In some ways, I am a bona-fide music snob. I am that jerk who asks if you’ve heard their early stuff, that b-side, the bootleg, the live version, but what I wish people would understand is that my interrogations aren’t coming from a place of arrogance, but from uncontainable enthusiasm; plain and simple, I love music so much.
Indie rock is my truest love, forever and always. But I’ve tried to educate myself on all genres and niches of music. This includes the both most ubiquitous and commonly degraded genre: pop.
A friend of mine, who has a similar taste in music as me, and likes the Cat Empire, and Real Estate, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Wax Tailor, says she’s glad she doesn’t know the pop-loving side of me, but personally I think she’s missing out.
At first glance and compared to other genres, pop may seem completely vapid, frivolous and meaningless, but we must remember that the intentions and origins of pop are different than other forms of music.
Folk and country have their roots in tradition, and no one messes with tradition. Hip-hop, rap and rock all stem from marginalized groups. These are originally genres for outsiders, songs about rebellion and for scaring people, about sticking it to the Man, while pop is very much for the Man. It is meant to appeal to the largest audience possible. And this could mean that it’s cheap and sloppy, or it could mean that pop simply is meant to touch the most universal human experiences and emotions that unite us; it really depends, because as with any other genre, there are good and bad examples.
Pop traditionally was the safest genre of music; in the 50s, it didn’t rile up the teenagers with thoughts of sex and drugs like rock did. Perhaps it’s because of this, we think of it as the most ‘vanilla’ of the genres, boring and uninspired, but it has also evolved over the decades, borrowing and blending other genres. That’s the beauty of any kind of art – the intertextuality and interconnectedness of all respective artists, learning from and inspiring each other in an eternal legacy of give and take.
Love her or hate her, Taylor Swift’s “1989” makes a good example. Swift made the conscious decision to make a pop album because, as she explains in the record’s liner notes, she had a need to change the way she told stories, and recognized that stories carry differently when they are packaged as pop songs than as country songs. Pop is generally regarded as lazy and generic, but Swift’s goal on “1989” was to “create sonic soundscapes” as she wanted the songs “to sound exactly as the emotions felt.” This is hardly thoughtless craftsmanship.
Pop also serves as a great indicator of the current cultural climate, of how we live now. For example, in the last few years, we’ve seen a rise of positivity in pop music, from Katy Perry’s “Firework” to Andy Grammar’s “Keep Your Head Up.” In an article titled, “Change is the Best Way to Describe Today’s Music,” for Reading Eagle, Jada Butler wrote, “Windows are opening up for new stars to rise, and music is influencing people to feel better about themselves. This change is inspirational.”
This could be an apt reflection our society’s growing awareness of depression and suicide, the desire to bring mental illness and suffering to light and erase the stigmas behind it. It also shows that some things never change; Justin Bieber and One Direction are bemoaned as the real reason music died, but young acts have always been popular – and you can trace that right back to the Beatles. (Some would consider this a downright unholy comparison, but it’s true.)
Maybe it’s our fear of sameness, a perceived stripping of originality, that makes us groan at pop. We don’t want to be everybody else. But there’s power in commiserating and rejoicing with our fellow man. Sometimes you just want to dance to “Uptown Funk.” And sometimes, no one gets your pain like Kelly Clarkson in “Since U Been Gone.” As Rudyard Kipling said, we must be able to “walk with kings” but not “lose the common touch.”
You may not find obscure references and emotions in pop music; maybe it’s not the most intimate genre of music, a far cry from a bare acoustic guitar of Bright Eyes or other similar acts. But it is the type of music you reach for when you need a pick-me-up, a celebration, a song to blast on the ride home and sing with your friends. These moments have important places in our lives, and pop is the soundtrack for them. As humans, we are multi-faceted and complicated; we have different emotions and needs, and it’s okay to admit that what you really need sometimes is a pop song.
At the end of the day, pop music is what it is; no more than that, but no less than it, either.