On the Subject of Pretty Songs

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(Pictured: the Stylistics, lookin’ good and singin’ pretty.)

Last week, writing about the 1972 hits “Betcha By Golly Wow,” “Rock and Roll Lullaby,” “Precious and Few,” and “Everything I Own,” the first word I thought of to describe them was “pretty.” But “pretty” is a loaded word. “It can be used to damn with faint praise,” I wrote, “to suggest that something is decent if you like that kind of thing, but not worth serious attention.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary seems to concur. True, “pretty” is defined as “pleasing by delicacy or grace” and “having conventionally accepted elements of beauty,” but the next definition is “appearing or sounding pleasant or nice but lacking strength, force, manliness, purpose, or intensity.” In the section on usage, M-W says “‘Pretty’ often applies to superficial or insubstantial attractiveness.” Even the etymology of the word gets into the act: “pretty” is derived from Old English and Old Norse words for “trick.” In other words, a sort of beauty that may deceive, or be other than it appears.

Regarding the usage of “pretty” and words related to it, there’s an argument that the dictionary sense of “beautiful” could apply to “Rock and Roll Lullaby”—“whatever excites the keenest of pleasure to the senses and stirs emotion through the senses”—because I am still moved by the emotional power of that record. “Everything I Own” moves me along the same scale, but not quite as strongly, or as far.

But what about the other two? Are they “lovely,” maybe? M-W says that “lovely” is “close to ‘beautiful’ but applies to a narrower range of emotional excitation in suggesting the graceful, delicate, or exquisite.” So “lovely” fits “Betcha By Golly Wow,” because the default for any Thom Bell-produced love song is probably “exquisite.” “Precious and Few” doesn’t seem to rise to the “lovely” standard, although it is clearly pleasant, nice, and attractive. That one’s pretty.

Let’s talk about the weirdest, and the most problematic, part of the definition of “pretty”: lacking “manliness.” (The word seems alarmingly retro, and I’m surprised M-W hasn’t modified the definition.) When Dick Clark played “Everything I Own” on American Top 40, he introduced it by saying, “this song in particular appeals to the girls.” Although he did not use the word “pretty,” it has been used by radio types to describe the kind of record that has mainly female appeal. Female appeal has always been important to radio: apart from certain rock and talk formats, most stations make music programming decisions with the intent of attracting women. Even the “classic hits” format, as distinct from male-leaning “classic rock,” is basically an attempt to jigger the music library to attract more female listeners.

But “female appeal” can also be a value judgment: “chicks will like this, but serious people [i.e., male listeners] will like it less.” And that sends us in another direction. In the history of modern pop music, girls and women were the original tastemakers. They swooned over Sinatra, hyperventilated over Elvis, and screamed for the Beatles, and they can take a great deal of the credit for making those acts into superstars. But at some point in the middle of the 1960s, around the time of Rubber Soul and Revolver, when “rock ‘n’ roll” turned to “rock” and first became a fit subject for serious cultural criticism, that changed. Now it was the opinions of men that determined the relative worth of the art. That’s not to say there weren’t female critics or that women stopped buying records. But the economic clout of girls and women buying records, as a judgment of the records’ value, started to matter less than what critics, mostly male, thought of the records.

If we’re going to start interrogating our unconscious biases—and we should—surely we should spend some time on the one that automatically assumes male opinions matter more.

Because it’s OK to be pretty. As I wrote in my earlier essay, “classic AM Top 40 radio was, to a great degree, built on pretty songs, pleasing melodies earnestly performed, for people to sing along with and/or fall in love to.” You can do worse than to listen to a pretty record, or to make one. It’s an aesthetic that’s fallen badly out of fashion in the 21st century, but that’s yet another direction, and one we’re not traveling today.

3 thoughts on “On the Subject of Pretty Songs

  1. mikehagerty

    Hot take with zero time to think it through, so, as the kids say, “fight me”.

    Men’s opinions in popular music began to matter more when they started buying $4.98 albums (later to go all the way to $11.98) while women/girls were still buying $1.00 singles. Their purchases mattered more by a factor of five.

    And that dug us the hole of hearing a cut from “Rumours” and “Hotel California” every day for the last 44 years and Karen Carpenter’s voice being a “guilty pleasure”.

  2. mikehagerty

    Guys, I didn’t intend to be a thread-killer here. That opening line was meant to cover up for just going with the first reason that came to my mind. I’d love to hear other ideas.

  3. Chris Herman

    Calling a softly melodic song “pretty” can be a more polite way of calling a song “wimpy” (especially if someone doesn’t hate the song enough to tag it with the latter designation).

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