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Thursday, February 24, 2011
I got into an argument with some of my colleagues today.
O.K. they weren't exactly my colleagues.
O.K. they were my students.
O.K. they were 6th graders!!! What's your point? ANYWAY!
The argument centered around the definition of what pop music is. I am amazed at how history is rewritten by the miseducation of our youth. It's no wonder we don't appreciate healthy eating, good acting, good singing, or anything else impirically awesome until we're adults and we've taught ourselves what so many before us already knew: that when you're a kid - your perspective is OFF.
I didn't want to believe this when I was a kid either, of course. When I was younger, I actually thought Voltron was a cartoon intended for adults, but I was mature enough to appreciate it. I actually thought the Dukes of Hazzard was a brilliant metaphor for the fall of American democracy (it wasn't). I actually thought that Knight Rider was the coolest show ever and well . . . look at it now. Cornball Central.
It's funny how when we grow up, we look back on things we thought were so cool and now to us they seem ridiculous. How many of you ladies out there idolized New Kids on the Block, bearing the derision of your parents and the haters, just to grow up and look back to say, "what was I thinking?" It's an old tale.
However, (here comes my adult moment . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . ) THESE KIDS TODAY . . . ! Back to the 6th Grade argument.
I asked my students to make a list of songs they would like to work on and possibly perform. I left the door wide open to most any suggestion (as long as it was appropriate). What I got back was not a surprise - a list of hundreds of pop songs.
I love pop music. I teach pop music. However, when I started naming some of the pop songs, they got upset.
Me: "O.K. Another request for pop star Taylor Swift."
Swift Fan: "SHE'S NOT POP!!! SHE'S COUNTRY!!!"
Me: "O.K., the 3,235th request for a Justin Bieber song."
Bieber Fan: "I DON'T LIKE THE WAY YOU SAY HIS NAME."
Me: "O.K., interesting - a request for a James Taylor song."
JT Fan: "YEAH, AND HE'S NOT POP."
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, may I submit that all of the above artists, while they do sing different styles of songs, are ALL POPULAR ARTISTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Don't get me wrong, I understand the distinction they're trying to make - POP refers to boy bands, and electronic music on KISS 108FM, and songs that are in the top of the charts. We love to label our music - Alternative (what a joke), Punk (debatable these days), Emo (really?), Trip-Hop, Hardcore, Grunge, Garage, Pop-Rock, Gangsta, Conscious, R&B, Soul, Neo-Soul, etc. etc. etc. ALL TO AVOID THE ONE LABEL THAT NO ONE WANTS TO BE AFFILIATED WITH - the one that seems to have become a bad word in music:
Snobs would like to define pop music as identifiable simple melodies, very catchy lyrics, meant to capture the imagination and tastes of a multitude of people.
However, "pop" is short for "popular." Popular is a reference to people. In other words, any music made for the people to appreciate is popular - yes even Classical music. I mean, let's face it, some Classical music isn't very difficult and is very catchy, meant to capture the imagination and taste of lots of people. Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" is about as pop as it gets. The entirety of the 9th Symphony - not so much - and in there lies the distinction.
I would never regard the complete work of Beethoven as "pop music." It's more than that. However, I also would never say that pop music is not a part of his work.
Some artists write music for themselves - regardless of what the public would think - and sometimes end up being never discovered. That ain't pop.
Some artists write music for themselves - regardless of what the public would think - and end up being loved by countless masses anyway. That ain't pop either.
However, if you're an artist who writes music and you do regard what the public thinks (and that's EVERYONE ON THE RADIO), regardless of whether they love you back or not, you're pop. When you put your art and soul on the line (like that? "art and soul" - I made that up!), and you require a reaction from people, it makes you an artist for people, not just for you. That to me is the true definition of a popular artist. This is not a bad thing at all.
And I also believe it's the fabric of the magic of life. When we share with one another, something indescribable occurs, and it only happens with each other - not when we're alone. We need each other in order to experience the beauty of not just art, but life.
Making art is a compulsion.
Sharing art is a scary risk.
Enjoying art is magic. Without the people listening, there's no magic.
So if we're listening, and the artist cares (they must care if they're on TV and selling me their records!), then they are popular artists, or "pop stars" for short. Sorry 6th grade - you all like pop music. But don't worry, you're in good company.
Viva La Pop!
P.S. - not a Bieber fan, but not a hater either!
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I'm sorry David, but I think I have to side with your students on this one, at least to an extent.
If you go by the phrase "popular music," yes, it encompasses everything that's been written or performed and is loved by countless masses. (I'm not sure I agree with your exception for music that the artist wrote for him or herself, I think if it's loved by masses, it's popular either way).
The problem, though, is that while it's descriptive, it's no longer definitional. It's not helpful as a genre anymore if pop music encompasses everything that has lots of fan, because it's basically dividing things into good music and bad music. Popular and unpopular. Categories that could be useful at times but hardly helpful finding a CD on the shelf or a radio station you'd like.
Which isn't to say that narrower definitions of pop music are necessarily helpful either, because people can and do debate whether Taylor Swift is country or pop, what's Shania Twain (oh, some albums of her are pop and others are country?), etc. But at least with the categories you listed, there's more of an identity to the genre.
Come on Eileen, Jessie's Girl, Video Killed the Radio Song, Love Shack, etc., all great songs, definitely popular then and popular now, but if I wanted to find it in a CD store, I wouldn't look for them in a pop section, I'd look for 80s music. Weird Al is one hell of a musician, and he's outlasted most of the groups he's parodied, but I wouldn't look for him in pop, I'd look for a comedy or novelty section. Peter, Paul and Mary are certainly popular, they've had lots of songs on the Billboard charts, they are probably among the most iconic folk singers in American history, and they've been referenced in pop culture on everything from Seinfeld to Meet the Parents to Saved by the Bell, but would I look for Album 1700 in the pop section? No, I'd look for the folk section, or the folk/world music section that some lesser stores seem to have. :P
The definition of pop music has shifted over time, and while I truly, truly hate citing Wikipedia, I think the article on pop music does a decent job described the term's definitional shift from your definition of "having popular appeal" to youth music style to a pop v. rock division to a more negative, modern definition given by sociologist Simon Frith: "pop music is produced 'as a matter of enterprise not art', is 'designed to appeal to everyone' and 'doesn't come from any particular place or mark off any particular taste'. It is 'not driven by any significant ambition except profit and commercial reward ... and, in musical terms, it is essentially conservative'. It is, 'provided from on high (by record companies, radio programmers and concert promoters) rather than being made from below ... Pop is not a do-it-yourself music but is professionally produced and packaged'.["
Even if you don't subscribe to Frith's views, at the least, a certain shunning of the pop label isn't just a generational 6th grade sort of thing.
Gah. All of that, citing Wikipedia which I hate, and I forgot to give the link. Doh. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pop_music
Thank you Jed for such a thoughtful response. I have to agree that the real argument is syntax and semantics. And while I understand that this is not a new phenomenon with this generation, it is increasingly becoming problematic that they think Michael Jackson's "Earth Song" is classical music.
You should hear their take on the world of music - it's equally funny, fantastic, and scary. It makes me wonder that I'm not already guilty of what I'm analyzing.
lol. Earth Song as classical? Funny, fantastic and scary seems like a good way of describing that.
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