of Kashmiri instrumental music. She’s wearing bright robes, a headdress, and makeup that turns her eyes catlike. Her palms and feet are covered in henna, and she is led to the platform where everyone takes turns congratulating her and feeding her from the plates set up on the floor around her.
I am so happy for her, and I have never felt more foreign and strange in my life. I am the only non-Muslim in the room. Her mom leads me to Alisa, and I congratulate her but can’t bring myself to feed her, and then it is someone else’s turn. After some more socializing—of which I inconspicuously do not take part—Alisa’s maid of honor stands in the middle of the room, claps her hands, and begins to give a speech. It begins, “I am so happy to be celebrating this occasion with our sisters in Islam.” This is a year after 9/11, a year after Alisa was profiled in Rolling Stone magazine in defense of young, American-born Muslims. The maid of honor speaks about celebrating tradition in the face of persecution and the changing times, to nods of agreement.
Since 9/11, every woman in this room has had someone look askance at her because of her headscarf. I wonder if they notice that I’m the only one present who is not wearing traditional robes. I wonder, when they speak about changing attitudes in America, do they mean me? Or does my presence here confirm me as one of “the good ones”? I think about how sorry I am that we have to make this distinction.
I don’t mention any of this to my parents before we attend the wedding the next day, so they’re taken aback when the speeches go on in the same vein after dinner. Again, we are the only non-Muslims present—my mom and I wear pantsuits to hide our arms and legs, though I draw the line at covering my hair—and we’re seated separately from the other guests. Like Alisa, the maid of honor is 19, and it’s possible that she doesn’t know we’re here. She addresses her “brothers and sisters in Islam” with side notes about defending the faith. I’m almost faint with relief when the best man talks about the groom’s terrible housekeeping during their first year of college.
Then the DJ starts playing music and all the young girls rush to the middle of the floor. They’re playing Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever,” and the girls belly-dance to the Colombian hip-hop beat. Alisa grabs my hands and we head to the dance floor. There’s bhangra and Michael Jackson, and more belly-dancing to Craig David. The other guests are in headscarves and robes, and we could be 19-year-old girls anywhere, dancing to this music someplace where no one would judge us for our beliefs and how we look.
Gauging pop music’s relevance is a little like measuring your dog’s sense of humor. He could have one. It certainly looks like he’s laughing. Then again, you could have just made this all up in your head.
However, serving as cultural currency might be the most important thing pop music does.
In both of these situations, pop music did what perhaps nothing else could have done—it filled in a gap that went deeper and wider than something between people who might not get along. There are cultural barriers that stand between us, and others that simply can’t be overcome unless we’re in the middle of a dance floor, moving to irresistable pop music. Until we can find something with a similar power, I will continue my staunch allegiance to the Billboard Top 50, which makes the world a better place for you and me.
Adrienne So is a Bay Area writer and KS volunteer.