Wallace Wylie

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

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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 sprit 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 that 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 is still the case). 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 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.

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 a free pass 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.

(continues overleaf)

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

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

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