By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
I am a classically trained singer, who would love to earn part of my income singing opera in the future. I also have ambitions to write the libretto for a new opera (or several).
I am also a lover of pop music, which you will know if you have followed my writing on this blog over the past few months. Some of my all-time favourite artists were the pop megastars of their era: ABBA, The Mamas and The Papas, Dusty Springfield, Elvis Presley…
I also worship at the altar of the pop divas of today: Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Kylie Minogue (not currently reigning but no less legendary) and in my opinion, Britney Spears’ entire back catalogue, even her heavily synthesised electro-pop period, has aged very well.
I think pop more than deserves its place of merit alongside other musical genres. It’s the only kind of music which has never, ever failed to cheer me up on a terrible day, even if it was only a tiny increase in mood. But I have never felt worse for turning on a catchy pop song during a period of anxiety or pessimism. So today I will be attempting to unpack exactly why pop music shaming is a flawed, and frankly, illogical way of thinking. Please be warned, I’ve almost written a full-length essay on the subject.
ASSUMPTION ONE: Complex = valuable, simple = worthless
Battle-lines are commonly drawn between the two opposing pillars of classical music and pop music. It’s not enough to simply enjoy classical music on its own merits, you have to hold it up as some sort of untouchable ideal, while trashing pop music as simplistic and mindless. Those on the opposite side of the argument call that comparison hypocritical and snobby; after all, classical was the popular music of its time.
I agree with certain parts of this statement. A good point of comparison is the song form of lieder. Lieder is commonly described as a collaboration between voice and piano, with a sophisticated piano part and words taken from German poetry. (The term ‘art-song’ refers to similar forms written in countries outside Germany like Italy and France).
The most famous examples of lieder became enormously popular in Europe from the 1820s to the turn of the twentieth century. There are a number of similarities between lieder and modern-day pop songs: both typically go for three to five minutes, are concerned with love and relationships, and are catchy and melodic (and often repetitive). Some lieder even follow a verse-chorus-bridge structure. Because lieder is short and sweet, it’s likely to be enjoyed even by those who have no prior knowledge of classical music.
During the nineteenth century, lieder was consumed in a remarkably similar way to being downloaded on iTunes or streamed on Spotify: the average Joe or Josephine would eagerly await the latest releases, buy the sheet music, and perform them for their friends at soirees held in their living rooms. A star composer of this period was Franz Schubert. During his short lifetime, Schubert experienced a kind of fame and popularity similar to that of a chart-topping singer-songwriter.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, larger compositional forms such as symphonies or string quartets contain so many moving parts, and the way they are layered together is an element in itself. The structural complexity and technical difficulty of these forms is what distinguishes them from a short song. I don’t make that distinction to minimise the skill in producing an excellent pop song; the simplicity is where the impact and genius of pop lies.
Therein lies my point: the two are like apples and oranges. Some people will prefer one over the other, but both are delicious and nutritious. They’re consumed in different ways- you would probably be shocked and slightly afraid if you saw someone biting into a whole orange, skin and all…
ASSUMPTION TWO: If it’s popular, it must be overrated
Laying aside distinctions of structure, what is pop music? The ‘pop’ in the name is obviously short for ‘popular’. Like fashion, pop music is in a constant state of flux, morphing with the times.
It’s not necessarily true that any musical act that experiences success, has to be classified as part of a pop music movement. Punk rock bands such as The Ramones emerged out of the rebellion against the dominant style of rock at the time.
My stance on popularity is that it’s just as silly to automatically assume an album will be crap because it has been produced by a mainstream record label, as it is to assume an album will be crap because it has been produced by a tiny indie label. Maybe stop assuming and let yourself enjoy the kind of music you enjoy. (That’s aimed at the people who say they hate Coldplay when in fact they hate admitting they don’t actually hate Coldplay).
Everyone listens to music through their own aural filter: I’m a singer and I love melodies. I love melodies of all kinds: ones that are pretty and consonant, and ones that are dissonant, crunchy and eerie… if something is fun to sing, I’m interested.
When I hear a well crafted melody, it feels like a dopamine shot straight to the brain. In the words of Alex Fletcher, the former 80s pop star played by Hugh Grant in Music and Lyrics: “You can take all the novels in the world, and none of them will make you feel as good, as fast, as: I got sunshine on a cloudy day/ when it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.”
ASSUMPTION THREE: Accessibility must be a bad thing
There’s one valid real reason for not liking pop music: it doesn’t make your brain chemicals do the ~happy things~ when you listen to it. It’s a genre like any other, offering its own quirks and charms.
No one laughs at rock music like they do pop music. Critics and consumers don’t trash-talk folk, blues, funk, or jazz anywhere near as enthusiastically (well, maybe in the case of jazz). I’d say that people don’t trash-talk rap, but certain conservative demographics definitely do (and that’s an article for a whole other day, to be written by someone with a far more comprehensive knowledge of rap than I… Seriously, contact me if you’d like to write that article).
If you’re making sweeping statements about how an entire genre has no value because it features catchy hooks or because the songs are enjoyed by stadiums full of people, you’re just a wanker. You’re not intellectually superior because you don’t sing along to Britney Spears.
A case in point which brings me great satisfaction is the case of The Beatles. The Beatles are described by music critics and consumers alike as one of the most significant rock bands of the twentieth century (and their influence continues into the twenty-first century as well…) They arguably changed the course of musical history, and speaking as someone who was born in 1995, I have consumed their music almost purely incidentally. The way the creative output of four guys from Liverpool has seeped into almost every aspect of Western pop culture (advertisements, movies, even linguistic shorthand), is kind of staggering.
And yet The Beatles started out as one of the first ‘boy bands’ in history. Teenage girls screamed and fainted at the mere sight of them exiting an airplane (they even made up a word for it, ‘Beatlemania’). Many adults at the time turned their nose up at the band: in an essay published in the New Statesman, Paul Johnson wrote: “Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, whose vacant faces flicker over the TV screen, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures.” It just goes to show…
Problematic aspects of the industry and the relentless quest for profit
If I hadn’t rabbited on enough, I wanted to add the postscript that while I love pop music, I don’t love every aspect of the industry.
There’s often an inverse relationship between the size of a record label and the amount of creative freedom given to its artists. Independent labels can keep their costs down and their management tight-knit, without being beholden to stakeholders, investors or executive studio heads.
Since the nineties, pop music has slowly moved away from bands who wrote their own hit songs with one or two collaborators, to a production line of slickly marketed pop acts. Even though the first lab-created boy band was The Monkees in 1960s, we can see this become an established method in the late eighties- nineties with the management-assembled groups The New Kids on The Block, the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Take That, S Club 7 and of course, The Spice Girls. These acts were specifically designed to appeal to teenagers, with a different member to cater to each demographic. The ‘bad boy’, the ‘sweet boy’, the one who could rap/ dance, etc, etc… and One Direction really proved that this tactic still works wonders.
Because of this corporate approach, pop history is littered with acts who struggled to actually perform live. They weren’t seasoned musicians who managed to become famous, they were young people with the ‘right look’ and bare minimum musical talent, who were chosen to become the ‘next big thing’.
I’m not trying to be cruel, because these artists have released some great hits, but singers like Katy Perry, Jennifer Lopez and Selena Gomez have managed to carve out hugely successful music careers despite, not because of, their mediocre voices. All three have sold-out arenas thanks to the power of savvy production, charismatic stage presence and aesthetic, sex appeal and a fantastic team of writers. On the other hand, artists like Lady Gaga, Ed Sheeran, Adele and Eminem were busking, hustling and honing their craft years before they got signed to a record label.
So I see where people are coming from when they criticise commercially successful artists who can’t get through a single set-list without gratuitous lip-syncing. It can be quite infuriating when the ‘industry’ in ‘music industry’ seems to be more important than the music itself.
And lastly, there is the matter of how womanhood is presented and sold in the pop music industry. There have been debates raging for decades over whether highly sexualised pop stars are helping or hindering the feminist cause.
I think it depends on the specific artists and the power they have over their own releases. It doesn’t make you a prude if you are slightly uncomfortable with the way female artists have to be ‘packaged’ to sell music records. A case in point is the evolution of the group Fifth Harmony, assembled by Simon Cowell (the brain behind One Direction) during a season of The X Factor in the US. During the competition the ages of the members ranged from fifteen to nineteen.
When Fifth Harmony released the first singles off their debut alum, the music videos were decidedly seductive, with almost ludicrously aggressive thrusting dance moves. The thing that makes me uncomfortable about this, is the fact that four out of five group members were seventeen or eighteen when the videos were filmed, and had been contracted to massive commercial studios off the back of a reality TV show. What’s the likelihood any of the girls would have felt comfortable speaking up or objecting to the creative direction of the videos?
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with women feeling confident and in control of how they flaunt their bodies. (Key words being: in control). But there’s a discomforting marketing edge to the way a group of girls went from singing on TV as sixteen-year-olds, to being thrust in front of a camera grinding on a chair the second they were ‘legal’.
Perhaps the most powerful observation I can make is that One Direction were not treated the same way. Despite being assembled through the same TV franchise, by the same industry figure, at the same age, the gentlemen of One Direction have only ever released inoffensive and wholesome music videos. Far from thrusting their crotches at the camera or seductively humping the ground, you can see them gamboling happily on the beach, letting loose on the streets of London, and generally having a marvelous time.
Whether you agree or disagree, I hope you’ve found my lengthy thesis on the world of pop thought-provoking. I would love to hear what you think. In the meantime, I’m off to listen to Britney Spears.
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