In case you’ve remained upstream of pop culture’s more recent pollutants, the above frenzy of slab-serif fonts is brought to you by X Factor failures One Direction. And it’s a love song! About beauty! And insecurity! Essentially, the lady* in question doesn’t understand how attractive One Direction think she is. And not just One Direction, either: also all the other occupants of the room in which One Direction are observing her. Like, hey, I know why those ugly chicks hate themselves, but you’re totally pretty! You shouldn’t have to feel insecure! So far, so eager in its reinforcement of the unhealthy link between conventional beauty and self-esteem.
But while the syntactic unwieldiness and general improbability of lyrics like “the way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed” (lolwtf?) provides enough amusement to tide us a good way through the song, it doesn’t get really interesting until the chorus. Despite all those seeming attempts to tell her how pretty she is, it comes down to this: her physical insecurities and lack of confidence are actually, per the title of the song, the root of her attraction itself. She’s beautiful because she doesn’t think she’s beautiful! Like most choruses, it comes up several times. “You don’t know you’re beautiful,” they sing from their hygienically-sealed pop wasteland, “that’s what makes you beautiful!” So presumably all those times you tried to tell her she was beautiful, you’re kind of glad she wasn’t listening?
This isn’t just the vapidity of “sometimes pretty girls are insecure”. It’s not even the vaguely dodgy “your insecurities add to your charm”. This is full-scale “the apparent case of body dysmorphic disorder that has destroyed your self-esteem is the only reason I find you attractive”. That’s right, ladies. Merely maintaining a sense of confidence will prevent you from dating the members of One Direction. If ever two birds were killed with one stone, and that stone was labelled “having a healthy body image” and those birds were called “not hating yourself” and “not dating the members of One Direction,” this would be it. Oh, happy day.
But One Direction didn’t write the song, and that’s not the point. The song, like all successful pop songs, is created by a culture. A culture that gives to women with one hand — you are more physically attractive than your peers! — and takes away with the other: if you acknowledge this fact openly, it will no longer be true! So we foster a kind of doublethink, in which pretty girls are valued as objects until the point where they appreciate and claim ownership of their own attractiveness. “You’re insecure,” One Direction tell us: “I don’t know what for.” But they give us their own answer. The simultaneous pressure to conform to rigorous standards of physical beauty, and then once attained, to deny their attainment, is the patriarchal hypocrisy at the heart of this Terrible Pop Song.
It’s what makes us beautiful, after all.
*I say “lady,” although the gender of the addressee is left unspecified; the references to hair and make-up seem to imply quite heavily that the subject is a woman, but it could also be about a man.