Does Pop Music deserve the criticisms so often levied towards it?
Popping up on my facebook feed lately have been several comments and critiques of pop music. The general point is that pop music is terrible and that this may presage the coming of the apocalypse, or something. As a general defender of pop music both past and present, this has been causing some rankling and I have been feeling an increasing urge to respond. But no, I should let it go – some battles just aren’t worth fighting…
And then, I came across a video so insensible that it has been dogging my thoughts. Whether in the shower or driving to work, the various arguments won’t leave me alone. It doesn’t help that the person in the video, Paul Joseph Watson, is utterly insufferable. His argumentation is mind-numbingly awful, and this is compounded by a voice half-shouted, half-announced, all annoying. His voice is the aural equivalent of Katie Hopkin’s face. He is also a contributor to Infowars, which indicates high levels of batshit craziness. Nonetheless, he has compiled in one place all of the typical arguments I hear so often. This is fair service; I ought to thank him. I won’t though.
So, over the following paragraphs, I will attempt to respond to these arguments and ultimately offer a defence of pop music. Not necessarily all pop music, mind – I will never deny the contention that some pop music is bad. Of course it is. I might even allow that most is bad. But essentially, what I want to defend is that there is nothing inherently bad about the current state of pop music.
Argument #1 – It all sounds the same
Watson wants to claim that his arguments are scientific and objective, which is a laudable aim. As such he straight away refers to a study that emerged that year that Top 40 pop music is becoming more homogenised. this means that the dynamic range of the music, in terms of chord progression, instrumentation etc. is narrowing. Well, let’s take this at face value and allow that it is true.
Firstly, to note the narrowing of range is not to claim that all pop music is identical, which Watson proposes. Thinking of the people that are highlighted within the video; Beyonce, Rihanna, Kanye, Kesha, Taylor Swift; I would hold that we can readily differentiate between their records. Part of this will be a product of their differing vocal styles, part will be the context of their music – they are not all doing the same thing. I’ll grant that, Kanye excluded, the instrumentation is similar. There have been plenty of musical styles that have been similar to the point of being largely indistinguishable to the unintitiated. Reggae in the 70s and 80s is coming to mind, where producers would often use the same rhythms (‘riddims’) to record various singers or MCs. Certainly if we were to survey the productions of Prince Jammy, we might consider that the similarities are more striking than the dissimilarities, leading someone to conclude that they were all more or less the same. Of course, an aficionado of these artists might object; but then, so would a 14 year old girl regarding Taylor Swift.
Secondly, what Watson does not address is why this tendency is present. The report noted that this convergence was a common tendency within genres, not wholly unlike natural selection. The sound that is indicative of that genre, what it is that has become popular in the first place, is homed in on by record buyers and the songs draw closer together. So this process is not an exclusively cynical move by record producers, but is a symbiotic process between producer and customer. And of course, in the same way as we have seen repeatedly in the past, at some point an outlier will emerge that will act as a game changer.
Argument #2 – The lyrics are dumber than ever
Watson refers to a study conducted by data analyst AndrewPowell-Morse that confirms a ten year trend that pop music lyrics are increasingly simple, such that an average 8 year old would understand them. However, what Watson neglects is Powell-Morse’s own conclusions that this should in no way be understood as a condemnation. All it measures is the word complexity of the lyrics and it wholly ignores things such as nuance. Furthermore, as a ten-year study it fails to consider the complexity of pop music from other eras. The Beatles’ early work, for instance, is no better. And what should we make of The Kingsmen’s incomprehensible ‘Louie Louie’ or The Crystal’s ‘Da Do Ron Ron’ or The Dixie Cups ‘Iko Iko’?
Ultimately, is the lyrical complexity of pop music even important? There is a place, of course, for lyrically complex songs. We can admire Dylan et al., but this is not, in the purest sense pop music. Pop music has a far less cerebral purpose – it is operating on a physical/emotional level. Does it make you want to dance? Yes, then fine. Does it make you happy? Cool. And so on. Whatever music Watson likes, that’s fine, but it is clear that he has missed the point as to what pop music is.
Argument #3 – It’s artificially loud
This is quickly despatched. While it is true, it is not particular at all to pop music. If you read reviews from audiophiles and obsessives (which is not to deny them their point), you will hear this complaint about all styles of music, not only pop.
Argument #4 – It’s all written by the same people
Watson notes that a great deal of pop music stems from a small number of writers; Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Cathy Dennis, Linda Perry. This is true. In the first instance, so what? Again, this is hardly new. Look back to the 60s and you will see a similar list of names surfacing again and again and again; Bacharach/David, Goffin/King, Mann/Weill, Holland/Dozier/Holland. Once more, you will see a similar number of producers putting their stamp upon the records they produced, such that they are all fundamentally similar; Phil Spector, for example.
The problem here is the inference that these modern pop artists are nothing but puppets with no input into their music, and are thus talentless. Would anyone suggest that Dusty Springfield’s ‘Dusty in Memphis’ which has no songs written by her, reveals zero talent? The first Stones LP has no written input from Jagger and Richards. so apparently they only developed their talent later, when they stopping ripping off the songs of old bluesmen. Watson has the audacity to single out Taylor Swift, who is well known to have been a pretty prolific songwriter, even if she has let some other writers play a bigger role on ‘1989’. Finally, how exactly is Watson, or anyone for that matter, to know exactly how much input is to be attributed by the named artist, so as to be so confident that that input is zero?
Argument #5 – Its all about sex
This is amongst the silliest arguments Watson proposes and it is unworthy of my dead puritanical grandmother. When exactly was pop music not about sex? Elvis wasn’t nicknamed ‘the pelvis’ for his remarkable bone-structure. Pop music was about sex all the way back to the 40s (and no doubt before, if the folk traditions are to be believed). When John Lee Hooker sang that he’s a Boogie Man, he wasn’t talking about dancing.
Argument #6 – It’s not really about anything
This is an extention of the previous point, really. In the first place, this is not true. Even Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’, which is highlighted for lyrical vacuousness elsewhere, is about something (self-empowerment). Her self-titled album from 2014, critically lauded no less, raises themes of feminism, equality and identity.
Secondly, who cares? Music doesn’t have to be about anything. When I listen to The Meters first few albums (all instrumental funk), am I sitting there thinking about what its about? What important message is being conveyed by ‘Look-Ka Py Py’? None; not a bit. But does it groove? Does it make me want to dance or tap my feet? Yes? Cool – turn it up.
Argument #7 – It is talentless
For anyone other than Watson, whose conspiratorial leanings we will leave for argument #8, this is often the key point. Real musicians play their instruments; real musicians write their own material; real musicians write songs that matter, man… Watson replays the admittedly amusing youtube clip of Kanye West vs. Freddie Mercury, in a particularly spurious bit of argumentation.
Freddie is a great singer, Kanye isn’t. But this straw man shouldn’t fool anyone. Kanye never claimed to be a great singer. However, what he is, is a great producer and a decent enough rapper/lyricist. Every album Kanye has produced has shown a great sense of texture and mood. Even his use of autotune is an intentional devise to create distance and a sense of alienation is his music. Sure, his instruments are different to Mercury’s, and that’s OK. All music is simply the manipulation of sound waves in fashions that are interesting or appealing to the listener insofar as they evoke something. It doesn’t matter at all whether the instrument is a piano, a guitar, a keyboard, a sampler, or a pile of rocks. If the musician is capable of evoking something to the listener, they are talented. To say otherwise is to reveal a prejudice that lacks justification. Furthermore, any serious listen to West’s work will reveal an artist closely attuned to the musical dynamics of his craft within his specific genre. It is not coincidental that Kanye has won a bucketload of accolades from a wide array of serious music magazines and websites.
Argument #8 – It is only popular because of repetition
Being a full-blooded conspiracy theorist, this is where Watson jumps off the crazy end. He refers to the fact that record companies use complex algorithms to predict future trends and thus saturate all media streams, creating, as he puts it (admittedly nicely), a musical Stockholm Syndrome.
I’ve no doubt that there is some truth to this. But there is a defect to his argument – what about the more serious music listener, who a) listens to, and enjoys, a wide array of music beyond pop music; and b) isn’t so exposed to the various media streams. For instance, I don’t listen to music radio or spotify. I only listen to music that I physically buy, and I buy a wide range of music. Right now, I am listening to Can’s ‘Future Days’ – decidedly not pop music. I buy music on the basis of recommendations and reviews, and predictably, some I like and some I dislike. In the last year or so, I have bought several albums from the artists that Watson disparages; Beyoncé (self-titled, awesome), Taylor Swift (‘1989’, alright), Rihanna (‘Anti’, pretty good), Kanye (‘The Life of Pablo’, mostly alright, occasionally excellent), Nicki Minaj (‘The Pinkprint’, mostly meh, occasionally alright). Now, why do I like some of them but not others? And just as importantly given earlier arguments, how can I tell them apart?
Why is it that I continue to go back to, say, Beyoncé’s album, when I have so many other albums available that Watson would approve of? The simple answer is that they do something that the Smiths, or Pink Floyd, or The Beatles don’t do. They make me feel different things. As such, they have a place in my heart and my record collection. Modern pop music occupies a place in the musical palette that is distinct and has the same capacity to be exciting and thrilling as any other genre of music. As such, it deserves to be treated as seriously as anything else.