Pop music is not high art. It is not Classical virtuosos, eclectic palettes for refined tastes, or subculture signaling. Popular music is mass-market recordings that have broad appeal, speak to the emotions of young people, and are occasionally sublime. They amplify a mood and — this being pop music’s tautologically defining quality — they are played in the public space.
Every year is The Current Year
In the current year, you ask yourself: am I too old to get contemporary pop music? After some thought, my answer is: irrelevant question, if you aren’t locked in solipsism.
Every era has its cultural artifacts, as well as its classics. Let’s use 1983 as an example. I was watching MTV and Quiet Riot’s “Come On Feel The Noise” came on. Anyone remember that song? My parents didn’t like it: “Where is the vocal talent, good lyrics and melody?” I learned later that as members of the Silent generation, they didn’t care much for the Rolling Stones back in their day either, but liked Elvis, Paul Anka and Dean Martin. However, also in ’83, we were doing a jigsaw puzzle together as my Pyromania tape played in the background. “Foolin” was playing and mom said: “That’s a really good song.”
She recognized a classic, and she was right. If you are perceptive, you’ll feel in its verses a dream-realm wonder similar to that in “Für Elise.” The point is, that Quiet Riot was an artifact of its time and as such, not only was it empty noise to older people, but it has also since been forgotten by its contemporary audience — early-teens like I was then. Yet every era also has its timeless songs. So, are there any recently released greats? Honest question.
Amplifying the mood
I experienced two contrasting musical scenes at different venues. In the morning, we went with friends to a chic breakfast place where the songs were either soft rock originals or excellent but unfamiliar to me covers. I heard “Nothing Compares 2 U” (cover), “I Wanna Know What Love Is” (original), “Against All Odds” (cover) and similar. It was one of those days when you’re grateful to be alive.
Later that day, we went to an outdoor ice skating rink where the music was current Billboard Top 40, I guess. Same crap that’s played at the gym. The vocalists sounded black but can you even reliably tell that’s the case, if you’re unable to identify Justin Timberlake’s voice? The music lacked the aggressiveness of Hip-Hop or the caterwaul of R&B, but one song after another sounded alike: pussy-begging in a flat high-register voice, modulated with Auto-Tune.
As the atmosphere at the ice rink went, everyone was having fun but the music was like a nearby buzzing electrical transformer: nobody paid attention to it. Hey, as a point of comparison — in 1983 when the right song at the roller-skate center came on, the girls squealed and jostled out onto the floor. No girls were squealing at the 2018 ice rink.
Light up the White Energy, it occurred to me. Diversity was minimal, the ice rink was bright with the faces of healthy teenagers. The girleens would have come alive to Avril Lavigne’s I’m With You. (Love that “yeah-yeah-yeah? yeah-yeah?” thingy she does). I swear, I’d use a more current example if I knew of one.
“Keep it tasteful for now.”
A word on black music. For reasons that are too esoteric to get into, I once passed through a town in northwestern Tennessee, humming Dwight Yoakam’s “Thousand Miles From Nowhere” as I drove. This was midnight, 1995. With a cigarette in my hand I searched for radio stations, hoping to get lucky and catch Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” but instead, found a vintage Blues song. I left it on because the ghost of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who still watches over his folk in that little town, listened with me and because that recording, which lasted as long as the night, was a different kind of Clair de lune.
Blacks created enjoyable songs when appropriating European forms: Scots-Irish ballads became reinterpreted as Blues, marching bands inspired Jazz, church hymns were Africanized into Gospel. They had to be told to perform to White tastes, though. Indubitably, a dawn-of-rock-‘n-roll recording studio (((boss))) would tell his wild troubadours: “This ain’t a bonobo orgy, boys. Keep it tasteful for now. We’ll let you grind in a couple of decades.”
I like some black pop songs. For example, and let’s skip Michael Jackson as he’s complicated, I enjoy their Disco era stuff. Even if you don’t dance, you’ll move to Boney M’s Daddy Cool when the keyboard kicks in. The video for Kool & The Gang’s Cherish shows blacks at their best and the song is nice. Prince’s “Purple Rain” is a great song.
A life’s arc or cycles?
There are two ways of thinking about popular music. One, is that its golden age went from roughly 1975 to 1995, birthed in the Dionysian supernova of the Seventies, then through the Apollonian glam of Eighties’ pop and heavy metal, terminating with the Dionysian swan song of early 1990s’ Use Your Illusion and Grunge.
Or, popular music goes through an endless cycle of yin and yang, with each generation expressing its collective pathos in its own way. As U2’s Bono put it a couple of weeks ago:
I think music has gotten very girly. And there are some good things about that, but hip-hop is the only place for young male anger at the moment – and that’s not good. When I was 16, I had a lot of anger in me. You need to find a place for it and for guitars, whether it is with a drum machine – I don’t care. The moment something becomes preserved, it is fucking over. You might as well put it in formaldehyde. In the end, what is rock & roll? Rage is at the heart of it. Some great rock & roll tends to have that, which is why The Who were such a great band. Or Pearl Jam. Eddie has that rage… It will return.
Pearl Jam’s 1992 performance of “Black” at the PinkPop festival, specifically the song’s heart-ripping outro, is the howl of our generation. Millennials listened to Insane Clown Posse and Eminem in their formative years. Generation Zyklon will speak for itself.