Yes, Pop is easy. Most of us don’t find much trouble trying to place the decade of a Pop song. The high-energy ‘Tooty Fruity’ format belongs to the 1950s. The slowed down, tambourine-heavy, neo-pastoral flower-power folk song belongs to the 1960s. The echoey, arena rock accompanied by cowbells and occasional church-organ synth belongs to the 1970s. The ultra synth, ultra English belongs to the 1980s. In the 1990s come grunge, alternative post-punk (its stylistic grandfather ‘punk’ never making it to the mainstream), the golden years of rap, and so many hybrids that it seems impossible to tease their origins apart anymore. Pop might be easy to place but does this make it suck?
Some people thought the hybridization of tone in Wagner cumbersome even if it appealed to the masses, while Beethoven is accepted as above reproach. Some people think that Justin Broadrick’s Napalm Death was just noise while his later band Godflesh were an innovative artistic force.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but chances are the beauty you see aligns itself with a group-taste you cannot escape no matter how much you try. Most people will pay lip service at the alter of nonconformity by saying that ‘Pop sucks.’ But if most people are saying that, then who is buying it? Who is listening to the radio? Who is downloading the MP3s and giving Pop a high Spotify rating?
Can we say that Pop sucks with sincerity? It’s not a style, after all, is it? ‘Pop’ describes ‘popular music,’ so it is all relative, right?
That’s what the record companies want you to think. They would like you to think that they simply contain some antenna that tells them when someone has talent, when we all know in our hearts that they simply follow and act as parasites off of societal trends. In other words, by the time something has reached the pop mainstream, it has usually already died in the underground or, more often than not, on the streets that created its underground—and that’s only concerning pop at it’s best. Pop at its worst is a childish cannibalization by record companies of talented artists whom they think they can manipulate into aligning with some marketable image that often has little to do with the culture until it is introduced to it.
Granted, sometimes pop gets it right. The Beatles were what Pop music needed for that time. They not only responded to repetitive societal themes, but they found new ways to surreptitiously incorporate sensitive yet known themes into catchy, easy-to-grasp ditties that humanized what had once been demonized, as was the case with ‘Daytripper.’ And that’s only their ‘Pop.’ That says nothing about their latter, experimental work.
Make no mistake: Pop is a style. But it is a style that renews itself with each moment on that which is most easily translatable to the masses. This is why you hear hyper synth-laden club songs at 7:00 a.m. on the way to work—they want to remind you that alcohol, molly and ecstasy are waiting for you in the hours you’re willing to seek them in between the 45-hour a week job you work to pay the bills. They want to remind you that the mating ritual is the only ritual that matters, and that you need to continue working hard to earn the rights to achieve the circumstances surrounding that ritual, even though the mating ritual is what society unknowingly has as its foundation, pre-dating the work you are wasting your time believing is valuable to natural, human experience.
Does Pop suck? I can’t answer that for you. You will like what you like. But if one thinks that something sucks, whether it be pop or the sincerest of the sincere (and let’s face it, ‘sincerity’ in art is so popular now that it means less than it ever has), one should be ready to defend one’s reasons for thinking so.
One example: It has become popular today to lambast Nickleback. I suspect that this newfound, unprecedented hatred is due to the fact that a sources of popular culture-carp (usually in popular media and the internet) have finally caught on to what those with taste discovered a very long time ago: that Nickleback is simply bad music. Of course the masses will catch on and start reviling Nickleback now that they are no longer relevant to the mainstream and, thus, not a threat. Culture-carp outlets are perpetually behind, just as the record-labels are behind concerning trends.
Forget easy targets. Would you allow yourself to think that, God forbid, The Beatles or Tchaikovsky might suck? I find no cultivated opinion offensive. Arguments are important. They’re what keep the world turning. But if you’re using the same exact language and phrases, thus espousing the same tradition and beliefs as the last person, you’re compromised before the message exits your lips. You’re merely depositing a meme into the air for the next person to pick up and perpetuate the status quo.
‘Pop’ is not just a musical category. It is whatever is the easiest to say through the most easily distributable medium. Like I tried to say before, the easiest thing to say is not always a bad or silly message. Sometimes it comes at the right time when the soil of culture has been tilled for the message. This happens more often in music.
Surprisingly, literature is often worse off than music, even though music is usually the easy, ready-target. Music is only a ready target because, today, songs are shorter and, therefore, easier to judge. In literature, we’re often spoonfed yesteryear’s biases and yestercentury’s disputed and decentralized popular maxims. Yestercentury’s geniuses might have arrived at and gotten over the Enlightenment and the Neo-Copernican revolution while today’s masses are just beginning to swallow the fossilized platitudes of mediocre cultural commentators like David Foster Wallace and Christopher Hitchens. Books are longer, and therefore, more important. It often helps if the writer/commentator/polemicist is a swift public figure; it gives everything they say an air of authority granted by precious little else than Almighty Style.
There are people in this world who think it is suspect to trust anything that is popular. The trailblazers resent tradition, the equilibriumists resent the trailblazers and the traditionalists resent the equilibriumists. Those who want the old way back are ‘reactionaries’ and those who are always looking for something new are ‘fashionists’ and those who try to find a balance are always ‘reletavists.’ Meanwhile, traditionalists can’t seem to understand that ‘relativist’ is only a pejorative if you are not a relativist. Equilibriumists, communists, anarchists and everything anti-aristocracy can’t seem to understand that their own wish to step outside of the narrative of history is itself a new ‘fashion.’
Unfortunately, the only way ‘out’ is ‘through.’ If societal trends don’t produce first-rate art, one can’t be too surprised. It is partly the fault of the record producers who, in paying attention to trends, ignore great quality, thus denying the mass distribution of better art. This is merely a marketing problem. Those who care about good art should not worry about it too much. In a time when art has become a commodity like candles or sugar, one must not forget to seek out good art, rather than expecting it to come to a store near you. We are not exactly living in the midst of a renaissance, but that’s not to say that a lot of quality cannot rise from the soil of our time. If you care about good art seek it or create it. Do not worry about how popular it is. Leave popularity to itself.