The CW’s inventive musical rom-com Crazy Ex-Girlfriend hasn’t gotten the attention or ratings it rightfully deserves. It’s easily the most original new broadcast show of the year so far, a gust of fresh air in a fall season stuffed full of film-to-TV adaptations and half-twists on the cops-and-doctors procedural. The title Crazy Ex-Girlfriend certainly does the show no favors, suggesting a broad, goofy cringe comedy instead of the smart, nuanced, and surprisingly affecting show it is. But that’s the only reasonable explanation for why Crazy Ex hasn’t been for The CW this year the pleasant surprise Jane The Virgin was last year. Not even the Golden Globe win for star and co-creator Rachel Bloom has managed to move the needle. The real shame in Crazy Ex’s low profile is the limited reach for its musical numbers, many of which constitute the most incisive and clever pop-music satire in recent memory.
Unlike film, television, and even literature, in which the trends and tropes of the medium are gleefully and frequently skewered, pop music isn’t known for observing itself through a critical lens. In fairness, given the history of pop music in America, there’s never been much need for musicians to be self-critical, because there’s never been a shortage of external criticism. Beyonce’s incendiary Super Bowl performance is the pop controversy du jour, but pop music always ends up in the crosshairs of music lovers and moralists alike. The reigning pop musicians of any period are called salacious, sexist, racist, profane, vapid, image-obsessed, materialistic, regressive, and blasphemous, and pop stars are too busy dodging those labels to stop to consider how many of them might be rooted in truth. There’s a rich history of musicians lambasting the music business in song, whether they’re complaining about rapacious record labels, corrupt radio overlords, or the industry’s habit of stripping artists of the qualities that make them unique. But pop stars are usually loath to lampoon the actual content of music that currently defines the genre.
Thank goodness for Crazy Ex, which in nearly every episode features an original composition that works beautifully both as a pop song and as a parody of the type of song that inspired it. Bloom plays Rebecca Bunch, a successful lawyer whose clinical depression drives her to quit a prestigious job in Manhattan and move to West Covina, California to rekindle a romance with Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), a guy she hasn’t seen since their childhood summer camp fling 10 years prior. On paper, the musical numbers don’t make a lot of sense for a show already subverting the romantic-comedy genre and trying to maintain a light tone while charting a woman’s descent into lovelorn madness. But the songs are a natural extension of what Bloom has been doing for years on her YouTube channel, where she creates pop deconstructions like “Historically Accurate Disney Princess Song” that spotlight the frequently sexist and idealized subtext within beloved songs.
Bloom’s song parodies fit seamlessly into the show, providing a musical inner-monologue as Rebecca confronts her insecurities about her looks, her weight, and her worthiness of love. Rebecca ruminates over her shortcomings as compared to Josh’s gorgeous yoga instructor girlfriend Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz), who embodies the conventional beauty standards that separate pop starlets from backup singers and leave regular women struggling to keep up. In the pilot, Rebecca primps and plucks for a date with Josh’s friend Greg (Santino Fontana), leading into “The Sexy Getting Ready Song,” an ode to the grotesque realities of women’s efforts to look good for men. The song is more of an indictment of the oppressive cultural expectations of women than of the music that perpetuates them, but it sets the stage for the more pointed satire to come. The second episode, “Josh’s Girlfriend Is Really Cool!,” features the show’s first clear swipe at contemporary pop tropes. Rebecca is drawn to Valencia’s beauty and confidence, and her inappropriate effort to befriend her romantic rival is put to music in the hilarious “Feelin’ Kinda Naughty.”
“Naughty” is an absurdist take on Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl,” borrowing liberally from the sonic and visual palette of Perry’s hit song and video about situational same-sex attraction. Rebecca sings about having a harmless “girl crush” on Valencia before taking her obsession to disturbing extremes: “I want to kill you and wear your skin like a dress / But then also have you see me in the dress / And be like, ‘OMG, you look so cute in my skin!’” It’s a brilliant takedown of songs like Perry’s “Girl” and Demi Lovato’s “Cool For The Summer,” which trivialize same-sex experimentation by framing it as the ultimate “YOLO” transgression for straight “good girls,” so long as their boyfriends approve.
There’s plenty more subversive feminist commentary where that came from, much of which is inspired by the work of female pop stars who perpetuate gendered tropes. Rebecca hits some turbulence while scheming to win Josh over during a return to the summer camp where they dated, and a female quintet of campers decide to cheer her up with a makeover. That’s the set-up for “Put Yourself First,” a spoof of Fifth Harmony’s hit “Worth It,” which conflates power with sexuality and suggests women are “worth it” when men find them sexually attractive. “Put Yourself First” twists the knife by having the girls perform their ode to pseudo self-care in front of a leering photographer who wears a shirt that says “Male Gaze” and bears a striking resemblance to Terry Richardson.
Crazy Ex would have no shortage of source material even if its sole focus was pop songs that encourage women to prioritize attention from men. But the season’s high-water mark demonstrates the pitfalls of pop songs with less overtly troublesome messages. “Sex With A Stranger” finds Rebecca trying to hook-up with a guy she just met at a bar, only to become frozen with anxiety: “Hey sexy stranger, let’s go to my place / And I hope you’re not a murderer / Kiss me baby all over the place / And please don’t be a murderer.” The song doesn’t have an obvious forebear, but it’s thematically reminiscent of songs like Tinashe’s “2 On,” which flaunts female sex-positivity—Lena Dunham is a Tinashe evangelist—but elides the real risk of danger women face in a hook-up culture. There’s also “I Love My Daughter,” a country song performed by Rebecca’s boss Darryl (Pete Gardner) as he explains the stakes of his impending divorce. It’s a nod to the many contemporary country songs about father-daughter love that, like Heartland’s “I Loved Her First,” don’t seem to grasp the difference between paternal and paternalistic.
The songs of Crazy Ex, which are primarily written by Bloom and acclaimed songwriter Adam Schlesinger, draw attention to how infrequently commentary on pop-music tropes comes in a musical form. It certainly doesn’t come from musicians. In recent years, more pop stars, most of them women, have recorded self-reflexive critiques of the world they inhabit, but none has quite hit the mark. Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts” slams America’s obsession with physical perfection, but with Beyonce as the messenger, the message gets filed under “Easy For You To Say.” Lily Allen and Lorde took their respective shots at vapid, materialistic pop culture with “Hard Out Here” and “Royals,” both of which have been criticized for focusing too intently on black cultural signifiers.
Satire is the most powerful vessel for pop-culture criticism because it’s playful, rather than scolding, and isn’t as likely to be tainted by ideology. Good satire also requires a certain affection for its target; when it’s done well, it gives the audience permission to enjoy something like “Worth It” even while recognizing its flaws. With “Weird Al” Yankovic still using his platform for lighter, broader satire (see: “Word Crimes”), the best critiques of pop music come from television comedy rather than musicians. The Lonely Island had some success mocking hip-hop excess in their SNL segments, and Amy Schumer poked fun at One Direction’s tween self-love anthem “What Makes You Beautiful” in the hysterical “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup.” But the best game in town is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—even the alienating title is a winking reference to Miranda Lambert’s 2007 song and album of the same loaded name. When it comes to critically excavating pop music, the revolution is televised, and no one is watching it.