What’s Pop anyway?

Sticky-sweet pretentious pop

As I mentioned yesterday, lately I’ve been more interested in learning/reading/discussing music than rehashing fandom. One of the books I’m currently reading is about rock music and social history in America. It’s been many years since I sat in a history of rock music class, so it was time for a catch-up while I pondered where Pop music fits in.

Over the years that I’ve written Daily Duranie, one of things that has frustrated me is the knowledge of how little credit the band receives. If not about their fan base, then about their music. I’ve seen it referred to as anything from sticky sweet bubble gum pop to overly-pretentious pop garbage.

I suppose the common word there is “pop”. Ask any critic, read any book about music history, and the word isn’t usually aligned with descriptions of greatness. It tends to be used to describe crappy music, and that seems pretty unfair.

Cultural perspective

This whole subject came to a head for me as I was reading last week. Rock Music in American Culture describes how rock tends to transcend or it comments on social structure. That’s why the history of rock music tends to align seamlessly with American social history, or the history of American culture. Not all rock music does that, but according to this author, the very best rock music is capable of cultural perspective. I’ve written about pop before, but I’ve never read quite the damning definition in oh-so-many words that I found in this current book.

There are plenty of artists, bands, and songs that have ended up being exploited by the social order. That kind of means they’ve become so popular that the songs aren’t heard for their true, original meaning. They’ve become anthemic without the audience knowing what in the hell they’re singing, for instance. Others are so “ethereal that they don’t have grounding in the revolutionary struggle” – so the music doesn’t have anything to do with this world, or the artists have been so blinded by the delights that follow success that they’ve sold-out. Meaning, you guessed it, that they just want another hit, however they can get one. In any of these cases, the music is no longer capable of providing prospective, or it’s so heavily self-absorbed there’s just no seeing past it all.

Shlock rock is still rock

Interestingly enough, some bands and songs manage to do all of the above. In which case, the author believes is the best characterization for “schlock rock”, which, for those who just came in – is essentially pop music, circa 1956-1963. The only difference between shock rock and pop, based on the definitions used by this author, is that “shlock rock is still rock, it just ceases to be effective.”

Effective? I suppose if one is characterizing and judging rock music solely on it’s use for social revolution, then maybe. But is that all there is to it?

As the author continues to categorize music styles in order to explain his thought process and prove the basis for the theories presented in the book, he comes to an actual definition for pop. It isn’t kind.

Pop, pop…pop music

“Of the styles noted thus far, only Pop is intrinsically inauthentic, (and he backpedals a bit with the second half of the sentence) and this only to the extent the term is used to describe music deliberately created exclusively for monetary gain and no other reason.

There’s so much wrong with that definition, beginning with the fact that I know of startlingly few artists that create music SOLELY for the sheer joy of doing so. I also know of no one who goes to the trouble to create music solely for money. Sheer economics tells me otherwise. In 2020, music doesn’t pay well. Concerts might, but writing and recording? Think again. For 99% of the bands out there, sales aren’t great. It can’t just be about money for most bands and artists.

The author goes on, doubling down on his original comment. “Pop, therefore, reflections no one’s present experience, and thus has no immanence whatsoever. Nor does it convey with any conviction any particular set of values (expect perhaps plutocratic values), so it is totally devoid of transcendence as well. Pop music is best described as early rock and roll once was, namely, music consciously contrived to make money by appealing to the widest possible audience substance, merely empty calories.”

I prefer Pepsi for my empty calories

He goes on to equate pop with muzak heard on “EZ” listening stations, and finishes by adding, “Top 40 radio is a better target; it is obviously not immune to the “pop” disease. In all cases of “pop”, however, imitation (not merely making money) is pop’s key distinguishing feature, no matter how difficult it might be to accurately diagnose it’s presence.”

So, pop has no quality, it is unable to provide perspective, and is the non-food/beverage equivalent of a can of Coca-cola. Or…pop.

He goes as far as to call pop a disease. I can see that Robert Pielke and I are not going to be friends, and as a retired philosophy professor, he is an excellent example of why I avoided taking philosophy in college. Is there anything in here worth gleaning? Obviously, I don’t agree with some of his more editorial-sounding comments about pop, but that doesn’t make his definition any less accurate…or widely held.

The fact is, this is why Duran Duran has had such a difficult time with critics. It is why so many have an issue with the Hall of Fame, too. Rock is seen as serious, as something “worthy”. Pop is not. Even better (or not), pop was created as a music category for a female audience. Those EZ listening stations and Muzak? All designed and devised for female ears. Better to have them listening to something like that at work, or at the grocery store, or even at home over FM radio, rather than, God forbid, organizing a takeover of some sort with other women. Listening to music makes women more productive. Ever listen to some tunes while house cleaning or working out? It was all created with you (and me) in mind.

It was created for you

While the author explains that all styles of music, and all bands, have fallen prey to this pop disease at one time or another, it does little to sway my thinking. Even albums like Seven and the Ragged Tiger, or Red Carpet Massacre have their significance, even if critics are not able to see past the surface. Writing them off as bloviated examples of self-absorption is the easy way out for cowards unwilling to do the hard work necessary to understand the message contained within. I mean, if I can do it as a mere female….well, you get my point.

If bands and artists like Duran Duran are held to this definition of pop, and are regarded in this manner, then there is no question as to why they are never mentioned in history books, or given due credit. To say that Duran Duran are pure empty calories is like saying that songs such as “Rio” or “Pressure Off” have no significance beyond monetary value whatsoever. I am just not convinced that is the case. Moreover, working in absolutes, particularly in music, seems about as effective as shoveling out a horse stable with a teaspoon.

-R

One thought on “What’s Pop anyway?”

  1. Pop stands for popular and used to mean something popular, whether it was rock or not. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were pop as were Elvis, Beatles, the Stones or anyone else. People would of course say there was a big difference between Sinatra and Crosby versus Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones. Pop could be rock and rock could be pop. Now though when I talk about “pop” music I am talking about artists who are really part of pop culture.whether they are considered rock or not. To me modern pop is a singer who likely sings a song they didn’t write, didn’t play any instruments and is lightweight. It’s disposable like gum and years later will probably just remembers as a time in history. I don’t consider Duran Duran b today’s pop standards, would they be on top 40 radio? no way. They were pop in the 80’s, but so were Bon Jovi and Def Leppard and U2 because they were all popular. The typical fan of an pop artist today would not be interested in Duran Duran, their music doesn’t fit. Personally, I think when they try to fit by creating a song they believe will be a pop hit just backfires.

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