If my father hadn't died in July, the utter futility of trying to escape "Hollaback Girl" would have been my most painful experience this summer. (Ah, chill already—Dad's laughing, I'm sure.) Still rocking the toxic blend of self-deprecation and self-indulgence that made her the real menace back when Riot Grrrls had targeted Alanis as Public Enemy No. 1, Gwen Stefani has disgraced the fine tradition of cheerleader pop. If Toni Basil, the Bay City Rollers, and Tiffany don't file a class-action suit, I hope FannyPack and those chicks who sang on "Macarena" give her an atomic wedgie.
But so what, right? Every summer, a similarly unbearable whirlpool sucks at us from the center of the pop universe, and if young girls hear womanist pride in Gwennie's Barbie calisthenics, huzzah. (Though if old girls hear Cyndi Lauper, I call bullshit.) Yet "Hollaback Girl" is symptomatic of the funless pop "fun" currently giving "plastic" a bad name. Old enough to remember when a vestigial "-ular" still rested between "pop" and "music," I don't consider the P-word either a genre or an attitude—pop is, quite simply, what sells. And beneath the glitzy sheen of what sells now is a bad faith feint at pleasure best typified by the Pussycat Dolls' stilted "Don't Cha," which makes fucking around sound about as exciting as cheating on your taxes.
If life ain't nothin' but a party, what do you do when the party winds down? Well, you twitch your hips mildly to Rhianna's "Pon de Replay," or indulge the fantasies of hackdom that Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger brings to bear upon the Click 5's blank "Just the Girl." Sure, weirdnesses still slip past the gatekeepers—Missy Elliott commanding Ciara to rap on "Lose Control," De La Soul perking up poor ol' Damon Albarn on Gorillaz's "Feel Good, Inc," Kanye West sui generalizing all over the place, Mike Jones solidifying Houston's status as Southern hood du jour. Yet only true pros and true amateurs skate blithely over the sourness: Will Smith with the preternaturally good-natured "Switch," Young Gunz with the excitedly clueless "Set It Off."
In a kindlier world, Destiny's Child's "Cater 2 U" would be a sweet public expression of devotion; glittering amidst today's array of bethonged hood ornaments, the sound of Beyoncé promising to fetch Jay-Z's slippers or Kelly pledging to Roy Williams that she'll never get fat makes for pure geisha pop. Then again, some rose above the stasis: Though G Unit and 50 Cent's dour lockdown of chart-rap epitomized its staleness, their "Hate It or Love It" was an inspirational exception surpassed only by Amerie's "1 Thing"—producer Rich Harrison sure knows how to wring a cry of triumph from a simple breakbeat. Too bad that no amount of payola Game Boys made J.Lo's "Get Right" a hit—how can there only be room for one Harrison joint at a time while the Black Eyed Peas have three songs in public circulation, including one in which the creepiest sex object in pop music (unless Tara Reid has recorded an album) refers to her "lovely lady lumps"?
Many others were forced to turn to the one serious emotion still available to them: self-pity. I know, the stuff's as integral to pop as hormones—when your fantasizing-to-fucking ratio rides as hard in the red as it does for most kids, your serotonin dips proportionally. But at least nü-metal was purgative, if rarely cathartic. Self-pity mingled with codependence is a recipe for disaster—well, that or, you know, emo. Papa Roach make the leap from former to latter with "Scars," keyed to the wusstastically quotable confession, "My weakness is that I care too much." A sane girl should have only one response to Reliant K lamenting, "I am a hostage to my own humanity," on "Be My Escape," or Fall Out Boy smirking, "Am I more than you bargained for?" on "Sugar, We're Going Down"—namely, "If you talk to me again, my boyfriend's going to kick your ass, you dweeb." But for sheer simplicity and elegance, who indeed can top the whined chorus of Simple Plan's "Untitled": "How could this happen to me?"
If you think that free-floating despair says something about the current zeitgeist, you could be right. Then again, you could be Green Day. Complete with a video that, in the fine tradition of "Black and White" and "Papa Don't Preach," packages vagueness as ambiguity, "Wake Me Up When September Ends" is a valiant failure to affix a vague sense of loss to the particularities of the historical moment, just as "American Idiot" was a valiant failure to whip snotty cynicism into a genuine political stance. But why be sullen if you can be oblivious: If we're dozing off anyway, who wouldn't prefer Hilary Duff's "Wake Up" ("They think they know me/But they don't know anything about me"), which is about dreaming of international fame?
Rather than choosing, I've lately concentrated on two inexplicable if not nonsensical lines, which echo through my head as I've pondered fates worse than "Hollaback Girl," whether geopolitical or personal. One's the choral chant from the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done": "I got soul but I'm not a soldier." The other, I'm not ashamed to say, is the eerie and absurd opening line from Backstreet Boys' "Incomplete": "Empty spaces fill me up with holes." 'Cause right now, I've got enough to fill the Albert Hall.