November 2, 2013
From Bach To Bieber – Why Pop Music Ain’t So Bad
Pop music is a bit like Manchester United soccer club: everyone seems to hate it, yet it’s still somehow incredibly popular and successful.
But if it is so popular and successful, it must stand that not everyone does hate it. Maybe ‘everyone’ really means those of us who think that because we read impracticably big newspapers, we get to decide everything that is or isn’t okay in the whole world. We read a full Christopher Hitchens book on religion so now we know that religion is definitely bad. We’ve watched lots of sports so now we get to decide who gets picked for the teams.
Sneering at pop music (snobbish contempt for the mainstream) is exactly that, snobbery: largely motivated by a desire to be defined by our remarkable good taste.
Of course, it is a shame that so much pop music is manufactured and cynically marketed primarily to make people other than the artists rich. But in terms of the consumption of it rather than the production, being condescending towards pop music is possibly as much a symptom of contempt for people with different tastes to our own as it is for the music itself. Or at least it is a feigned contempt in which, by positioning ourselves against the faceless hoards, we can justify our own existence as an individual.
Ironically, this is the antithesis of what a lot of great (and well respected) music was meant to be. Folk music, most notably, which I and a lot of other music snobs love, was for the people by definition. It wasn’t supposed to be esoteric.
If we go back further through the staples of any self-respecting record collection, we could look at Bach. Bach is the most famous example of the Baroque style of music, and the whole point of anything Baroque, whether music, literature, art or architecture, was to inspire the masses. Okay, it was to an extent to inspire them in a religious sense, encouraged by a Catholic Church that was feeling threatened by growing Protestantism at the time, but, whatever the motivation for Baroque music, its partly cynical intention was to speak to the ‘mainstream’. It was meant to appeal to visceral, emotional parts of ourselves rather than intellectual ones. It was to be enjoyed rather than analyzed, and so was in all these senses the pop music of its day.
You’ll often hear people say that blues music ‘all sounds the same.’ The same accusation is levelled at folk. There is a reason why this is so. The original point of both genres was not to be recorded and sold, and then performed by its most successful talents to huge venues; it was supposed to be something which communities, or strangers, could come together and play easily. It was an accompaniment to socialising where musicians could join in and play small live shows or jam without rehearsal. Everyone could play it and everyone could enjoy it.
Take the examples of Soul, Motown and R&B (in its traditional definition), too. The greats of these genres are now, quite rightly, some of the most respected names in music history: Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gay, Aretha Franklin etc…. But their product was the pop music of their time. Like current pop music, the tempos and melodies were addictively snappy and uplifting, or emotively slow and sorrowful. Like todays pop songs, the song-writing is often credited to people who were not performers on the recording. In the 50’s and 60’s separation of performer and songwriter was not seen as a negative thing.
The music created and the vocal performances in these examples are mind-blowingly good, but the intention was the same as contemporary pop music: to make as many people happy, or otherwise emotional, as possible. Sam Cooke, luxurious voice and the masterful A Change is Gonna Come aside, almost exclusively sang about teeny heartbreak, going on dates with girls and going to parties. All fairly populist stuff.
Nowadays there is plenty of experimental music out there which is supposed to be thought about carefully and does need the attention of discerning listeners. But of longer-standing genres perhaps only fans of certain classical music (although not as much as we might assume, as Bach demonstrates) and modern Jazz can claim that ‘their’ music is intellectually superior to present day pop music.
Although it is worth noting: we don’t get to claim to be fans of modern Jazz just by having Kind of Blue as an essential staple in our all defining record collection. And if we are going to be defined by our record collection, we have to bear in mind that it is probably a collection strewn with artists who wanted us to simply enjoy their music, rather than to think about and defend it too much.
Image Credit: Nicku / Shutterstock