December 13, 2002

I've mentioned it elsewhere, but it's on my mind again: this word called angst. It seems like the chicken-scratch of a humorless 19th century Viennese psychiatrist, a term denoting a grave spiritual malaise, a suicidalist's soulsickness. Its usage became especially popular in 1990s rock criticism, following a timeline from Kurt Cobain to Tori Amos to Billie Joe Armstrong to Alanis Morissette to Korn to the Dismemberment Plan -- suddenly, "angst" was a catch-all for pop-punk poutiness, jaded cynicism, and any sort of earnest emotionalism or apparent unhappiness. Female singers were particularly "angsty" -- but the emerging nu-metal and emo contingents, both male-dominated, were also described as such.

I've come to loathe the term. It's terribly patronizing, this glib one-fell-swoop dismissal of everything that isn't placid and cheerful. Even when it's used as a compliment, it really isn't; it's so reductive that it takes people's serious concerns and cheapens them to the level of a histrionic teenage melodrama.

Detractors of the pop singer Pink have faulted her for her angst (once again, their word). I wasn't exactly a fan of Pink MkII, but I knew where she was coming from -- a tough, sarcastic, sexually ambiguous misfit whose inability to be anything other than herself often made her wish she was capable of being someone who fit in. I understood that, even identified a little; I just found her lyrics clunky and her music softrocky and too freaking average to accompany someone so individualistic. I thought her angst was the best thing about her, but I wasn't prepared to go all the way with her simply because she had a nice voice and a few good one-liners.

Well, "Don't Let Me Get Me" finally got me. I still find it problematic for the same reasons as before ("irrita-ting" is irritating, so is "damn Britney Spears," so is the production and session-man blandness), but there's that one line, that one crucial line she repeats throughout, "I'm a hazard to myself." And it occurred to me: This was a huge hit. Six-year-old girls are singing this, girls who are still a half-dozen years away from junior high school, puberty, identity issues. Whether it's a good song or not, it's probably making a lot of parents nervous. Britney's "Baby One More Time" left its masochistic "hit me" double-entendre open to interpretation, but Pink's song doesn't pussyfoot: It shows its subject after years of ritual psychological trauma (self-inflicted or otherwise), at the point where she doesn't wanna be hit baby one more time, she wants to sublimate her way out of being the punk ass bitch made fool, "to be somebody else" (literally) instead of relishing the pain. Britney's pain is titillating and exotic -- tourism in the neurotic underworld -- Pink's is like a mean, nagging mother who haunts her dreams and constantly chips away at her self-esteem. So a mother would have a right to be nervous, I reckon.

The more I think about "Don't Let Me Get Me," the more complex and troubling it gets -- and the more insulting "angst"'s contemporary flippancy becomes.