watch

Why We Love Songs About Not Caring - Music Tropes

Most songs care about something: romance, disappointment, anger, change. But we also love songs that don’t care—whose singers tell us how little they think about an ex-lover, like Demi Lovato’s “Really Don’t Care,” or someone else’s opinions, like Kanye West’s “We Don’t Care.” Why does this attitude—so simple, yet so universal—continue to speak to us across so many genres and generations? Here’s our Take on how the “don’t care” song tells us something important with its indifference, and why we care about songs that don’t.

TRANSCRIPT

Most songs care about something: romance, disappointment, anger, change. But we also love songs that don’t care—whose singers tell us how little they think about an ex-lover or someone else’s opinions. We love songs that look at the world’s problems and offer a pointed kiss-off or channel them into nihilistic abandon.

Nirvana: “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.” — “Breed”

The “don’t care” song may try to push us away, but it also shows us we’re not alone. It offers a sense of shared catharsis and belonging,

Big Sean: “I don’t give a f**k about you or anything that you do.” — “I Don’t F**k With You”

Why does this attitude—so simple, yet so universal—continue to speak to us across so many genres and generations? Here’s our take on how the “don’t care” song tells us something important with its indifference, and why we give a f**k about songs that don’t

The Many Ways to Not Care

Not caring is often lumped in with not thinking, but it’s actually rooted in deep philosophical thought. The ancient Greeks practiced Stoicism, which taught the importance of accepting the moment as it is, and letting go of destructive emotions. Buddhism preaches that the path to enlightenment is learning to free oneself of all worry. The German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche formulated a school of thought that was based on a nihilistic rejection of will and desire—not caring as a means of emancipation from the world.

Songs about not caring run the philosophical gamut from a laid-back zen approach, exciting transgression, or carefree celebration to alienation in the face of systemic inequality, rebellion, and anger toward the status quo or outright nihilism.

Metallica: “I have lost the will to live.” — “Fade To Black”

Superficially, the “don’t care” song can also be about pure, reckless abandon or a romantic hook-up with no strings attached. But this apparent shallowness can be deceptive. As Kesha has explained, “Tik Tok” is about how “we’re all young and broke and it doesn’t matter… it’s just about not letting anything bring you down.”

Kesha: “Ain’t got no money in my pocket, but I’m already here.” — “TiK ToK”

It’s a song that doesn’t care as a response to lacking money and opportunity, instead only worrying about what you can control tonight. Likewise, lyrics that can seem aloof or even callously indifferent are often masking passionate emotions. CeeLo may be blowing off an ex-lover with an emphatic, “Forget you!” but he’s still hurting.

CeeLo Green: “Although there’s pain in my chest.” — “Forget You”

Songs that outwardly embrace nihilism may be doing it out of self-preservation, retreating from an equally uncaring world because they’re overcome by doubts or out of guilt for the pain they’ve caused.

What unites these different songs is the same thing that nihilism, Buddhism, and stoicism have in common: not caring is a reaction—an implicit rejection of some expectation, situation, or even feeling being imposed on you. When we feel like we have to care about something, the “don’t care” song liberates us by telling us we have a choice, whether it’s to shrug off responsibility, fight back in anger, or even wallow in despair. It’s a powerful message—one that resonates in a world that, as those early philosophers realized, never stops giving us things to care about.

A Brief History of Not Caring
Although the “don’t care” song isn’t explicitly political, it’s often a reflection of—and reaction to—the specific cares of its time. During the presidency of Barack Obama, for example, a time of social progress and economic prosperity, pop music was light and carefree. In Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA,” all of her concerns dissipate as soon as she hears her favorite Britney Spears song. Taylor Swift can just dance away her critics with “Shake It Off,” unbothered by their sexist attacks. And while Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” alludes to intolerance, she, too, preaches just ignoring other people’s opinions. For them, not caring is a luxury, afforded by a freedom that allows them not to worry—however briefly.

In the 1950s, early rock‘n’roll reflected the peace and prosperity after World War II, focusing on the innocent fun of its youth—its white youth, anyway. The worst things kids faced in songs like Chuck Berry’s “School Days” was a mean teacher or too much homework, and it could all be erased with a dance at the local juke joint or the top-down freedom of a car ride. Rock made them so carefree, they could even boogie in jail.

Chuck Berry: Soon as three o’clock rolls around, you finally lay your burden down.” — “School Days”

In the 1980s, the “don’t care” song reflected the self-centered attitudes of those same, now-aging Baby Boomers. Hits like Billy Joel’s “My Life” and Kenny Loggins’ “I’m Alright” celebrated individuality, but with an egotistical bent that verged on misanthropy. Phil Collins channeled his frustrations over his divorce into a bitter, nihilistic kiss-off—not caring as a flex of his power. They had the privilege not to care because the times didn’t demand anything of them. But the carefree song can also be born of anxiety and upheaval.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, pop music offered a respite from pervasive economic despair. Songs like “Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries” reassured listeners that money wasn’t everything, right when they had nothing. “Get Happy,” later made famous by Judy Garland, drew from African-American spirituals that preached finding silver linings in the darkest of realities.

Doris Day: Life is just a bowl of cherries. Don’t take it serious.” — “Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries”

As the 1960s inspired protest singers who cared deeply about civil rights, stopping the Vietnam War, or enacting social change, they also birthed hippies who embraced a more carefree response—who protested by staying in bed, taking psychedelics, and generally removing themselves from society. They believed in rejecting inhibitions as a means of cultural revolution.

Country Joe and the Fish: “What are we fightin’ for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam.” — “The ‘Fish’ Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rage”

That same freewheeling spirit fed into the disco hits of the 1970s, which encouraged people to forget their troubles and dance in the midst of crippling recession. The alienation fostered by this economic uncertainty would curdle into punk’s righteous anger in the ’70s and ’80s.

But punk was also defined by an apathy rooted in existentialism, that united its fans in smirking disaffection. As this generation became increasingly bitter about its prospects, that apathy was reflected not only in Generation X movies about indifferent slackers but in Nirvana’s caustic shrugs, Pavement’s winking insincerity, and Green Day’s lazy rebellion. And metal and industrial bands channeled that dissatisfaction into bleak songs about fully giving up and embracing the void.

Green Day: I sit around and watch the tube, but nothing’s on.” — “Longview”

Still, these were songs made by artists for whom alienation was a privilege. Notably, most of them are white male musicians expressing a choice of personal indifference. Not caring is far more complicated in hip-hop, where for black musicians, especially, it’s often been an attitude copped as a defense against systemic indifference, or the constant threat of violence. When an artist like Tupac raps “F**k the World,” it’s a response to a world that’s repeatedly told him he doesn’t matter. And it’s only more recently that hip-hop has been able to embrace not caring as a luxury, asserting it as the ultimate aspiration.

Bishop (Tupac Shakur): I don’t give a f**k about myself. Look, I ain’t shit. I ain’t never gonna be shit.” — Juice

Why We Care About Not Caring

Music about not caring what other people think has had a profound influence on how we think. Although grunge fans had a reputation for being lazy or jaded, the ‘90s alternative rock scene was actually a high point for political activism on progressive causes like equality, the right to abortion, and homelessness.

There can be a downside to embracing “not caring,” though, as seen in the fans who have taken heavy metal’s nihilistic outlook and turned it inward toward self-harm. In the 1980s, artists like Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest were even taken to court over accusations that their music has driven listeners to suicide.

Reporter: “Drinking beer, smoking marijuana, listening to Judas Priest, and contemplating suicide.” — The Judas Priest Trial News Report

And while those cases were dismissed, this theory isn’t totally far-fetched: in 2018, researchers at the University of Manchester found that fans of music that deals heavily in isolation and melancholy—such as heavy metal, goth, and emo—really are five times more likely to hurt themselves or even attempt suicide. Still, even these studies concede that those subcultures provide harbor for vulnerable young people, giving them a sense of belonging.

Not caring can also be a source of rebirth. In 2013, the writer Zeba Blay coined the phrase “Carefree Black Girls” on Twitter as “an assertion that black women also get to be unabashedly themselves in the world that’s constantly putting them into concrete boxes.” The term—along with its counterpart the Carefree Black Boy—has been used to describe artists like Janelle Monáe, Chance The Rapper, Solange, and Young Thug, whose music, though rooted in hip-hop and R&B, is indifferent toward genre, and who cultivate a freeform and gender-fluid personal style. They shrug off expectations as a means of defiance, an idea that’s provided all-new political dimensions to not caring. For any listener who feels similarly marginalized or oppressed, this sense of community that’s created through choosing to just not care can be empowering.

Janelle Monáe: “Remember when they used to say I looked too mannish? Black girl magic, y’all can’t stand it.” — “Django Jane”

Although the “don’t care” song can seem superficially breezy, even shallow, it has a considerable emotional pull—one that makes the artform a lot deeper than we often give it credit. Even at their bleakest, these songs offer us freedom—from expectations and responsibility, from social norms and the consequences of resisting them.

Nirvana: “We kind of like to think of our music as musical freedom in a sort of way.” — National Geographic Interview

Not caring gives us the permission to throw caution to the wind, to stop worrying about other people’s opinions, and ask who it is that we really want to be and what we really want to do. That feeling may not last much longer than a three-minute pop song. But for just a moment, it illuminates how liberating it would be to truly live life on our own terms.