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Reconsidering Pop by Dan Hofman

Monday, September 26, 2011

I think that there is a precise historical moment that can help explain many music fans’ aversion to pop music or other genres that are considered mainstream. When Nirvana’s album Nevermind hit #1 on the Billboard charts in January of 1992, it solidified alternative music’s place as a major force in American culture. Not only bringing alternative to the forefront, Nirvana was perceived as “killing 80s excess” and “killing pop,” as Nevermind removed Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the #1 spot on the charts. While 90s alternative culture emphasized loud guitars, raw lyrics, and flannel shirts, it was also largely defined by what it wasn’t. Namely, that it wasn’t synthetic, theatrical, or looking to appeal to a mass audience. This set up an either/or dichotomy among music fans. You were either a Nirvana fan or a Michael Jackson fan – a grunge fan or a pop fan.

The way that alternative culture split music fans into camps is still prevalent today. Indie, punk, and hippie kids find their identity from not being mainstream, from rejecting what has been deemed popular. You’re not only a real music fan because you like Radiohead, but because you think Maroon 5 sucks. Entire genres or groups of artists are discarded without giving them a chance.

It’s not as if music fans are completely to blame here – the current pop music landscape has given us plenty of reasons to distrust the genre. A recent look at the Top 40 charts shows many songs that appeal to the lowest common denominator, paint an untruthful portrait of the world, or are simply boring. Rihanna’s “S&M” is a song about explicit sexual fantasies, but is marketed and consumed mainly by children and teenagers. The Black Eyed Peas’ “The Time (Dirty Bit)” doesn’t just sample 80’s hit “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” but covers the entire chorus as its own. Half the songs on the Top 40 charts feature Pitbull…this needs no further explanation.

While legitimate, criticism of Top 40 doesn’t have to be an indictment of pop music itself. It is easy to get disheartened about the state of pop, but there is a lot of great pop music being made by artists today. Swedish singer Robyn’s Body Talk series immediately comes to mind. A series of 3 EPs released in 2010 (vol. 1-3), Body Talk delivers hit after hit. Above all, these songs are dynamic – Robyn’s powerhouse diva vocals, lyrics of empowerment, pulsating synths, and layers of intricate percussion make for the perfect witch’s brew. Listeners are powerless to resist the urge to sing along, nod to the beat, or get up and dance.

Cut Copy is another great example of artists who are skillfully working within a pop framework. While some would categorize the band as electronic, much of the band’s inspiration comes from 1980s pop. Through their albums and (especially) live shows, the band takes the listener on a journey. There are certain moments when Cut Copy’s music is restrained, the band sits in the pocket of a groove or constructs a song piece by piece. Lurking around the corner, however, is always a big hook or instrumental drop that turns passive head nodding into unabashed dancing and top-of-the-lungs singing.

Pop is an expansive genre too - it doesn’t necessarily have to include synthesizers and drum machines (although this type of pop is trendy right now). Canadian super-group The New Pornographers have been making exceptional guitar-based power-pop for the last decade. Like Robyn and Cut Copy, The New Pornographers write tightly arranged three to four minute songs with joyous, sing-along hooks. They’re working within a traditional template used by bands like Cheap Trick and Weezer, yet have an aesthetic all their own. Three and four part mixed-gender harmonies, multiple instruments on lead, and hyper-literate lyrics meld together to create the “New Pornographers sound”.

Pop music is essential because it fulfills a unique place in the musical landscape – no other music can do exactly what pop does. Pop is a physical genre. Jesus Christ came to the world as fully God and fully man, not as a spirit inhabiting a useless physical carcass. This would seem to indicate that physical pleasures and urges are not meant to be completely subdued. There is no Platonic hierarchy in which the spirit or intellect must rule over the body. Sitting around and pensively listening to the latest Sufjan Stevens record is not necessarily a higher calling than dancing and singing along to well-made pop. Christians who embrace pop culture often seem to fall into this trap where discernment becomes an intellectual exercise. Besides dissecting lyrics, discernment involves asking questions like, “what does it mean to dance faithfully?” or “what should Christian celebration look like?” A faithful response to a piece of music can be physical – an embodied response.

Pop is also communal music. Sometimes Pitchfork disciples get into the habit of trying to “out-obscure” other music fans – unearthing the next cool niche genre or praying that their favorite artist doesn’t get too mainstream. Not that there’s anything wrong with niche music, but its obscurity should not be an end unto itself. Pop music, on the other hand, has the ability to bring people together. Songs that are catchy or can be quickly understood place people on a common ground. Art becomes more valuable when it’s shared and experienced in community – it becomes tangible, real, and alive. There’s just something unexplainable about a crowd of thousands singing, “with hearts on fire I reach out to you tonight” (from Cut Copy’s “Hearts on Fire”).

So let’s not toss aside music that is catchy, fun, or danceable. Liking pop doesn’t have to mean that you aren’t a serious music listener. Good pop music actually has a lot to teach us about a faithful, embodied response to art – coming together, connecting to our bodies, and celebrating the good life.
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1 comment on "Reconsidering Pop by Dan Hofman"
  • Very stimulating blog commentary… definitely something to think about =). Thanks for sharing this.

    Posted by dummyisme on 11/20 at 02:16 PM