Hear Me Roar

The Rise of Selfie Pop: Why Songs About Self-Esteem Are All the Rage

Why the music of the Millennial generation is so narcissistic—the sonic equivalent of an Instagram self-portrait.

The first time I heard “Roar,” the lead single from Katy Perry’s latest album, Prism, I thought it was a pretty good pop song. Scratch that. I thought it was a very good pop song. I liked the stomping beat and the growling guitar line. The verse was strong, the bridge was even better, and the chorus was absolutely irresistible, from the little break on “I got the eye of the tiger” to Perry’s rising, elongated “rooooaaar.” Halfway through I was already singing along.

But the more I listened to “Roar”—and, full disclosure, I listened to it a lot, at least for a 31-year-old married man with hipster tendencies—the more I began to realize that it wasn’t just a very good pop song. “Roar” is something bigger as well: the epitome of a new style of music that has come to dominate the charts in recent years. A style that says something interesting—and possibly unsettling—about what sort of listeners we are now.

I like to call it Selfie Pop: the sonic equivalent of those smartphone self-portraits we take and upload to Instagram for all of our followers to ogle. Songs that are all about me, the singer, and/or you, the listener, and how we’re going to overcome every obstacle we encounter because we’re strong and beautiful and unique and empowered and we have really great self-esteem.

To get a sense of how odd Selfie Pop is, from a historical standpoint, try to imagine any of the bestselling acts of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, or even 1990s announcing, like Perry, that they have transformed “from zero to my own hero” or declaring that the world is “gonna hear me roar louder than a lion 'cause I am a champion.” It’s basically impossible. The Beatles? No. Elvis? Please. Michael Jackson? Not quite. Sure, Madonna, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston may have sounded more Katy-Perryesque than, say, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, or U2, but even they were too busy belting out lyrics about less narcissistic subjects—preaching papas, dreamlovers, dancing with somebody—to obsess over their own awesomeness all the time.

And yet as 2013 draws to a close, it’s basically impossible to imagine any of today’s bestselling pop stars not going on and on about how proud they are of themselves. In song. Constantly.

Consider the biggest hits of the last few years. In 2010, Ke$ha reported “looking sick and sexified,” adding that “you know we’re superstars.” Perry informed the listening public that they shone “even brighter than the moon, moon, moon.” Pink pleaded with us not to “ever, ever feel like you're less than fucking perfect.” And the Black Eyed Peas came to the conclusion that “Imma be takin them pics, lookin' all fly and shit; Imma be the flyest chick.”

In 2011, Lady Gaga recalled something her “mama” told her when she was “young”: “We are all born superstars… ‘cause He made you perfect, babe.” Maroon 5’s Adam Levine acknowledged our misgivings—“you say I'm a kid” and “my ego is big”—but insisted that “I don't give a shit,” primarily because “I got moves like Jagger.” And Selena Gomez and the Scene demanded to know “who says” a) “you're not perfect,” b) “you're not worth it,” c) “you're not star potential,” and d) “you're not presidential?”

In 2012, Selfie Pop accounted for more than a third of the year’s number one singles. LMFAO was “Sexy and I Know It,” according to LMFAO. Perry returned with a humble request—“Now look at me I'm sparkling, a firework, a dancin' flame”—and predicted that “you won't ever put me out again.” Kelly Clarkson theorized that “what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, stronger”; even though it’s “just me, myself and I” now, she continued, it “doesn't mean I'm lonely when I'm alone.” Rihanna implored us to “shine bright tonight, you and I” because “we’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky,” and Fun delivered a similar invitation: “Tonight we are young, so let’s set the world on fire. We can burn brighter than the sun.”

2013, meanwhile, has been nearly as jam-packed: Perry’s “Roar,” Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie,” Sarah Bareilles’s “Brave,” Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us,” Lady Gaga’s “Applause,” Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch,” and so on.

(And that’s not even counting the earlier, more sporadic Selfie hits of the Aughties: Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” Mims’ “This is Why I’m Hot,” Fergie’s “Glamorous,” Pink’s “So What,” Rihanna’s “Live Your Life,” Natasha Bedingfield’s “Freckles,” Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb.”)

None of which is to suggest that Selfie Pop songs didn’t occasionally surface on the charts before, say, 2006. They did. “We Are the Champions” by Queen (1977) probably fits the bill. Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” (1978) does, too. There are echoes of Selfie Pop in Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” (1986), New Kids on the Block’s “Hanging Tough” (1989), Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” (1991), TLC’s “Unpretty” (1999), Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Real,” and Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” (2002), among others, as well as several songs by R. Kelly (“I Believe I Can Fly,” “The World’s Greatest”) and Destiny’s Child (“Independent Women,” “Survivor”).

Still, I went back and counted, and as of 2013, Selfie Pop is much more pervasive and mainstream than ever before. Prior to the late 1970s, Selfie songs were pretty much nonexistent. From the disco era to the turn of the millennium, they tended to top the Billboard charts once every several years. Around 2000, they started to reach the top slot approximately once a year, on average; by 2006, that rate had doubled. But since 2010 we’ve been averaging four chart-topping Selfie songs each year, with several more hovering in the top 20 at any given moment. And the songs themselves are becoming increasingly Selfish, so to speak. Less uplift, more solipsism. Less “a hero lies in you” and more “look at me I’m sparkling.” Less “we are the champions” and more “I am a champion.” Self-love is now one of the predominant themes of contemporary pop music, along with heartbreak and dancing and all of the rest of it. That’s a huge cultural shift.

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So what changed? Why is Selfie Pop so big right now? My hunch is that several forces collided to create a perfect storm of sorts. African-American music has always projected a kind of self-conscious confidence, from the sexual boasts of country bluesmen to the braggadocio of rap; gay anthems, meanwhile, have long promoted themes of “hope against the odds, pride, unity, or defiance.” These were fairly marginal aesthetics for much of the 20th century, but they became totally mainstream in the 2000s as gay culture gained wider acceptance and so-called “urban music” became synonymous with pop music in general. The current proliferation of Selfie Pop consists in large part of straight white women, and a few straight white men, cottoning on to these previously marginal aesthetics and using them to connect to the most receptive audience of all: Millennials who were weaned on self-esteem and now crave affirmation that they are, in fact, as beautiful and perfect as their helicopter parents always told them they were.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Last month, after the Oxford Dictionaries picked “selfie” as its 2013 Word of the Year, Rachel Simmons of the Girls Leadership Institute published a thoughtful essay on Slate about why the “selfie is a tiny pulse of girl pride.”

“If you write off the endless stream of posts as image-conscious narcissism,” Simmons continued, “you’ll miss the chance to watch girls practice promoting themselves—a skill that boys are otherwise given more permission to develop, and which serves them later on when they negotiate for raises and promotions.”

Selfie Pop serves a similar purpose: it rightly assures young listeners—especially young women—that inner strength and self-reliance are essential. But too much of a good thing can be counterproductive, especially when it comes to self-esteem. Assurance eventually becomes arrogance; confidence curdles into entitlement. Telling everyone how beautiful and perfect you are actually makes you seem less self-confident, not more. And beyond that, it’s just boring. The most important lesson adolescents learn as they transition into adulthood is that no one wants to hear them talk about themselves. Selfie Pop delivers precisely the opposite message. Perhaps it should come with a warning label: