Dissonant Notes

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why Pop Music Matters (No Matter What Age You Are)

Throughout my life I’ve always been comfortable in the critically approved world of ‘serious’ music and in the societally approved world of pop. Each served a purpose, each was able to fit a particular mood or occasion. At the ripe old age of 23 I co-wrote a fanzine called No Remakes that nobody bought, and in the 1998 yearly round-up I proudly made ‘Stop’ by The Spice Girls one of my singles of the year. I meant it too. Maybe it’s a British thing but I have never viewed pop music as something to fight against. In recent years, however, I’ve found myself drifting away from the world of pop to such a degree that I had trouble thinking of any pop songs in recent years that I truly enjoyed. Was I, gulp, getting too old for pop music? Is there a point at which a person just shouldn’t enjoy pop music anymore? Perhaps pop music just isn’t as good as it once was? I decided to go through every possible scenario in my mind, in an attempt to get to the bottom of my predicament. What conclusions did I reach? Let’s save that till the end.

The first question to, ahem, pop into my mind was “Am I too old for pop music and is that a bad thing?” Pop is ambient music for the young. It blares out from clubs, bars, mobile phones, car radios and i-Pods. Its energy matches the restlessness and emotional turmoil of youth. Isn’t it only right and proper to leave pop music for the young? Is holding out for pop thrills past your mid-30s an act of gracelessness and desperation, the cultural equivalent of being cryogenically frozen in order to forestall decay? Should I simply accept that this music is not for me, is not made for me, does not have me in mind? It seems like the easy solution, but if I can enjoy a pop song at age 28 or 32, why not 36? I began to suspect that tiring of pop music meant tiring of life, and that soon enough my drifting away from pop would harden into dislike, which would then transform into open antagonism, and before you know it I would be blethering on about music not being as good as it was back in the day. My god, had it already happened? Shaking my fist at the sky, I decided to defy the gods and take back my love of pop music. In order to do this I needed to kill the biggest myth of all, the myth that pop music just isn’t as good anymore.

It’s natural to attach greater significance to music that surrounds you between the ages of 13 to 30. Society drills home just how thrilling, carefree, and full of promise those years are. You fall in and out of love numerous times, you start earning money, and you move out of your parents home. You become an adult. During this time, you don’t have to seek out pop music. It finds you. As well as heartbreak, pop music peddles two main slogans to young ears: “Be yourself” and “Do whatever you want to do”. Behind these essentially bland messages lurks pop music’s most meaningful directive: live for the moment. Don’t worry, enjoy this song, dance some more, buy another drink. By doing this, you will be obeying your true instincts, you will be throwing off the shackles placed upon you by an uptight society. The swirling cloud of responsibilities, of morning alarms, of un-kept promises and unpaid bills will evaporate in that moment and you will truly exist.

As you get older, opportunities to cut loose become less and less available. As life gets more serious we romanticise our youth because life was, in retrospect, less serious. Eventually everybody has to figure out what they want from life and whether they have any real chance of getting it. Youth allows us to push those issues away, to think about them some other time. Pop music allows us to enjoy the moment so, in a sense, we are not merely enjoying the song but the emotional context of the song. With the emotional context that youth offers (lack of responsibility, endless potential) no longer present, our ability to enjoy pop may suffer as a result. What if, however, there really has been a decline in pop music’s quality level?

Pop music, for many people, began with The Beatles. (It also ended with The Beatles for many people too, at least as a credible form of music). Didn’t you know that The Beatles were simply rock and roll with the rough edges removed? Didn’t you know that rock and roll was just a commercialised bastardisation of blues and country? Didn’t you know that country and blues songs were merely debased folk music and cheapened Christian spirituals with updated lyrics about sex and drinking? It goes on. Every time music changes it has its champions and its critics.

The tragedy of rock music is that it went from cutting edge rebellion to conservative defender of values in a very short amount of time. Music magazines still run stories of Dylan going electric as a singular moment in rock history, and each person who reads this story shakes their heads sadly at the idea that anyone would castigate Dylan, thinking that, obviously they would have embraced this thrilling new sound. These same people then decry the current state of music and complain loudly at almost every new development, claiming that the current version of pop is some degraded, commercialised bastardisation of what music once was. Despite the obviousness of the historical lessons above, each generation still produces thousands of individuals who imagine that THIS time music really has drifted too far from its roots, that some essential quality is missing, that music has become meaningless.

Ultimately, nobody can prove one way or the other whether ‘music’ was ever good or bad, and to think that anybody can launch a rational argument based around the idea that the entire musical output of a new generation is somehow not meeting some in-built standard is foolish beyond words. When a music fan starts to imagine that the essential spirit of music lies in holding on to an old idea rather than embracing a new one, it’s probably fair to say that they have become something of a musical conservative. I say this without labeling myself the most forward thinking of listeners. I merely state it as an absolute, unarguable fact. No art form or style has ever held firm amid the onslaught of modernisation and emerged the victor. The only thing able to somewhat succeed in ending innovative thinking and inevitable change thus far has been murderous totalitarian governments. Left to their own devices, many artists willfully experiment, and those in the commercial field are no different. This is not to say that pop music is above criticism. If pop music has a problem, however, it is in its process and in its reception. While the music plays on regardless, an intellectual war rages beneath the surface. With charges of frivolity thrown constantly at pop, postmodernism came to its rescue, bringing a brand new set of problems in its wake.

There is something rotten at pop’s core. While it is undoubtedly more welcoming to women and non-whites, it has a tendency to use and discard those same people at will. Women’s looks are under constant scrutiny in the world of pop, to the extent that a little extra weight can undermine a performer’s entire career. Once a person’s moment under the spotlight is over, hosts of cackling jackals take great delight in declaring that person a non-entity. Pop worships at the altar of youth and beauty, and anyone deemed old or ugly should probably wander off into the cold and die the moment their time in the spotlight is over.

Pop music is also free-market driven. Those who imagine that pop music pushed through important cultural gains, for instance viewing MTV’s decision to play Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ video as a watershed moment in race relations in America, are actually outing themselves as cheerleaders for neo-liberalism and market-driven change. Postmodernism’s embrace of pop as a stick to beat academia and serious critics with presents a huge contradiction in terms of postmodernism’s supposed aims, i.e. the breaking down of accepted cultural norms about Western Civilization. It exposes postmodernism for what it is, an in-house coup by one set of academics at the expense of another. Neo-liberalism is merely the next phase in Western Civilization’s obsessional belief that freedom and the free market remain inexplicably linked. The fact that postmodernism is willing to embrace this belief shows that postmodernism is merely the next link in the chain of Western thought rather than a serious attempt to undermine it. Postmodernism bows down before the power of the market as much as any neo-con and, as such, it props up the single most important and dominant aspect of Western culture, the very one that Western armies and corporations are forcing on the rest of the world as we speak.

This brings me to another highly unpleasant aspect of pop music, namely the cultural reaction to pop music. In Britain, pop music seemed like a natural thing to enjoy. I, and many of my friends, felt no need to provide an intellectual framework for our appreciation (I have no idea whether this mindset prevails). In America, however, being vocal in your love of pop music seems to take two forms: an overtly intellectualised postmodernist approach that treats pop songs like a blank slate upon which to inscribe your scholarly credentials or a bloodless ironic appreciation that renders every pop song “awesome”. Both are, in their way, the reactions of persons embarrassed by the idea of enjoying pop music and who, as a result, feel the need to show that they are in some way smarter than the music they are enjoying. The postmodernist approach to pop music criticism treats rock critics as the ‘establishment’, even though pop is clearly the cultural victor despite lacking the same critical credibility. Granted, rock criticism does need a good kicking most of the time but I’m inclined to believe that rock criticism doesn’t really matter anymore and kicking it is a pointless exercise. This wasn’t always the case, but rock music’s rejection of pop led to an “us against them” mentality. The main problem was that the “us” in this equation referred to a very specific demographic, namely women and non-whites.

Rock critics gave up on pop the moment it stopped being straight white guys with guitars. Even though The Bee Gees matched these criteria, most still refused to take them seriously. I mean, they wrote disco songs! Rock music criticism quickly fell prey to the lure of the profound, but the problem was that it failed to see profundity in the ecstasy of dancing or in the sensual rhythm of untortured sexual impulse. Rock criticism spurned novelty and wit, preferring the anguish of ‘authentic’ emotion. To put it bluntly, rock critics flat-out refused to see worth in almost any post-Soul music made by black performers (other than reggae until 1978 and hip-hop between ’87 and ’97, although even that is debatable), and women were all but denied entry to the rock club altogether (admiring Patti Smith and Kim Gordon just isn’t going to cut it).

The truth is that rock music has been playing catch-up since the early 70s in terms of innovative thinking, relying instead on the outdated romantic notion of authentic expression as a way to feel superior to pop music. Seen as frivolous and feminine relative to the masculine profundity of rock, pop’s innovations received approval from the public even as rock critics scorned them. If history has shown us anything, it’s that pop songs are not as throwaway as we imagine. Given the safety of distance, disco’s stature has only grown over the years. Expect a resurgence of interest in New Jack Swing any minute (deservedly so).

Of course, the tendency to rescue overlooked musical movements brings its own problems. With rock as the ‘establishment’, championing old music was given a free pass as long as the music wasn’t classic rock. Postmodernism gave retro thinking its full approval on the condition that it struck a blow against stodgy rock thinking. With guitar music as the only true enemy, championing anything that has ever angered the rock press became a cause for celebration, even if it was blatantly retro and backwards. Spurious postmodernist thinking has no new enemy to move past and, as such, is as much to blame for our cultural inertia as backward looking guitar bands. That said, pop continues to move forward as it has always done.

Pop took the artistic inclination to experiment and pumped it full of business-think steroids so as to keep the music in a constant state of revolution. It put those opposed to pop’s agenda in the unenviable position of either championing artistic conservatism or endorsing deliberately unmarketable product as a means to sneer at the novelty-driven desires of the pop music aficionado. In other words, pop outflanked all of its critics by making them extreme traditionalists or anti-populist cranks. The deep, dark secret at the heart of the pop experience is this: pop music doesn’t need an intellectual framework, it doesn’t need postmodernism, and it certainly doesn’t need this essay. It lives, breathes, and devours all in its path regardless of whether you approve or not. It doesn’t care whether you give your endorsement with an ironic smirk or with a heartfelt scream. Pop music is smarter than you are. So why bother paying it any attention?

The way I see it, enjoying pop music really has nothing to do with trying to keep up with what the kids are doing. It’s more a way of allowing yourself to develop in new directions. Pop is not a genre, considering rock’n'roll, rock, soul, funk, reggae, disco, new wave, r&b and hip-hop have all at some point been thought of as pop music. Pop is a way of thinking. Genuine enjoyment of pop music shows that the paint hasn’t dried yet on the portrait that is you. The slow descent into senility, when your musical tastes shrink in ever decreasing circles as you only endorse artists who remind you in some way of the music you enjoyed in your mid 20s (without reminding you too much, otherwise you’ll accuse them of being rip-off artists), has not yet begun. Which isn’t to say that a person must turn off their brain and give approval to every new development that pop takes. On the contrary, picking and choosing is at heart what the pop experience is all about.

We may not like every new development, but to imagine that we can undo all of pop’s revolutions, that we can go back to some older time when ‘real artistry‘ had more cultural value, is to place yourself with Meissonier as opposed to Manet. It would involve some kind of fascistic artistic aristocracy closed to all except those who followed the strictest of rules. The vulgarity of the market is the perfect antidote to such ugly thoughts.

The cruelty at the heart of pop, its tendency to discard the obsolete, can feel cold when you are on the receiving end but exhilarating when you are in the vanguard of a new movement. Loving pop doesn’t mean loving only pop, or indeed loving the majority of the Top 40, but the moment you stop loving pop altogether, it’s a sure sign that your brain is settling into a holding pattern. Granted there are those who have never liked pop and spend their time exploring the weird outer-reaches of experimental and challenging music that revels in its non-commercial nature but this is merely the more serious-minded flipside of the same philosophy that drives pop, the philosophy of reveling in the new and unexplored. If you’ve ever felt the thrill that only a great pop song can provide, but find yourself forgetting when you last felt that thrill, then I think it’s time to throw on the local pop radio station, ignore the fact that ‘Moves Like Jagger’ is still being played six times a day, and try to find something to love. That’s my plan. I feel like something important is at stake.

For those with an ear for such musical endeavors, pop has the power to not only move you (in every sense); it can also stop you from becoming boring and predictable, set in your ways; complete. If you’re feeling distant from pop music, throw yourself back into the maelstrom. The minute you begin to wonder if a song is actually good or not, and you have no critical consensus to guide your thoughts, is the moment when your brain will be alive again. Only pop provides this shock. I know you’re on the internet, so quit messing around and find those pop hits before it’s too late.

(This essay originally appeared on Collapse Board)

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