Heroes and Villains: Modern Pop as a Superhero Universe

The following essay was originally published in slightly different form in One More Robot no. 7 (Summer 2011).

There used, in the 1950s and 60s, to be a long-running serial in Adventure Comics, one of the flagship titles of the Superman-hawking DC Comics, called The Legion of Super-Heroes, featuring a far-future agglomeration of groovily-powered aliens and superhumans who were also all teenagers, in the era’s sedate understanding of the term: boys and girls who, even though they had the power to melt suns and explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy, were charmingly eager to bow to adult authority and uphold conservative law and order throughout the United Planets. Superboy — that is, Superman as a teenager — was also a member, thanks to some poorly-explained time travel technology, and to signify his membership in the Legion, he kept in his teenage bedroom in Smallville a glass case full of miniature figurines of all of the members of the Legion, like so many action figures carved by artist Curt Swan out of the stiffest granite.

When I try to think about modern pop as a whole, I always think of that glass case full of figurines, or even of the toy aisles in stores when I was a child, where many different action figures from many different invented worlds hung side-by-side in identical blister packs, begging the small millionaire who could afford them all to take them home and unite their collective mythologies into a single coherent whole.

Pop stars are in many ways a lot like superheroes — colorful, iconic, and highly unlikely, with limited vocabularies, conveniently packaged backstories, and simplified worldviews, in which justice (or more often in pop, love) always prevails, but is also constantly under threat and must be defended. And, of course, people who don’t care for them make the same complaint: their stories — their songs — are childish, frivolous, and stupid, not fit to fully grapple with the complexity of modern adult life.

And just as a vocal contingent of comics fans (I have, on occasion, been one) groans at modern trends in superhero comics — the darkness! the grittiness! the false nostalgia and endless reboots! — and hearkens back to an earlier time when Things Were Nobler, there are many people who call themselves pop fans who vehemently reject the music of modern Top 40 radio, in all its synthesized, AutoTuned, materialistic, hedonistic, unabashedly vulgar glory. For them (as for their comics counterparts), the Golden Age of Pop is located in some mythic past, whether represented by the Sixties of the Beach Boys and Beatles, or the Eighties of Michael Jackson and Duran Duran, or even the Oughts of Britney Spears and Girls Aloud. The Golden Age of Comics, many a smart-alec has noted, is twelve; and the Golden Age of Pop is roughly fifteen, after which everything is either terrible or reminiscent of When They Made Real Music.

But wait; Britney Spears is still making music. Which is where my final comparison of pop stars to superheroes comes into focus. Modern superhero comics are often obsessed with “legacies” — multiple heroes who have shared the same title or have the same power, such as the Green Lanterns, the Flashes, or the multiplicity of Starmen. Modern pop, too, is concerned with generational legacies. Britney Spears famously kissed Madonna at the 2003 MTV Awards, effectively replacing her as the reigning Queen of Pop; and in 2011, there’s a similar torch-passing, or at least acknowledgement of a new generation, in the fact that Britney’s best new song, “Till the World Ends”, was written by (and, on the remix, features) Ke$ha.

In some ways, you could argue that the past few year or so of pop has been like one of those shared-universe superhero stories where the Big Guns are off in space and the younger generation of heroes has to keep the peace by themselves; and now, in 2011, the Big Guns have returned and are surveying the newly arranged landscape.

They all came up around the same time, in the same generation, but 1999 was a long time ago. Britney, who has always been much more flexible than she’s been given credit for, has slipped seamlessly back into her role as the least present but still indelibly persistent woman in pop; meanwhile, Beyoncé is more present than ever but seems to have ascended to some new plane of being where such things as chart success and radio play have little bearing on her ceaseless divinity. Usher, once the smoothest man in r&b, has joined the assembly-line club-banging robo-army, assimilating painlessly into the Jason Derülo-Jay Sean-Taio Cruz-Iyaz Hivemind. P!nk roars from within her own guarded fiefdom of rock-inflected whiskey-voiced pop, Jennifer Lopez and Enrique Iglesias are back for the first time in forever, returned to prominence by shrewd guest appearances from the new icon of Latin pop, the smirking, catchphrase-spouting Pitbull. Christina Aguilera is in development hell, her once-bestselling title on hiatus while a retooling for television is underway; Justin Timberlake isn’t even in comics anymore, the film market being so much more lucrative; and Eminem, the one-time hellraising antihero with multiple anarchic identities, has settled into a somber extended soap opera of a storyline with few flashes of the wit that once endeared him to his underdog fans.

And their successors? The one-time Class of 99 has tackled, or refused to tackle, mature themes each in their own way, but the Class of 2009 is still forming their own identity. Lady Gaga is clearly the breakout character, with industry buzz, sales records and an image makeover with every issue, but increasingly she seems to be keeping to her own mad, exuberant, and somehow solipsistic corner of the pop universe; in the modern shared-universe storytelling style, there’s almost something ungenerous about tending one’s own garden. Meanwhile, the other breakout female figure, with her half-feral grin and glittery style, seems poised to claim the throne still held — only just — by Britney. Unlike nearly everyone else on the pop chart, Ke$ha is unpredictable, one of those anarchic figures beloved perhaps more by writers than by fans, with a strong if unconventional visual identity and plenty of detractors who bemoan her ascent as proof of the degradation of modern pop. Then there’s Nicki Minaj, fanservice come to life with a strong satiric edge which undercuts her cartoonishly-proportioned anatomy (she’s not bad, she’s just drawn that way), with dialogue that still surprises and entertains far beyond what’s expected in a guest appearance or introductory title. But while message boards light up in arguments about Gaga, Ke$ha, and Minaj, Katy Perry is strolling away with one of the most record-breaking sales streaks in modern history. A heroine in the classic pop mold, equal parts cheesecake, unblinking sincerity, and goofy, sometimes shrill, humor, she’s a distinct throwback in an era given to technological manipulation and line-blurring, an alpha female in a world of once-and-future geek crushes, and all the more brutally alluring for it.

And the new boys? Outside of the Hivemind, in recent years only Bruno Mars, Drake, and young Justin Bieber have scraped together enough of a following to make it onto the annual roster of heroes. Bruno’s a legacy’s legacy, implicitly invoking the names and fashions of a long-gone pantheon without ever answering the question of whether he’s perfectly sincere, a lovable rogue that we all suspect might be a villain; Drake follows in Enimem’s recent footsteps as a self-pitying soap-opera star with immaculate production and clunky lines; and Bieber, while a momentary sales success, is still considered too much of a novelty character to find much purchase with the longtime fans; sure, he’s attracting plenty of young girls, but so does — ugh — manga. (The fact that manga outsells superheroes by a wide margin has not escaped the attention of the money managers, however. Even Usher, in his non-Hivemind capacity, is aware of that.)

But this isn’t all the landscape; four or five major names have remained unspoken. Let’s call them the in-between generation; they aren’t part of the First Wave that broke in the late 90s, introducing the Modern Era of Pop to the world, but they aren’t the Young Blood either; their struggles — or lack thereof — are distinctly those of the unaffiliated and, perhaps, self-sufficient.

The Black-Eyed Peas, like most teams, tend towards self-sufficiency; inhabitants of their own cosmo-futurist universe, they manage to be immensely effective without ever having built up individual personalities; the brand is enough. And Lil Wayne, too, is a universe unto himself; even though his frequent, indiscriminate guest appearances are often complained of as devaluing the brand, the sales bumps speak for themselves. Drake and Nicki Minaj even started as spin-offs from the Weeziverse; but he remains too individual, too eccentric even, to be a true team member, and hangs (upside-down?) in the shadows. Kanye West’s guest appearances are less indiscriminate, but no less authoritative; as one of the few heroes with both a complicated mythology and an attempt at coherence over a long run with multiple hands in the making, he’s sometimes forgiven a grandiosity that would be laughed off in other titles. When civilians ask pop nerds what they should be following, Kanye always comes up, even though he’s frequently impenetrable and plain unlikable if you don’t know the history. Still, you ignore him at your peril.

Which leaves two. (Sure, there are plenty of others. It’s a big shared universe, and there are any number of titles which aren’t strictly superheroic but sometimes cross over, especially at the big events. You might recognize Taylor Swift from her modish ethereal appearances, which can be deceptively forthright; or the shadowy conspiracy calling themselves the Cataracs which pop up in title after title; or crossovers from the so-called “indie” publishers — owned, of course, by the same conglomerates — like Adele or Cee-Lo, sales hits that have very little relevance to the ongoing continuity of the pop universe. But as I was saying.) Rihanna first appeared as a direct Beyoncé clone, and although her Barbadian background was meant as a distinguishing feature, it was soon apparent that she could hold her own ground. As could the simultaneously-introduced Chris Brown (initially an Usher clone). We all know the famous storyline which first united, then split up, the two of them — even in trashy pulp adventures like these, domestic abuse is too serious a subject to let fly easily, and while Rihanna has only grown more invulnerable since then, Brown has slowly turned into the closest thing the pop universe currently has to a major villain figure. Of course, not everyone sees him that way, and it’s in the interest of the corporations directing the stories to keep his antihero status ambiguous — but it’s not an accident that the apocalyptic undertones of the various stories being told across the pop universe have only grown more insistent since that time.

The critic and pop journalist Katherine St. Asaph has written extensively about the apocalyptic undertones — and now overtones — of current pop; but just noting that one of the biggest songs of the year instructs us to dance until the world ends, and that another reminds us that we might not get tomorrow, so tonight we should drink and be merry. This eschatalogical fervor is not, perhaps, something entirely new (there was certainly apocalyptic pop in the cultural unrest of the late 60s and the AIDS-driven panic of the late 80s), but its intensity and cross-platform repetition — even robo-Usher admits that it might be the last night of your life — is certainly an interesting narrative twist.

It’s a commonplace in cultural criticism that the fears and fantasies in the pop-cultural expression of an era tell us something about that era, from the violent action movies of the Reagan era to the CEO-rap of the late 90s. Both comic books and pop music have been analyzed for their contributions to mass thought, as the horror and crime comics of the 1950s gave voice to a sense that something was rotten at the heart of the postwar edifice of Normal Suburban America, or as the rise of soothing soft rock and, later, anarchic punk, in the 1970s pointed to the failure of 60s rock idealism to achieve its goals, and the twin responses of retreat or destruction. If our current pop moment is apocalyptic before it is anything else — and much suggests that it is, from the very title of “Edge of Glory” to a striking number of music videos in which computer-rendered disasters are overtaking our singing, dancing heroes — can it be put down entirely to recession, unemployment, and international unrest? Or is there perhaps a deeper sense in which we know — though we may not all admit to ourselves, given the political divisions on every global issue — that our time on this planet is running out, that humanity have damaged the world beyond repair, and that the world taking its slow, methodical, disinterested revenge is only to be expected? (At any rate, Britney’s vision of the apocalypse is more attractive than Roland Emmerich’s.) But of course the superhero analogy I exhausted several paragraphs ago breaks down completely here. This, after all, is a job for much more than Superman.

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