The Problem with Pop

I recently lamented on Facebook about Katy Perry’s new single “Last Friday Night.” I heard it for the first time driving to my internship one morning a few weeks ago, and I listened to it the entire way through convinced it was Ke$ha (and I am silently cursing Ke$ha for making me write a name that looks like it was ripped off of a thirteen year-old’s AIM account).

As I said in my Facebook lament, it’s not like I thought Katy Perry was a shining beacon of high-quality music before I mistook her for Ke$ha (the only thing the latter’s a shining beacon of, based on her songs and videos, being partying and getting wasted). But I was still disturbed by the fact that a slightly-better-than pop musician had apparently sunk to the more Ke$ha-like level of “Wait, how is she making music?”

At least, slightly-better-than in my opinion. Which is an admission that, I fear, may discount this entire post. But I’ll press on anyway.

The problem with pop artists is that they aren’t artists. They’re products. Shiny, plastic, glossy, digitally-enhanced products of the multi-billion dollar pop music industry. I heard a story from the Planet Money team on NPR about how producing one single can cost upwards of $1 million, and producers are shelling out thousands before the “artist” even gets into the studio, which is only after picking his/her favorite song from the plethora written by highly-paid songwriters. That also bothers me; how can these people be getting so much money for writing such bad songs?

This last thought makes me wonder if my problem is with the lyrics. I think, partly, it is. The lyrics for “Last Friday Night” don’t represent anything meaningful. This is not a song about inner struggle; it’s not an honest ballad about love and loss; it doesn’t even make an attempt to employ interesting imagery. It’s about partying all night and waking up the next day, severly hungover and surrounded by blacked-out strangers. Like I said, Ke$ha would be proud. Or maybe Ke$ha doesn’t care about the stuff she sings, as long as the producers are paying her.

So there’s another problem: along with the poor lyrical quality of most “chart-topping” pop songs I hear, the single-making process I just descrbied separates the singers from the musical process. Why should they care about the lyrics of a song they didn’t write? This isn’t about singing from the heart; it’s about securing the front page banner on the iTunes store. Some of these pop singers are, pragmatically, no more than instruments themselves. Again, they are simply one product – an essential product, granted – on the massive, glittering assembly line that is popular music production.

It seems I’m offended by the overwhelming artificiality of it all. It’s not that I don’t think mindless pop/dance music doesn’t have its place; people don’t go to dance clubs so they can sit around thinking about how deep and inspiring the music is. After a long day, or for extra motivation while cleaning, I’ll crank Katy Perry’s earlier “Hot and Cold”, or Lady GaGa’s “Paparazzi.” And that leads to another aspect of this topic that confuses me: I do like some pop songs. I don’t like the majority of the ones I hear on the radio, but I don’t hate it all.

How, then, can I have these problems with the genre but I can also absolutely love a select few songs of this genre? Why do I like “Paparazzi” and not “Edge of Glory” (okay, the saxaphone kind of kills it due to the shock factor). Why can I dance shamelessly to “Hot and Cold” but I cringe at “Last Friday Night”?

I can only come up with a few vague, unsatisfying answers.

  1. Lyrics are a big deal to me. I think that’s what I hate the most about “Last Friday Night”; the lyrics are so idiotic, and therefore so distracting, that I couldn’t dance out to that song if I wanted to.
  2. I prefer a song with interesting musicality. “Paparazzi” stood out to me as different from Lady GaGa’s other songs, and I think part of it is the musical progression. It’s a song you can dance to, but it’s not just another dance song that sounds the same as any other dance song. There’s structure, and it’s more interesting to listen to.
  3. Finally, I think I like some pop songs because they’ve crossed into the so-bad-it’s-good category. Usually, these songs involve something about booty-shaking, and I love it because I don’t know how these hot-shot pop singers/rappers can perform this song with a straight face.

Maybe I’m out of line. Maybe I’m being unfair, complaining about the defining qualities of pop music and the pop music industry. After all, according to Wikipedia, some of pop music’s characteristics are:

  • an aim of appealing to a general audience, rather than to a particular sub-culture or ideology
  • an emphasis on craftsmanship rather than on formal “artistic” qualities (I don’t quite understand this one; why must craftsmanship and artistic quality be mutually exclusive?)
  • an emphasis on recording, production and technology rather than on live performance (Katy Perry does suck live)
  • a tendency to reflect existing trends rather than progressive developments
  • an intention to encourage dancing

Maybe, then, I’m just stating the obvious: pop music is all about being generic, and auto-tuning singers, and there’s nothing artistic or meaningful about the entire process! The problem, it seems, is perhaps not with pop; it’s just that I, as a subjective listener with subjective tastes, have a problem with (most) pop. So we’re left with a rather un-groundbreaking post. Ah, well. It’s been interesting to think about.

If you can relate to my experience and find yourself tiring of the monotonous buzz coming from your local pop station, here are a few of my favorite non-pop artists that may refresh your musical side and remind you that not all music is mindless (if you only listen to one, skip to the last one):

Anberlin

Chosen by me for their interesting lyrics and awesome lead singer.

Joshua Radin

Chosen by me (also) for his interesting lyrics and beautiful, less-stressful musicality.

Regina Spektor

Chosen by me because unlike pop artists, who are essentially nothing more than extra instruments (read: lyric singing machines), Regina Spektor experiments with her own voice as a unique, interesting instrument (read: self-challenging artist).

Death Cab for Cutie

Chosen by me, again, for their not-so-run-of-the-mill songwriting abilities. I love the first line of this song, simply because it’s different than what you hear on the radio and it makes me sit up and listen. I also love how they find imagery and inspiration in uncommon objects, like a glove compartment.

This last one is a beautiful cover of a Katy Perry song. Really. So my problem can’t be entirely with lame lyrics, because the same lyrics set to more interesting/beautiful music and multiple-part harmonies are absolutely captivating. I have always had a thing for cover songs. Like I said before, I guess, like most things, it all comes down to personal taste. I prefer this style of music to the Katy Perry version. Who knew this song could sound so romantic?

The Rescues: “Teenage Dream”

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