Defending the Not So Innocent by Jonny Steiner

Posted: May 18, 2008 by Maximum Mike in The Rocking Chair Blog
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It’s okay to like Pop Music. Seriously. I have defended my favorite Pop artists to friends who thought their musical tastes too sophisticated. It is frustrating that people refuse to allow themselves to enjoy Pop Music simply because it is mass produced and trendy. Yes, there is a large cadre of artists who prove that point, who make music for the masses to consume without any thought as to what is behind it. At the same time there are artists who have found their creative voice in a style of music that happens to sell well. It takes tremendous luck to make it as a Pop Star, and it takes a Madonna/David Bowie-like ability to shift images with each new release, to stay on top. The point being that Pop Music, while seemingly focused on consumerism and brainlessness, has substance in it. It just needs to be teased out delicately because for every Depeche Mode there are a thousand Flock of Seagulls.

Pop Music is not a genre per-se; it is a type of music characterized by large sales and chart domination. Today the term includes Rap and R&B. It arose in the 50s and 60s as an alternative to Rock & Roll. Basing its style and structure on Rock, Pop was smoother and more listenable. The songs themselves were traditionally short, less than five minutes, and concentrated on the repetitive verse/chorus/bridge song structure. Famously eschewing their Progressive Rock roots and entering the Pop Music sphere, Genesis’ 1981 hit “ABACAB” was a take on this form. The song’s title refers to the basic Pop structure, part-a part-b part-a again and so on.To many this album signified the death of a truly great band, to others it signified their acceptance of the mainstream and showcased the band’s ability to reach out to a broader audience.Former Genesis singer Peter Gabriel used his freedom from the band to venture into his Pop dreams, crafting lighter, more focused, but equally imaginative music. People argue that when a band ascends the ladder of Stardom, they inevitably alienate their die-hard fans for an appreciation of a larger audience. This may be seen as the case with Genesis and its spin-off solo artists who all made names for themselves making Pop Music; one even won an Academy Award (Phil Collins – “You’ll be in my Heart – Tarzan.”) On the other hand, Blink-182 signed to a major label for their fourth album, and the music did not change a bit. It was better produced to be sure, but still retained the same adrenaline-filled teenage Punk that earned them their early acclaim. The minute they released “Enema of the State” in 1999 and entered the mainstream, all of my friends who were huge Punk fans decided that they could no longer support Blink-182, and threw away their copies of “Dude Ranch”.

It is the mass appeal and pervading digestibility that runs the music industry, and causes many music fans to turn away arguing that those who are popular now are less artistic than ever, only doing what industry executives dictate. A good example of this is The Offspring. Between their break-out record “Smash” to their follow up “Ixnay on the Hombre” the band moved from Epitaph Records to Columbia. That label switch also found their music change from Heavy Metal-influenced Hardcore Punk, to standard Hard Rock. Would the band that wrote songs like “Kick Him When He’s Down” and “Beheaded” have written a power ballad like “Gone Away” if they were still with Epitaph? Probably not.The term sell-out was written for times like this when artists turned their back on their past in order to presumably make more money. That is not to say that the opposite is not true. Famed 80’s band Talk Talk, who are remembered now mostly for the Gwen Stefani remake of their classic “It’s My Life”, started out riding on the tails of Duran Duran and the other New Romantics. (The term refers to a sleek, perfectly produced danceable type of Pop Music, combined with heavy make-up and fashionable stage garb.) After achieving a fair amount of success on their first two releases, Talk Talk reinvented themselves. By embracing Jazz, Ambient, and other music styles, they created a wholly unique sound that distanced them from their peers and began to alienate them from their record label.

The other side of selling-out is the number of acts who start as viable products and continue in that vein throughout their career. Take Brittany Spears, who can hardly be considered original, but can be credited (for better or worse) with bringing back Teen Pop in a big way. She was the first in the endless wave of Boy Bands and Pop Singers who sprang up around the turn of the century. Additionally, Creed became the driving force in late 90s Hard Rock, and they influenced a generation of imitators like Nickelback and Hinder who seemed to spring up one after another in an industry that will forget them as soon as their profit margins slip. This is not a knock on the artists themselves, but an industry that is only too eager to drain the artistry from the music. It was rapper Ice-T who said it best on his track “Hate the Playa”: “I don’t know why a player wanna hate T/ I didn’t choose the game, the game chose me”. We cannot fault the multitude of acts that all seem the same for trying to become rich and famous, but take Kelly Clarkson for example. A media darling with two platinum albums and two Grammy Awards, Kelly famously feuded with RCA head Clive Davis over the direction of her third album (My December, 2007), and as a result her label refused to promote it and cancelled her tour. (She is already working on follow up.)

There are plenty of artists who sell a lot of records and are truly talented individuals. Aside from the obvious Madonnas and Michael Jacksons, people seem to forget that for a while in the 80s George Michael was just as popular. It was not just the perfect dance pop he created with Wham!, his debut album “Faith” is a classic, blending Dance and R&B elements into a more adult sound. It’s smooth and listenable and shows how truly vocally talented Michael is. Recently, the band Keane became stars with a largely piano driven sound that shimmers with its maturity and poise.Depeche Mode have been making dark electronically driven Pop for nearly 25 years, and with their 2005 release “Playing the Angel” showed no signs of age in their abilities. Steve Winwood is still making great albums more than 25 years after his classic “Arc of a Diver.” There is so much beautiful music out there; it is a shame that people adamantly refuse to go out to find it.

What I am listening to: K.D. Lang – Absolute Torch and Twang

At the peak of her Nashville faze, Lang had found her voice in a decidedly more Pop oriented Country music. Her voice is supple and strong with just a hint of smoke, and it’s truly astonishing that such a sound can come from a person. It is a strong batch of songs and worth listening to if only for the voice, but the music stands on its own as well.

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