Thanks for Nothing, Pop

If only I hadn’t played my parents’ music

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Pop music remains amongst the most accessible and inclusive cultural conversations because, for the past half-century, it hasn’t really changed. In 1967, for example, I Think We’re Alone Now took Tommy James and the Shondells to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and then twenty years later, with negligible updating, Tiffany to #1. Then there’s Lana Del Rey—if she’s not the reincarnation of Patsy Cline, who is? Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound approach to producing persists as a load-bearing pillar of modern commercial rock. How did Oasis rise to the fame of the Beatles? By mimicking the Beatles.

And so on. The genre is built on patterns endlessly repeated, but for good reason: for generations, they have elicited favourable emotional, and therefore retail, responses. For many critics, this is pop’s artistic failing: It lacks imagination, innovation, and ingenuity.

This summer, that viewpoint was validated, at least quantitatively, by a study published in Nature. Through analysis of the Million Song Dataset (a library of song descriptions created, in part, to encourage investigation of the human relationship with music), Barcelona-based researchers announced that pop has indeed been virtually static for decades. In fact, the group concluded, its variety has never been more restricted: “Much of the gathered evidence points towards… blockage or no evolution in the creation and production of contemporary western popular music.” Looking at songs from 1955 to 2010, they discovered that melodies and arrangements have become simpler, variation in instrumentation and other aspects of tone has decreased, and, somewhat obnoxiously, songs have become louder.

What this means is that, on the whole, the industry has recognized people don’t expect much of pop music. Instead, it makes a promise that’s easily fulfilled: it will simply always be there, prattling on in the background, noticeable only when we choose to notice it, rather than ever reaching to grab our attention. And we’re probably all better off because of this. We hum along to familiar (even if new) songs during the commute, talk above the innocuous satellite stream over drinks after work, and essentially treat modern music as a homogenous soundtrack to the unfolding of lives spent building foundations for starting families then raising them, paying down mortgages, and fattening up retirement portfolios.

But what if you don’t get pop, and so fail to connect with what the researchers call “a key cultural expression”?

This worries me, to the point of advocating for musical misfits of the future to embrace pop, or at least to not let themselves be badly distracted by its alternatives. The Spanish study has helped me reach an unwelcome conclusion: My anti-pop sensibilities, and so my exclusion from that broader conversation, are to blame for my mountainous mortgage, an assured and significant delay of retirement, and current priorities that promise no foreseeable resolution for either.

Cindy Lauper's She So Unusual cover

Looking to my earliest musical memory, when I was eight, how it’s all come to this point surprises me. On Christmas morning, 1983, my parents gave me what I now see was a guide to better living, encoded on a spool of magnetic tape. Maybe it was because I’d been spending so much time flipping through their LPs, carefully dropping the needle on the likes of David Bowie, Prince, even dad’s copy of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, that Cindy Lauper’s She’s So Unusual lay waiting for me beneath the tree. They’d noticed I’d taken an interest, but perhaps thought mainstreaming was in order—Lauper’s record was poised to sell sixteen million copies, with Girls Just Wanna Have Fun on worldwide repeat.

If all had gone well, that tape would have led me to Huey Lewis, probably Bon Jovi, maybe the hits off The Joshua Tree (certainly nothing from its shadowy latter half). Come the nineties, I’d slide into the sonic safety of Counting Crows, Spin Doctors, Hootie and the Blowfish, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and, if feeling feisty, Pearl Jam, as well as everything else looping on the radio station favoured at the office where I ought to have been working by 2000 or so, but wasn’t.

For that, I blame a 1981 K-Tel compilation I found in the glove box of dad’s GMC Jimmy after I’d set aside Lauper and started searching again. On this compilation was Closer to the Heart by Rush, the track that sent me down the path less travelled. I ingested the band’s back catalogue, picked up bass in high school because of it, and spent much of those three years in friends’ basements failing to learn riffs note for note. The intricacy of the music demanded that of me, demanded to be felt physically in the tips of my fingers. Thereafter, I craved the same connection with everything I heard; pop couldn’t provide that. College radio did, with its complex indie rock. Like Rush, these bands elevated the art of music for me, gave it a corrupting depth and richness. And in that way music can define you, it made me expect the same of everything else in life. In the same way I lost time to seeking out the extraordinary in music (and, to this day, trying to create it in a series of hopelessly unpopular bands), I was lured into thinking this applied to other aspects of life. I travelled to search for the extraordinary months at a stretch, pointlessly putting off a stable career.

The irony, of course, is that none of it pointed me toward an epiphany I could capitalize upon, in the way that an artist, equipped with sensitivity and intelligence, might. So here I am, extraordinary only because, as a nearly forty-year-old nine-to-fiver, I’ve yet to save enough money to support a single year of retirement.

I admit these are perhaps the problems of the privileged, but a preference for pop music probably would have prevented them just the same. In his 2006 book This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin sees art as having the “power” to connect us “to larger truths about what it means to be alive and what it means to be human.” Music is part of that. To lose yourself in music, then, can be dangerous; it means losing yourself in those truths, or in the search for them. Pop, to its credit, lets the listener in only so far, because of its rigidity and limited capacity (which is not the same thing as abundance). Pop music allows you to wade through it in relatively safety, even feel refreshed or invigorated by it, without ever worrying about being carried away by a strong current.

And so what, I wonder, awaits the future misfits of anti-pop allegiance. My wonderful and well-meaning wife, thirty-seven weeks pregnant as I write, has been exposing our daughter to the joyful chaos of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, of Montreal’s sonic acrobatics, and to George Harrison Beatles’ songs—the outliers, I’d say, of that Spanish study. Levitin also describes in his book how we arrive at musical preferences. Newborns recognize songs heard while in the womb, from as early as twenty weeks. That familiarity, he explains, can determine what music we’ll ultimately understand and prefer.

As parents, do we not want to save our children from the ignominy of ending up just like us? Is this not a guiding directive, lest our own mistakes have been made in vain? What’s going to happen when, a few months from now, those songs play again? I worry our new little girl will turn to the speakers and, with one toothless grin, one mischievous giggle, deny the power of pop music to gently carry her towards common, sensible, respectable goals. At that point, what more will there be to do but wait to see just how complicated, how consuming, she’ll need her truths to be?

Part of me hopes not very. But another part of me—the same part my parents may have been trying to save me from, the part that still makes life seem so rich with possibility as to be kaleidoscopically unfocused—can’t wait to hear what she chooses to hear. All the same, I’m going to keep the glove box empty.

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