Pop Music: The Breakdown

Pop life, everybody needs a thrill. Pop life, we all got a space to fill. Pop life, everybody can’t be on top. But life ain’t real funky unless it’s got that pop.

– Prince, “Pop Life”

Pop music has always fascinated me. It’s the most loved and loathed genre in music, the most creative and unoriginal, the most acknowledged and brushed aside, and so on and so forth. I’m not entirely convinced this paradoxical genre is even a genre at all! It occurs to me that everyone has an extreme stance on “pop.” Some love it and follow it and know very little outside of it, others dismiss it entirely as “not music” or “cheap” or “contrived.” Naturally, everyone has a stance on the “other side’s” opinion. The nay-sayers, on the whole, view the pop fans as having terrible taste, being completely unoriginal, and generally being susceptible to brainwashing. The pro-poppers, on the other hand, say the haters are pretentious, crabby, and, dare I say it, “hipsters.” Now, the best place to really sit is somewhere in the middle. Enjoying good music for being good music, regardless of outside influences and popularity levels. It is only from this objective point of view that pop music can properly be analyzed. There’s no way to respectably comment on it if you’re being totally dismissive, nor if all you care about is which way the musical wind is blowing this month. Quite honestly, pop music is far too complex a genre to analyze with bias, which is probably why so few people actually do. It’s far easier to draw the line and stick to your side, but that certainly doesn’t help anything. There’s an endless buffet of music out there, so why not indulge?

So let me start here: The Beatles were a pop act. That’s not up for debate. Are they the greatest band in the history of rock and roll? Absolutely. Did they change the landscape of rock music forever? 100%. Were they a pop group? Undeniably. I mean, how else can you sell that many records, have that many number one singles, make that much money, and quite simply be that famous without being a pop act? “Pop,” in this sense, isn’t an onomatopoeia, a nickname for one’s father, soda, or a springing action; it’s an abbreviation for “popular.” It’s important to always keep that in mind. So, if I may, let me play devil’s advocate with myself, then: Nirvana. They were popular, had some hit singles, sold tons of albums, were extremely famous, but… pop group? For some reason it just doesn’t sit right. The Beatles I can swallow, but Nirvana?! What about 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G.? Hip hop legends, sold tons of records, had number one singles, but were they pop stars? That doesn’t seem right, either. So what makes The Fab Four “pop,” and Biggie not? Why is it that Britney Spears is considered as pure a pop star as it gets, but Whitney Houston, who has sold more records, had more hits, and is far more critically acclaimed is widely considered an R&B singer that just happened to be popular? In addition, why is an artist like Grace Jones, who has had minimal chart success, considered a pop artist, while the Rolling Stones aren’t, yet they’ve sent 6 songs to number one in the US alone? Well, maybe it all comes down to the fact that some people make pop music, and others don’t. Seems simple, eh?

Ok so let’s go with that! Some artists make country music, others don’t. So why not  go with “some make pop, and some don’t.” Where we need to start, then, is defining pop music. Well this brings me to the point I alluded to earlier. I’m not even sure “pop music” is a kind of music at all. Genres like jazz, country, hip hop, soul, dance, etc. are all easily defined by a variety of qualities (instrumentation, beats, chords, delivery.) But let’s be honest, pretty much every modern genre in western music (except maybe pure jazz) is a bastardization of rock and roll, which itself is a bastardization of blues, jazz, country, and gospel. It all just trickles down the line, fuses with something here, splits off into something there… it’s all music. It’s all the same set of notes, the same set of keys, the same set of time signatures, the same set of chords, and so on, just pieced together with different instruments, performance styles, and interpretations. Beethoven pulled from the same pool of notes to compose his 9th Symphony that the Bee Gees pulled from to compose “Stayin’ Alive,” and Los Del Rio pulled from to compose “Macarena.” Hell, the Ramones built their songs around only three chords, and they’re considered one of the greatest bands of all time. The only thing that changes is the method. Now I’m not saying genres in general don’t exist, because that’s just bologna. Of course they do. Hip hop isn’t hip hop without that beat and dance music isn’t dance music if it puts you to sleep. Are there infinite sub-genres spawning from them? Sure. I mean just look at dance music alone… there’s techno, disco, ambient, dubstep, house, drum and bass, trance, and so on and so forth. What I’m trying to say is that to exist as a genre, you need to take specific elements from the infinite musical pool that exists in space and piece them together to make a blueprint that is consistently identifiable. That’s why there are so many sub-genres. Being popular (remember, that’s where the “pop” comes from!) has nothing to do with that pool.

As hard as I was trying to come up with a musical definition of the genre (assuming it exists,) all I could come up with were the words “marketable,” “catchy,” and “memorable,” and in order to not complicate matters, let’s just stick with those three basic ones. However, those aren’t musical terms, and, if you think about it, they could be used to describe any genre. So then let’s use the transitive property on this. If A (pop music) = B (“marketable,” “catchy,” “memorable”) and B can apply to C (any genre,) then wouldn’t A = C? Wouldn’t any genre of music, by default, be pop music assuming it has those qualities? And that’s where the lightbulb goes off. Granted, those definitions don’t necessarily always translate into popularity, but as far as music goes, I’d say it certainly makes it pop. That’s why we have pop rock, dance pop, etc. They’re just those genres formatted to be given the best chance at popularity. So then let’s re-analyze our discrepancies from earlier. Nirvana, pop? Yes. 2Pac/Biggie, pop? Uh-huh. Whitney Houston? Most definitely. They’re pop acts! Three different genres of music…and they’re all formatted to become popular. That’s why The Beatles are the prime example. They’re pop stars! They made music that was wildly catchy, extremely marketable, and we’re all still playing their records today, aren’t we? “Pop” is far more a supplemental term than anything else, really. The Beatles made rock and roll, 2Pac made hip-hop, Whitney Houston made R&B… And on top of it, the music was “pop.” In the case of bands like Nirvana, not everything they did could be classified as pop, but “Smells Like Teen Spirt” is absolutely drenched in it. The song is also one of the greatest rock songs of all time, most definitely as a direct result of its pop qualities. Ok so what about Grace Jones? Sure she’s a legend in her own right, but she’s hardly ever been popular. Making pop music means the songs have to be marketable, not marketed, catchy, not sung along to, and memorable, not remembered.  The public is going to pick up on what it picks up on. What’s current changes all the time! Someone at the top of their game today might not have a prayer at a hit tomorrow, but that’s the nature of the business. An artist like Grace Jones has always had what it takes to be a pop star, but the general public never bit.

One of my biggest questions is, though: What makes pop music so passionately loved and loathed? If the term is so ambiguous, and it can literally be applied to anything, how can it be looked at as a black and white term? Of course there are always going to be those music fans with sticks shoved up their asses who refuse to listen to anything that more than 10 other people know about. If that’s how they choose to live their lives, all the power to them, but they sure are missing out on a lot of awesome music.  Certainly Coldplay, for example, was always just as much pop as alternative rock. They were still the same band who made “Yellow” when “Viva La Vida” hit number one on both sides of the Atlantic. Why, then, were they dubbed “sell outs” and considered not as cool anymore? It’s not their fault the public latched on at that very moment. It happened with acts like Metallica, Oasis, Blur, R.E.M., and even U2. The music didn’t catch up to the public, the public caught up to the music. Then, of course, there are those artists that do reformat their style to earn at hit. Genesis is a great example. Back in their early Peter Gabriel-led days, they were one of the coolest, most progressive bands on the planet. Somehow, they ended up completely abandoning their cool for tracks like “That’s All” and “Invisible Touch.” Great songs? Absolutely, but unlike their early work, they’re pop songs. Phrases like “sellout” could be applied if that’s how you interpret the situation. What generally happens is this: the public has their flavor of the moment, moves on, and finds another. All that really matters is that you, as an artist, taste the way you need to (assuming you want the public to pay attention.) That doesn’t mean you’ll be making great music, but it certainly provides a better opportunity for success. It’s the artists, like Lady Gaga, who actually change the flavor for the public instead of just going with the flow that truly make the biggest impact.

Pop music is like McDonalds. No self respecting chef will sit there and tell you that the Big Mac is a culinary masterpiece, but Mickey D’s sells millions of them a day. Why? Because they’re easy, taste good, and are affordable. The same thing applies here. No self respecting music aficionado is going to tell you that Britney Spears has the voice of an angel, but she makes absolutely killer pop tunes, and the public eats them up! Does that make McDonald’s bad? No, and it doesn’t make Britney bad, either. It’s just harder to convince the owner of a five star restaurant that a quick run through the drive through is an acceptable way to eat dinner. Because of this, people who think they genuinely care about music (keyword “think”) are going to dismiss pop before it even hits their ears, and they probably know a great deal of material that actually is far superior to it. It absolutely blows my mind sometimes when I’m listening to The Smiths that the public chose some absolute crap over their masterpieces. On most occasions, The Smiths aren’t pop! Their songs can be catchy, sure, but some take time to get into, and, quite honestly, the music isn’t all that marketable. So I do understand the frustrations, but you’ve also got to take into account the pop music that is good. The same people who really appreciate great music, but write pop off as a worthless pile of poo probably don’t realize how much actual pop music they own. Let’s even set aside acts like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elvis, Aretha, and everything Motown… all of whom have made plenty of pop records… How about Michael Jackson, The King of Pop? How about Madonna, The Queen? Both legendary artists, both almost universally acclaimed, both extremely talented, and both have changed the world. If anyone can make an objective argument as to why MJ and Madge, as artists, aren’t “good,” I’d love to hear it. To take the definition one step further, pop music goes beyond the listening experience. It’s about the videos, live performances, fashion, imagery, etc. What’s really so wrong with an act like the Spice Girls waltzing in giving us wildly catchy tunes paired with bold personalities and exciting performances… I mean if you think about it, they are legends.

My grand point is that pop music doesn’t have to be a joke. Maybe it is sometimes, but what genre doesn’t have their fair share of that? Dance and hip hop have had far too many to count (but let’s say Crazy Frog and Vanilla Ice, respectively, for example,) rock music has Nickelback, and country is still trying to recover from “Achy Breaky Heart.” Did all of the aforementioned artists/songs double as pop music? Yeah, but that’s the nature of it. I try and look for the good stuff, though. Artists like ABBA, the Pet Shop Boys, Prince, George Michael, Kylie Minogue, Beyoncé, and Lady Gags spring to mind. We can even take it a step further with the Michael Jacksons, and the Madonnas, and the Bowies, and so on. There is great pop music all around us, and much of it actually is popular! Just because “Call Me Maybe” spent nine weeks and number one and One Direction can set records doesn’t mean that pop music is tarnished. Quite honestly, it isn’t easy to reach that level of success. A song like “Call Me Maybe” is pretty terrible on the surface, but it took the right music, lyrics, instrumentation, production, and so on to make it a hit. Cranking out a massive single is no easy feat. Then I look at another huge hit of the year, Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” which became a massive, multi-format success; it was rock hit, a dance hit, and a pop hit… no easy feat. An artist like Adele also springs to mind. Her album 21 won just about every award possible, just surpassed the 10 million sales mark in the US alone, and produced 3 number one hits. Good music does find its way through the cracks when it is (get ready for those magic words) marketable, catchy, and memorable. Adele was the perfect storm.

In a way, I firmly believe that if Adele didn’t get so popular, she would be some sort of “Indie” Queen (a state of mind, more than literally being independent) like Florence Welch is or Lana Del Rey is shaping up to be. But there’s some strange disdain for her amongst the masses of people who consider themselves music buffs. Why? Because she got so big? It’s not her fault radio didn’t stop playing her for a year and a half, and it’s not her fault every demographic of music fan found their niché in her album. It’s like she became tainted with her success, and anyone with half a brain can tell you Adele hasn’t changed her personality, abilities, or mentality in the process. This is the same old story that seems to happen all the time (Springsteen, U2, Coldplay.) Quite honestly, though, the people who write someone like Adele off for being too popular are just as out of touch as those who jump on the bandwagons. Popularity literally has nothing to do with musical merit. There are plenty of terrible songs out there that the public did not latch on to. It’s all about living in the moment when your ideas intersect what society wants.  Sometimes writing a song about getting drunk in the club is all it takes, and, sure, that’s not always the sign of a good song. However, sometimes all it takes is reaching out and tugging on people’s heart strings (like Adele,) giving the public something to talk about (Madonna,) or quite simply letting your talent do all the work (Whitney Houston,) to earn yourself a hit. Pop music isn’t a genre, it’s a state of being… and that’s the conclusion we’ve come to today. It’s a way to format your work so that the masses will buy into it. It doesn’t mean the music is any better or worse than anything else out there. Pop music may be the laughing stock of the music world, but it’s almost completely unwarranted. Pop is what truly keeps the spirit of music alive. It pushes boundaries, changes social norms, dictates the very society we live in. The music is always going to be what music is going to be. There’s always going to be plenty of diamonds at the bottom of the pile of crap. That’s art! You can write off popularity all you want, but if you truly consider yourself an enthusiast of music… then pop is absolutely nothing to shy away from.

One thought on “Pop Music: The Breakdown

  1. Pingback: Pop Music: The Breakdown « HiddenUnderHeadphones

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