Pop It Like It’s Hot!
Hello, my name is Chris, and I like pop. No, not Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus, both of whom I would consider teen pop, but pop more broadly. In fact, let’s get something out of the way: you like pop too. Or if you don’t, man, you’re missing out. There is a lot of great pop, if we define pop by features rather than record sales. Pop is relatively simple in its structure, clean and clear, usually with catchy hooks, and more often than not, fun. For the most part, pop is not music you need to listen to deeply, though some pop rewards careful and repeated listenings. Some pop is just fun, and that’s OK, because sometimes fun is all we want, right?
Within pop, there is a continuum of accessibility. At one end you have music that, while it has the features described above, may only appeal to small subsets of listeners. The song above, for example, might not appeal to people who don’t like electronic music, or who find the sorts of vocal manipulations it employs annoying. On the other end, there is the music that sells a bazillion albums because it’s perfectly innocuous and is designed to promote a person rather than the music itself. In between these two is a bunch of wonderful music, a bunch of God-awful music, and a bunch of stuff in between the two.
For those of us who like more “serious” music and pop at the same time, the last decade has been pretty damn good. More and more the lines between the two are blurred, or at the very least, more and more pop artists are operating at the fringes of pop where it borders on “serious.” My own theory about why this is is pretty simple. In hip hop, traffic between the underground and the mainstream is constantly flowing, such that, while hip hop fans can tell the difference, space between the two is minimal, and the stigma of “making it,” issues with “selling out” aside, is seriously diminished. As a result, there are some really, really good artists who are smack dab in the middle of the hip hop mainstream: old school folks like Dre and Snoop (OK, there’s a little bit of Snoop in this post), newer artists like Kanye and Kendrick Lamar, an moguls like Jay-Z, who as an incredibly influential rapper, considered one of the best of all time by many, has a net worth is somewhere in the neighborhood of half-a-bil.
Warning, there be bad words herein.
As pop music has become more and more influenced by hip hop, some of the ethos of being good enough for the underground but appealing enough for the mainstream has carried over, and really talented artists who, in the 90s, might have wanted Mudhoney levels of anti-success, now let Old Navy or Apple use their songs.
So for the rest of the post, I’m going to present you with some artists whom I think most people would consider pop, and whose music I generally enjoy (some of whom have Apple commercials).
You probably know Feist from this song (Apple commercial!), which even made Sesame Street, and I can’t lie, I like that song (though I have heard it so much that I don’t ever need to hear it again). But she’s a lot more than that song.
Feist ort of a more whimsical, accessible Cat Power (who is also pop, but with an edge that makes her OK for “serious” folk to be caught listening to). She makes catchy, danceable tunes, stuff you’re probably not going to be listening to 20 years from now (except when it comes on the retro station, and you experience a moment of nostalgia), but that you can listen to a lot now without it getting old (unless you hear it every 5 minute, like “1234”).
Jessie Ware is even more straight up pop: serious love songs that get stuck in your head instantly, by an artist who doesn’t take herself at all seriously (watch her roll her eyes at herself). Oh, and damn can she sing. I actually discovered Ware listening to non-pop, or at least fringe pop:
Because, again, this is the age of fluid boundaries. Ware can make “Wildest Moments” one day, and “Nervous” the next:
And SBTRKT, who is considered an up-and-comer in the electronic scene, can work with pop artists like Ware and Drake without thinking twice. Or with Little Dragon:
Who, on their own, make something called “dream pop”:
Airy and fun, but with texture. It’s like M83 without the Depeche Mode nostalgia. And speaking of M83, if this had been recorded in 1985, as it was clearly meant to be, it would have been pop:
I can’t lie: I love that song. It’s the sort of tune that tempts to get up and dance like a fool in the privacy of my own home every time I hear it. It’s what pop is supposed to be: fun.
And speaking of fun, I’m particularly fond of Santigold, whom I’ve talked up here before, and who makes irresistible gems like this:
Alongside playful silliness like this:
Oh, and I have whole Regina Spektor days:
If this isn’t pop, nothing is, but listen to it again:
So we made the hard decision
And we each made an incision
Past our muscles and our bones
Saw our hearts were little stones
Pulled ’em out, they weren’t beating
And we weren’t even bleeding
As we lay them on our granite counter top
We beat ’em up against each other
We beat ’em up against each other
We struck ’em hard against each other
We struck ’em so hard, so hard ’til they sparked.
A relationship has clearly grown stale and cold amid the monotony of everyday life, resulting in mutual resentment, plays out in a kitchen conversation. It’s not Shakespeare, but if you’ve ever been in such a relationship — I know I have — the song likely rings true. It has an emotional depth that you’re not supposed to find in pop. Oh, and it’s catchy as hell.
Spektor is a prolific songwriter, hit or miss like most pop artists, but with a pretty wide range: love, God, sex, youth, made-up words:
Difficult vocal tricks:
And Guns ‘n’ Roses references:
All in the form of catchy, seriously un-serious tunes. She is the anti-Decemberists. Classically trained, a skilled musician with a little bit of a Bohemian flair, neatly packaged in a way that works great on Saturday Night Live, pop radio, adult contemporary radio, a commercial, at an emotional moment in a movie or TV show, or in your headphones when you want to hear something light but worthy of actually paying attention to.
I can get something similar with Yael Naem:
Or Sara Bareilles:
And that last one reminds me of something else that’s great about pop. Most of what I’ve played so far is pop you’d probably listen to by yourself, maybe in the car, maybe in your headphones as you eat breakfast, or as you’re walking through the grocery store, that sort of thing. But there is another context for which pop music is perfect. I’m thinking of the time when you’re falling for someone, or falling for them again, and you’re just sitting their looking into each others eyes, soaking each other in. You don’t want music that’s going to distract you from that, but you want music that might heighten it without having to listen closely. Enter pop!
In such a context, when Michaelson says “I love the way you call me baby,” if you don’t melt into each others arms, you’re doing it wrong. (If you’re from my generation and you don’t have a crush on Michaelson yet, how ’bout now?) And for Michaelson’s sake, I’ll point out that she does have other songs:
This song works well in the same context:
Or maybe some Rilo Kiley:
You just need something sweet (even a little sad, because there’s nothing like a sad love song to remind one of the urgency of the moment), something to provide form to the charged emotional temporal space of burgeoning love and growing passion that, left alone, might become amorphous, confusing, or overeager and rushed; something that releases the right chemicals at the right time, without having to think about anything but the eyes and lips in front of you. Pop is perfect!
I could go on and on and on (and on, and on… ), but I’ll stop here. Look, I can give you art music, I can give you serious electronic music or rock. We can do jazz, or roots blues, talented singer songwriters, political folk, or whatever you like. When it comes to music, I’m pretty much infinitely flexible, and that’s not by accident. Music, and art in general, it seems to me, are about context, and music in particular should be listened to at the right moment — a moment defined by place, people, and emotional states. Sometimes the moment calls for catchy, simple tunes that aren’t meant to uplift the spirit so much as keep you right there. And there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.
So I hope you find something in here that you like. If not, I can always try again. Or maybe someone will have something in comments that’s even better. And maybe someday you’ll decide pop ain’t so bad.