Many say commercial pop music just doesn’t belong on Star Trek.
Before that infamous Star Trek: Enterprise theme song, commercial pop music was unheard of in the Star Trek universe. But does pop music have a place in the Trek universe?
A more fairweather Star Trek fan may be able to be more critical of the franchise, but I have a soft spot for all but its worst or most offensive moments. A case in point would be that famous Star Trek: Enterprise theme, you know the one, the Rod Stewart-style soft rock ballad that sounds like a cross between an evangelical hymn and a corporate motivation poster. A part of me smiles whenever I hear it. My feelings on it roughly match those of Enterprise writer Chris Black…
"“Are the lyrics cheesy? Absolutely. But is it saying something about the characters of the Star Trek universe that I think is appropriate? Absolutely. I don’t hate it or love it. Everybody hates it. I don’t hate it. I hate Nazis. I don’t hate the theme song from ‘Enterprise.’”"
While we’re on criticism of the Enterprise theme, one you hear often is that commercial pop music doesn’t belong in Star Trek’s post-capitalist society. To me, this is contradictory on the very face of it. If Star Trek was incompatible with commercial pop sensibilities, then Star Trek itself would be hypocritical because Star Trek is commercial pop culture.
This goes to the debate over whether commercial art can ever truly have a non-commercial message. That question is a thesis, not a blog post, so I’ll just say that I think the answer is yes, commercial art can have a non-commercial message, and Star Trek is a fantastic example of that.
Another argument against modern pop music in Star Trek is that by the 23rd/24th century, our period in history will most likely be forgotten. Classical art that’s hundreds of years old already, if it’s remembered now, will probably still be remembered in another few hundred years. We know the classics will last because they already have. But who knows whether or not the future will remember the Beatles or BTS?
This is solid reasoning, but it misses the point that sci-fi is not about accurately predicting the future, for instance, when we see technology in the original series that now seems antiquated, it’s a little awkward, but it’s not a huge problem or a serious point of criticism. A dated pop-cultural reference would be the same, a little awkward, but no biggie.
A little pop music for Star Trek never hurt anyone.
Up until Enterprise, Star Trek eschewed contemporary pop culture references almost entirely (I remember one such reference.) Enterprise changed that very gingerly, with that infamous theme music, and the odd movie reference. It wasn’t until the current generation of Trek, starting with the reboot movie in 2009, and its inclusion of the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage that Star Trek fully embraced contemporary pop music.
Since then we haven’t seen a lot of references, just a few, such as the crew of the Discovery grooving to Wycliffe Jean, and Tilly singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity (I still have no idea what was happening in that scene.) Strange New Worlds’ recent musical episode indirectly referenced contemporary pop-culture institution which is, at this point, almost a hundred years old.
This may have been jarring at first, but it’s better than the alternative. I always felt that the absence of pop culture references was glaring, because Star Trek’s general attitude towards the 20th century was pretty unkind. In that context, it feels like they’re implying that 20th-century pop culture wasn’t simply lost in the sands of time but deliberately forgotten, like a shameful period in history.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, when the Enterprise rescued three humans who were cryogenically frozen in the 20th century, it was almost explicitly stated that every part of the 20th century, including the music, was best forgotten. That was season one when Gene Roddenberry’s hang-ups still defined the show. It’s easy to agree with Roddenberry that the 20th century needs to be bombed back into the stone age in order for humanity to build back better, but it’s pretty insulting to say that every vestige of the world we live in needs to be swept away, even the music we use to escape.