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 Wallace Wylie

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

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Kanye West, Taylor Swift

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.

(continues overleaf)

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

  1. Lucy Cage January 11, 2012 at 11:31 am

    “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.”

    That’s it. Listening to pop is THE best way of staving off the slide into look-back bore-dom. In years to come people with furrowed brows will recommend healthy doses of the Top 40 for pensioners in the way they recommend Mozart for babies, but they won’t know the half of it. Pop is brilliant. It’s the stuff of life. And there’s SO MUCH good pop around at the moment! Lucky us.

  2. Erika January 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    “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.”

    Well-put. But I have to ask, who makes these rules? The world-at-large, or the marketers? And is this little tidbit minor enough to just brush off and ignore as “just the way it is”?

    You know why I like rock better than pop? Because with rock, as I see it, the one rule is this: rules are made to be broken.

    I feel with rock’s connection to the blues and folk, there is a whole lot of room for misfits and weirdos and being amazing in unconventional ways that pop may not allow. In that way, pop is about as stifling as it gets. Pop may cull artists from the underground, but usually the artists are forced (or strongly encouraged) to clean up their act, change their appearance, change their image, even change their music. The Beatles. The Go Gos. Blondie. Etc. And a lot of that is, in fact, about the money.

    This idea that a pop artist must present the proper package and image has absolutely nothing to do with music. And that, in my opinion, is reason enough to have disdain for all that surrounds it. A pop song can be fun. Maybe it has a nice beat and you can dance to it. Nothing wrong with that. Maybe it makes you happy while you shop at The Gap or sip your skinny mocha at the mall.

    Me, I think rules are meant to be broken.

    Fuck pop.

    Rock n roll forever.

  3. Wallace Wylie January 11, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    Pop has broken every rule that society has put in place. Rock is musically conservative in comparison. Let’s take a classic rock artist like Neil Young. Whenever people talk about Neil Young they act like he embodies the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. They are correct, but not in the way they think. He is a straight white male who basically plays two types of music. Soft acoustic and loud feedback drenched rock. That’s pretty much it. Yet critics and fans talk about him like he’s some wild and crazy experimental madman who does whatever he pleases. He is staggeringly conservative in his musical output, and he is richer than most pop artists, and he signed one of the biggest music contracts in history. Yet people imagine that his ‘authenticity’ imbues his output with real worth. The guys lyrics aren’t as good as Jessie J’s. He gets by on rocks fraudulent mythology of authentic output. The idea of the authentic is bad metaphysics. It relies on the romantic notion that a persons inner world has managed to transfer itself through some magical process into their art. Neil Young’s image is as fabricated, indeed is more fabricated, than any pop stars.

  4. Erika January 11, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    um, that “magical process” IS art. And Neil Young can write a song. I’m not familiar with his image beyond scraggly haired flannel-shirted troubadour; not sure what’s so inauthentic about it. I don’t even know why or how critics talk about him. I think what reaches people with Neil Young is the fact that he’s trying to express something, to say something, in his songs, and that resonates with people on some level. It doesn’t matter if he achieves this with guitar or keyboard or drum machine or kazoo. Songwriters are storytellers. I am not sure why they also have to be eye candy.

    I mean, I understand that people want music to be sexy, but really good music can be sexy as heck even if the musician is not centerfold material. Sometimes even more so when the musician is not centerfold material because … maybe because it FEELS more authentic.

    Pop music that you love (like the song, Price Tag) ALSO connects with people, plus you can dance to it. I know that when I say “fuck pop music” I don’t mean it really, because music is music, and I love to dance, if it speaks to you, it speaks to you. In reality, I love lots of pop music, I just don’t like the process some artists are put through in order to become “successful” pop stars according to what the market supposedly demands. It’s like the way Hollywood keeps making movies about problems faced by beautiful wealthy white people. Is this what the market really demands? Or is it just that they have lost touch with the real 2012 most of us are experiencing?

    And so why is it ok to be past target market demographic age and ENJOY the music, but not ok to be past target market demographic age and MAKE the music? That’s the shallowness to which I object.

    For me it always seems to come down to the marketing of music. Always. Art is sloppy, and it’s not always consistent, and it’s often challenging. I understand the need to package it and make it compelling in a soundbite kind of way. But I hate the way that artists can be excluded for the very most superficial reasons. And it’s usually not the public making this choice, it’s the industry.

    The problem with art is that it often is so far ahead of the mass market that it gets ignored or shoved aside until years later. One of the greatest American poets, Emily Dickinson, couldn’t even publish her work in its own time without it being butchered to hell. So she put it in a drawer where it stayed until well after she was dead and buried.

    AFA authenticity, the reality is that every performing artist needs some kind of front, if even just to survive the intensity of the process of laying it all out on stage. But also because the stage is a place of exaggeration and larger-than-life expression. When Janis became “Pearl” onstage, it was a total front, but it was that front that allowed her to pour her guts out into her words and put it out into the world, and I think that she did that, as much as anyone could.

  5. Niall January 12, 2012 at 12:03 am

    Excellent article Wallace, and great comments from Erika that touch on something deeply ingrained in popular music culture too that don’t get talked about enough.

    Popular music (since WW2, so including “rock’n’roll” which WAS “pop music” up until the late 70s/early 80s) has always been hugely about sex. In a culture where there was no open discourse about sex it served as an indoctrination for young people and teenagers into the adult world of copulation. This goes right back the the Beatles and Elvis – acts whose musical appeal was hugely tied in with their physical appeal.

    I agree with Erika’s gripes about pop appeal being based too much on a narrow definition of physical beauty (and especially the point about the ageism inherent in the industry – especially when many pop acts lie about their actual age, being older than we are told they are). But it’s not just confined to pop. A very large part of any audience’s connection with an act has to do with their sexual appeal – the most obvious example of this is boy and girl bands, but it can also be seen in supposedly more “authentic” rock acts too like The Strokes and The White Stripes.

    This goes even further to artists whose physical appearance is far beyond the boundaries of what is considered mainstream “sexy”. This doesn’t mean that the fans necessarily thinks the artists themselves are attractive – think of the amount of men who are fans of porn performer Ron Jeremy, not because they find him attractive, but because they identify with his physical appearance and feel they can substitute themselves for him in his films. The same identification process definitely exists in music.

    (On another note sexual appeal in music doesn’t have to rely on the artist’s physical appearance, it can come from the music itself which can make the listener feel “sexy”).

    Nowadays pornography is freely available on the internet, so the need for a sublimated discourse on sex through pop music has declined sharply. What pop music has done in retaliation is to ramp up the sex factor as far as it possibly can to compete, which is a real shame as the mainstream ideals of what makes someone attractive are restrictively narrow and hugely divorced from reality.

  6. Wallace Wylie January 12, 2012 at 12:42 am

    I agree with a lot of criticism of pop, which is why I included them in the essay, but I think rock is worse. It is, for the most part, music made by thin, straight, white males from middle class backgrounds. That’s it. It is also more destructive to young people in the sense that it peddles the dangerous romantic notion of the authentic and a big part of what is seen as authentic is suffering and drug use. More peoples lives have been destroyed by that particular myth than anything peddled by pop. People imagine that Neil Young’s output is automatically more authentic because they have been told from a young age that this is the case. He is capable of occasionally writing good lyrics, but for the most part they are half-thought-out sentimental hogwash. I say this as someone who likes Neil Young up to about 1979, yet I feel no need to view his work as more authentic than Madonna or Missy Elliott (Missy Elliott was no pin up and she had weight issues. She was also, for a short amount of time, one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Can anyone name a rock performer who was considered overweight in their peak years?).

    The problem with Emily Dickinson wasn’t that she was ahead of the masses (there was no mass market at the time), the problem was that she was a woman. As in the world of rock, the heavily intellectualised male world of poetry thought the idea of a genius woman poet was just ridiculous. This mindset still exists in rock. Most great artists of the past, if they were male, actually were famous when they were alive. Byron was basically the rock star of his day. He was also very handsome. I don’t think that makes his poetry bad.

  7. Daniel January 12, 2012 at 3:16 am

    Wallace’s distinction between American and English appreciation of pop is spot on. The puritanical notion of “guilty pleasure” seems like a stateside encountered as often as American critics (seemingly) over-intellectualized appreciation of pop. Maybe it’s the belief that enjoying the same music as twelve year-old girls leaves an individual exposed to ridicule, but that’s only in the mind of those that look down on the tastes of twelve-year old girls. Pop feels inclusive of a lot of textures and influences. Pop rules are as rigid as any genre’s orthodoxy, but it’s more eager to rewrite them. That’s probably because of the influx of youth and the need to be relevant to a young demographic.

    I don’t remember most of the cassettes I had at age 12, but all of them sucked. All of them sucked, but I was crushed out on new music constantly. Maybe as we age, we engage with music the same way we engage in our romantic relationships. As a thirty something in a stable relationship for a decade, one doesn’t crush so easily. Great critics still crush like teenagers and feel more slighted when artists don’t meet their nebulous expectations. Reading those reviews can be like eavesdropping on a married couple having it out in a restaurant or glimpsing a couple fooling around. That’s what I’m reading for anyway.

  8. Erika January 12, 2012 at 3:59 am

    “Can anyone name a rock performer who was considered overweight in their peak years?”

    Here are the 6 that immediately come to mind.

    Chris Newman
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Newman_%28musician%29

    Tad Doyle
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tad_%28band%29

    Tom “Pig Champion” Roberts and Jerry (Jerry A) Lang
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poison_Idea

    Van Conner and Gary Lee Conner
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Van_Conner
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gary_Lee_Conner

    Interesting, this whole list is from the U.S. Pacific NW. This is a region I’m familiar with so I don’t know if it’s a total anomaly or not.

    When I asked Chris, the oldest, who started playing original rock in the 1970s, if he had any early role models who were overweight, he said that there was an overweight member of the band Young Rascals (“Groovin'”) and he remembered reading in a fanzine that the guy was “trying to lose weight.”

    In the early 80s, when the industry started hovering around, trying to help Chris’s little new wave band make it big, it became clear they would also need to adjust his “image,” and specifically, make him lose weight. He sings and plays and writes like a motherfucker, but will never be thin. You might say he was “born this way.”

    Things changed for fat people in the NW a little later… for some reason, Sub Pop didn’t look at “fat” as a deal breaker. (I wonder why.) Obviously, it’s not the “fat” bands who turned Sub Pop into millionaires, but … is it all about becoming a millionaire? Because I know a song called “Price Tag” that says otherwise.

  9. Erika January 12, 2012 at 5:17 am

    PS I should mention that I really like this essay, Wallace.

  10. Everett True January 12, 2012 at 11:24 am

    “Can anyone name a rock performer who was considered overweight in their peak years?”

    Meatloaf
    Mama Cass
    Beth Ditto
    David Thomas
    Frank Black

    I think if you really put your mind to it, you’ll find hundreds.

  11. Niall January 12, 2012 at 11:28 am

    As much as I love some of the performers you have named Erika, to compare them to someone as popular as Missy Elliot at her peak is pretty disingenuous.

    Outwith the genre of “rock”, off the top of me ‘ed, here’s some larger sized performers who I would consider more comparable: Barry White, Adele, Aretha Franklin, Biggie Smalls, Timbaland, Jennifer Hudson.

    The point, for me, is not that pop music is a more level playing field, but that rock music is just as guilty of sizeism.

  12. Niall January 12, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Ah, now Everett’s list is better! I was waiting for someone to bring up Meatloaf. And Beth Ditto – who in her solo guise be much more easily be classified as “pop”.

    Don’t worry, I HAVE spent a long time putting my mind to thinking about the role of fat people in music!

  13. Erika January 12, 2012 at 11:57 am

    “As much as I love some of the performers you have named Erika, to compare them to someone as popular as Missy Elliot at her peak is pretty disingenuous.”

    Um, not really. First of all, look at the word you used as a yardstick: POPULAR. How do you think POP music got its name?

    Despite my hanging around CB and playing in the sandbox, I’m no music critic. And I’m not industry savvy (obviously – this has been pointed out to me many times). So I don’t know why Missy Elliot is a more significant act than Screaming Trees. They both have had stuff on TV and corporate radio.

    Nor do I know why Beth Ditto is more important, for that matter. I worked side by side with her at R&R Camp for Girls and I’ve seen her perform. She’s good. She had a rocking band. She was rock. What made her pop was her ability to breakthrough to the mainstream – in some places. I don’t think she has really achieved this in the U.S.

    I am beginning to think there is one difference between pop and rock and it’s got nothing to do with music or lyrics or any of that. It’s about class and your ability to fill stadiums and make KA-CHING for the industry.

  14. Erika January 12, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    To put it more succinctly: the difference between rock and pop is not a musical difference, but a class difference.

  15. Wallace Wylie January 12, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    I think it’s fair to say that pop is just as open to imperfection in terms of body size as rock. In fact I’d say it’s much more open. Pop is certainly more open to women, as well as non-white, and non-straight people.

  16. Niall January 12, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    “the difference between rock and pop is not a musical difference, but a class difference.”

    And which genre represents which class exactly?

  17. Niall January 12, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Also, what makes Beth Ditto “pop” is the fact that her solo records sound like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UECeJzd-G30

  18. Wallace Wylie January 12, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    There is a class difference between rock and pop. Rock is mostly made and enjoyed by the middle class, pop by the working class. Let’s take the two examples we’ve been talking about. Neil Young came from a comfortable middle class background. His dad was something of a celebrity. Missy Elliott is working class. Broken home. Abusive violent father. Now, who is seen as the more authentic artist? It’s Neil Young. Who has made the music industry more money? It’s Neil Young.

  19. Erika January 13, 2012 at 12:41 am

    Niall, it is true that Beth Ditto went in a disco direction, but when I saw Gossip perform in 2005, they were playing rock w/ guitars, drums, etc.

    Wallace, I am American. I think maybe what is key in my assertion about class is the American ideal of climbing your way to the top, out of poverty, into success. For most Americans, it’s about the money. Social class is defined by wealth, and we believe that any (boy) can grow up to be (fill in blanks). “The American Dream.” Music is seen one of a few routes out of the ghetto.

    I will concede that popular music reflects what is going on in the world overall.

    Where I keep getting tripped up in all of this is in the whole concept of musical “genre.” It’s like nailing jelly to the wall.

  20. Lucy Cage January 13, 2012 at 6:04 am

    “It’s like nailing jelly to the wall.”

    Yes, it is! A hopeless task. There are broad generalisations you can make about what pop is and what rock is (and yes, they may be to do with image or class or race or gender or money or instrumentation) but there will always be exceptions to the rule. Someone once pointed out to me that the attempt to define pop is reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s argument about the impossibility of defining what makes something a game: however hard you try to pin down the meaning there will be exceptions; there is no one thing that is common to all games. Try it! Yet you know what a game is. Same with pop. You know what is meant by pop, even if there isn’t one stable, clear definition to go on.

    There you go, from Missy Elliot to Wittgenstein in one easy leap.

    (Joe Carducci would definitely disagree with me, by the way: he wrote an entire book about this subject. His impassioned definition of rock as a conscious, live, collaborative effort and pop as a marketing concept is interesting and leads down all kinds of fascinating and provocative alleys but ultimately it’s as flawed and partial as any other black and white delineation.)

  21. Lucy Cage January 13, 2012 at 6:05 am

    Btw, I really like this sentence from Daniel:

    “Great critics still crush like teenagers and feel more slighted when artists don’t meet their nebulous expectations. Reading those reviews can be like eavesdropping on a married couple having it out in a restaurant or glimpsing a couple fooling around. That’s what I’m reading for anyway.”

  22. Everett True January 13, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Lucy, I made it the pull quote on the site yesterday. Did you miss it?

  23. Lucy Cage January 13, 2012 at 8:50 am

    Oops, yes, I did. I tend to click links straight to articles and rarely see the front page…
    Well, it’s a fucking great line.

  24. Everett True January 13, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Fair enough. Makes sense. Great minds …

  25. Daniel January 13, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    Awww… Thank you kindly!

  26. KOMENTAR January 21, 2012 at 2:16 am

    Because with rock, as I see it, the one rule is this: rules are made to be broken.

    Really?

    So why isn’t it progressing and changing? Incremental shifts do occur, but they are nothing compared to the massive changes in music generally.

    Rock music of the last five deacades has not changed as much as hip hop, or as much as techno, even with a head start.

    Rock music fans, in my limited experience, are often among the most conservative. See the fuss over Beyoncé playing Glastonbury recently as an example, if you need one. See every boring conversation about the authenticity of idiots like Pete Docherty I have EVER had. See also anger you encounter for anything challenging the orthodoxy of rock-as-dad on the musical family tree.

    If NO RULES is the only rule, you think you’d see a lot more variety and inclusivity. So far, I don’t.

    I should say, I speak as a fan of rock from Queen to pixies, and all the way out to Slayer, or The Monks. I don’t hate the genre, but I do hate the constant suggestion that rock music is something more vibrant and real than other music.

  27. Erika January 21, 2012 at 7:05 am

    KOMENTAR, I am a rock n’ roll idealist. You are a rock n’ roll realist.

  28. Niall January 24, 2012 at 6:39 am

    Creed. Metallica. Foo Fighters. Green Day. Are these rock or pop bands?

  29. C. June 11, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    Nah, I’m already a bore, it’s too late for me to try and get into pop music.

  30. Sadaf June 6, 2013 at 5:43 am

    Brilliant piece of work Wallace! I am sixteen years old and I totally am with you on “Pop has broken every rule that society has put in place.”

  31. Pingback: My love for music and why I still listen to pop | Jessica's Music Blog

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