Tuesday, August 31, 2004

A Pop Music Manifesto

This essay is meant as my own personal manifesto for pop music. There are a lot of stories behind why I feel its necessary to outline my views on the subject and defend an art form that, unfortunately, gets something of a bad rap (no pun intended). Especially from members of my gender, who generally look down on pop music as sugary coated “junk music,” the musical equivalent of Vanilla Coke or Jolly Ranchers.

True story. About a month or so ago, I went to a concert with a couple of friends (both male). It isn’t important who I went to see – kind of a rock/country act. This is a genre of music I’m just recently getting interested in, but…because I tend towards such eclecticism in music (I like just about all music)…isn’t necessarily one that I’ve spent a great deal of time on. Honestly, I only really got particularly interested in it this year and that’s mostly been a side sort of thing – I’m always interested in expanding my horizons and ‘going out’ at night, after all. Moreover, I really find that I like some of the bands/artists I've gone to see that fall under the "rockabilly" genre - they're fun music and we can always use more of that.

Anyway, I was talking with these friends and mentioned about how I couldn’t understand the appeal of the artist ‘Five for Fighting.’ A.) The name is stupid – he’s a solo artist, not a band, yet he basically goes by a band name. B.) I think said name is lame. C.) His music sounds like a cross between Elton John, Billy Joel, and a dog howling and is, generally speaking, unappealing to me.

I was asked how I knew so much about him and I confessed that he was the opening act when I saw The Goo Goo Dolls back in the fall of 2002. To which there were guffaws and dumb looks. “Why did you go to see the Goo Goo Dolls?” one of them asked. Embarrassed by two friends whom I both like but who take their music very, very seriously…I was forced to immediately come up with a harmless little lie. I said that I went on “a date” (not true – went with friends, only one of which was female and she was there with her husband) and that “it wasn’t my idea” (also not true – wanted desperately to go to the show).

This to avoid the embarrassing truth (to me): I actually like The Goo Goo Dolls. And John Mayer. And Counting Crows. And Madonna. And The Ataris and The Get Up Kids, and Van Halen, Aerosmith, Ryan Adams, The Pretenders, Norah Jones, Michelle Branch, Dave Matthews, Ben Folds, and countless others. And *gasp* Phil Collins era Genesis. And Billy Joel. And listen to the pop music stations. And go to pop music concerts.

I am a closet pop music fan. One of the unwashed masses. I confess. You can send in the thought police now.

But before they get here, allow me to explain why I don’t think pop music is such a bad thing…

First, allow me to address some of the basic criticisms of pop music (as I’ve heard them over the years): sugary lyrics, repetitive beat, meaningless “junk music,” simplistic, transparent, not deep (whatever that means). But the funny thing is, you’ve been hearing these same complaints for decades now, but opponents of pop music keep changing their own tune (again, pun unintentional). In the 70’s you had the “prog rock” movement – a bunch of over-sensitive full of themselves rockers in mullets, wearing German army coats, complaining that the songs were too simple and that pop stars couldn’t actually play their instruments. In the 80’s, the synthesizer was decreed to be the death of all that was holy. In the 90’s, it was sampling and later “group bands.” And throughout, lyrics were challenged as either being too simple and transparent, or the cardinal sin of them all: not written by the artists!

Never mind that some of the greatest rock bands and stars of all time have used recycled material for decades, particularly Delta blues songs that have been ripped off without a bit of concession. Further, plenty of artists who consider themselves “above” pop use songs written by other people – songwriters make a healthy living (good ones, at least). And the less said about prog rock and its overly complex rock odes to robots, “gleaming alloy aircars,” and aqualungs….the better.

Its ironic, really, because the same exact criticisms have been leveled against a number of “popular” 20th Century composers in classical music. The atonalists and twelve-toners seem to believe that music should be some sort of high art, removed from the populace that music is made for – as if it was too good for audiences. Thus we get electronic music and tape loops, five minutes of crowd noise and no musical notes, interminable twelve-tone serialist pieces, and works that are supposed to be played during “the apocalypse” (if you don’t believe me on that one, look up one Alexander Scriabin – granted, he was insane when he wrote it). They seem to forget that music is meant to be listened to. And for it to be listened to, doesn’t it have to be listenable?

Thus, I’ve had no problems with the works of Torke, Copeland, Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, John Adams, and others. And I like plenty of serial and avant garde music as well. Likewise, while I enjoy more “proper” rock, I also quite enjoy music that I can listen to, dance to, sing along with, etc. Yes, it probably means that I won’t get invited to all the avant garde music parties but…so be it.

Besides…those aren’t that much fun anyway. And I look awful in black.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there's this Genesis song that's been going around and around in my head all day... ;)


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