In Defense of Pop Music
Katy Perry is not a musician – and that’s okay.
With songs like “Timber,” “Dark Horse,” and “Story of My Life” dominating the charts week after week, “serious” music fans are quick to bemoan the death of modern music. They decry society for letting label-manufactured pop acts take over the airwaves and recall the good ole days when “real” artists like Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan were marketable, successful acts.1
These are easy arguments to make.
It’s not difficult to point out Selena Gomez’ dearth of talent, or the fact that Taylor Swift has reached a point in her musical career where she just talks in her songs. Looking at the success of these artists compared to the likes of Sunbather, The National, or Neko Case – all of whom released inspired albums in 2013 without breaking through to mainstream success – music critics are quick to draw the line between “good” indie music and “bad” mainstream pop. However, drawing this distinction does an injustice to music fans and musical artists. Pop music is good, it just may not be your favorite kind of good.
Now before you click on that picture of puppies and stop reading, hear me out a little. There is an inherent value in pop music that tends to get overlooked by most people when everyone’s deciding what music is “good” and what music is “bad.” One crucial element of that value is fun. There is no denying that Katy Perry songs constitute fun music. Or that when “We Are Never Getting Back Together” comes on, everyone is singing along – even that one guy who swore he had never heard a “Taylor Whatsherface” song in his life. Isn’t that worth something? Isn’t fun good?
As a person who spends 75 percent of his waking hours plugged into some sort of music, I can personally say there have been times when I just needed to hear something fun. There’s something ineffable and exhilarating to simply letting go and screaming a song at the top of your lungs with your friends driving around town – and pop music, more than any other music, has the potential to create this situation.2
On a bad day when everything seems to be working against you, a disgustingly sweet pop song can momentarily lift you from a funk. On a good day when everything is going your way, that same song has the power to echo your happiness. That’s not to say you couldn’t maybe find a David Bowie or Chrvrches song that does the same. However, those songs, songs with deeper meaning and content, often do not express the specific type of pure, unadulterated joy that comes from something as uncomplicated as “Call Me Maybe.” Yes, even with something as seemingly important as thoughtfulness, sometimes less is more.
Beyond the simple “fun factor,” there is another quality to be valued in cheesy pop music, a trait that makes many music connoisseurs cringe: marketability. Now I know what you’re thinking, “Why should I like a song because it’s marketable? Isn’t that just praising something for catering the lowest common denominator?” Well anonymous reader voice, those are two very good questions. Allow me to answer your second question first.
In a way, admiring a song for being marketable is just praise for something having LCD (lowest common denominator appeal). Pop songs that blow up do tend to get a lot of mainstream support from “less intelligent” people, as those who subscribe to LCD Theory would call them. However, for a song to be truly successful, it cannot simply appeal to the base of society. It must also appeal to the “common” person, the “above average” person, and even the top of society. Consider a song like “Timber,” which has spent 18 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, many of those weeks in the top 10. A song like that doesn’t merely find success by appealing to the base of society. No. It infiltrates institutions of higher learning, boardrooms, dance clubs, and everywhere in between. That’s not just impressive, it’s amazing.
For every bit of criticism that comes for pop songs that are considered to be “manufactured,” there should be an element of respect as well; someone or some group sat in a room and created something they said would make millions of dollars in an industry known for consistently chewing up and spitting out creations – and then they did. The idea that someone could have the insight to understand what song will succeed, create that song, and then actually have it dominate our culture is a remarkable feat that should not go unrecognized. That may not make for the most inspired music, but it’s sure as hell impressive, and we can’t discredit that.
Pop music will be around forever. No matter what form it takes, it will exist and it will succeed. Its power is inherent in the name: pop(ular) music. So before you go bashing every Miley Cyrus song you hear or pretend to throw up when Taylor Swift comes on, think about what that music accomplishes. Whether you’re able to Let It Go (sorry, too easy) and join in the fun, or simply respect a brilliantly-crafted product, there’s something in pop music for everyone.