By Wallace Wylie
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. 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.