Is pop dead?

Surely by now we must all know that titling an article ‘Is ‘x’ dead?’ is simply a ploy to garner attention from the trigger-happy twitterati, offering the opportunity for kneejerk condemnation in 140 characters or less. How one converts this viral equivalent of Chinese whispers into any sort of material or spiritual gain, I have no idea, but it seems that social networkers are still happy to participate.

Last week’s example took aim at rock music. Should we accept rock music as a dead format? If so, by which criteria do we make such a pronouncement? Falling sales? It seems an inappropriate methodology. Rock music shouldn’t ever have become a dominant musical form, what with its conflict in sonic frequency range between the lead singer (85 – 255hz) and the lead guitar (82-660hz). By rights, the unit should have long disintegrated beneath the weight of competing egos. String quartets manage to survive a similar sonic battleground between violins, but only by adhering to a strict definition of roles – first and second violin (hence the term ‘second fiddle’). Rock bands, in general, do not enforce such strict role definitions, at least not formally. Inherent in the creation of rock music (and I must generalise here, otherwise this piece will metasize horribly), is a democratic process by which voice, bass, percussion and guitar create a coherent musical whole. To help them do this, there are structures of harmony, arrangement and time which allow certain elements of songwriting and performance to be pre-supposed. Rock musicians largely stay within a small number of those structures. Whilst at its worst, this can constrict and restrain the creative process (and at its worst, rock music is truly awful), at other times the diversity of influence brought to the songwriting process by four independent sonic elements allows for a Darwinian adaptation that can be alchemical.

Take pop though, and although the genre is too wide to allow the same generalisation as can be applied to rock, there is a branch of the pop format which can be mentioned. I’m referring to producer-led records, in which the personality contributing the vocals and imagery plays a secondary role in the creation of the music. Singling out any one example is almost futile at this point, which is exactly the genre’s weakness. Taylor Swift, Rhianna, Justin Bieber, Lady GaGa. Essentially (and at this point I realize I am about to write something controversial) they are interchangeable. A zeitgeist producer creates a soundbed, usually using tricks of arrangement picked up via an unhealthy amount of time spent in Ibiza superclubs in the early 90s, molds that tension/release house anthem formula into an arrangement which can support a verse-chorus-verse vocal, applies a couple of fashionable sonic effects onto what are quite simple major chord progressions and then, this is the cynical part, drops the vocal track over the top. Forget whether the vocal took advantage of auto-tuning software or not (another day’s article), the simple fact is that in most of these records, there is no sonic or emotional integration between vocal and song. If anything is to kill pop, it is cynical, mass-produced pap of this ilk.

Pop will survive as long as people continue to buy records. It’s slippery definition is simply that it is ‘popular’ enough to sell units. By such definitions, a great deal of rock music is pop, as is metal, jazz, opera etc. For clarity, I’m lazily defining pop music as any piece of music which had as its primary stated goal the objective of selling units. Some pop becomes popular without this aim, some other forms seek primarily to sell units, but are called rock. Whichever way we look at the sales figures of the past decade though, it is abundantly clear that it is pop music which is being decimated by recorded music’s falling sales. It must be obvious to anyone with an internet connection that the opening up of sales channels to musicians without label intervention has allowed niche acts to benefit from cheap online distribution and retailing. With the marketing channels open to all, the very concept of a hit record has changed. Artists selling twenty-thousand albums via their own website can now net more monetary reward than if they had sold a million records via a major label. Where this has hit hardest is at the entity that is a ‘popstar’. In an online marketplace where the smallest niches of musical taste are catered for, the role of the hyped and mass-marketed pop act is threatened. Competing for attention is expensive and time-consuming, and although major labels can still beat mileage out of a constricted number of high-profile pop acts, or create formats such as The X Factor to circumvent traditional marketing approaches,, the investment/return ratio is becoming less attractive every year. Take Taylor Swift’s US number one album from last week ‘Speak Now’. A vindication of pop, one might say? A pop album at number one, surely that proves dominance? The record topped the US chart with the lowest ever number of sales for an album in that position – 52,000. Legacy albums such as Dark Side of the Moon sell that many units every few months, despite being over three decades old. Nightmares on Wax’s ‘Smokers Delight’, whilst nowhere near Pink Floyd’s level, continues to sell units fifteen years after release. Pop, pure pop, which has at its heart the celebration of the immediate, and makes no claims to being composed for posterity, can never hope for the ‘long-tail’ sales profile which is enjoyed by other genres. I won’t say it’s dead, it certainly isn’t. Nor will I accept that rock is either.



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6 responses to “Is pop dead?

  1. WarMaster

    Just writing to express that I find it unfair of you to group Lady Gaga in with the likes of someone like Justin Bieber in this post. Lots of people seem to dismiss her as disposable pop garbage for some reason unknown…perhaps she wounded our pride with her unfathomably huge success…but she is actually quite an accomplished songwriter, with several hit songs under her belt before she even began her career as a solo artist. She has written all of her own music, and played the majority of the keyboard parts on her albums, which is far more than can be said for most of the hacks that she is constantly grouped with by her non-fans.

    I wouldn’t bring it up, but I have noticed in several of your blog posts that you seem to dismiss her as a talentless pawn of the recording industry. People are certainly entitled to their opinions, and I can certainly understand why one would not enjoy her saccharine and overtly-sexual music, but being a fan, I have actually given her a chance, and I must argue that she has an exquisite sense for commercialism and the pop hook. Her lyrics are clever and filled with double entendres. She also has, in many peoples’ opinion, a fantastic voice. Every once in a while, an artist achieves massive success because they are actually good. Her success, unlike many of her peers’, seems very deserved.

    I just thought I should stick up for her, as you seem intent on debasing her when you clearly know nothing about her, nor have any interest in actually listening to her work.

    I will conclude by arguing that she is a perfect example why Pop is not dead. Record sales do not make pop music, mass appeal does…and her music and her persona have that in spades. A lot of people, I’m assuming you included, expect her to vanish off the map soon…but a lot of people thought that about the Beatles, too.

  2. Hi Again WarMaster, glad to see you’re still here.

    You know, I’ve thought about it, and thought about it again. and I’m willing to concede your point. She’s not bad, GaGa, is she. I do tend to mention her quite often, mostly because she’s the most obvious personification of a certain sector of the music industry that places image and branding in a position where it becomes more important than the music. She always seems like the most obvious choice for that, because she’s so ubiquitous. But no, her music’s not bad at all. I don’t think she’s got a great voice, mind you, and I do think that the vocal tracks on her records suffer from what I was describing – that is, I think they don’t really seem to ‘fit’ well into the mix of the song, like they were not really developed in harmony with the rest of the production, and were fitted on retrospectively. But yes, you’re right, she’s a far more legitimate musician than Taylor Swift or Bieber.

    Fair point. Conceded. I won’t take her name out of the blogpost, because otherwise people will read your comment and wonder what you were referring to.

  3. WarMaster

    I’m certainly not trying to get you to edit yourself! I just like to throw my two cents in occasionally. Keep up the good work.

    If I have taken anything from this article, it is that pop and rock are two of the most beloved art forms in modern culture; to the point that they are sacred to some people. In the past ten years we have undoubtedly been witness to declining record sales, but it seems to me that our culture’s passion for these art forms is flourishing at a phenomenal rate.

    It’s easy and even tempting to look around and say, “wow, there’s a lot of really crappy music being made right now”, but I can’t help but think this has always been the case…most of the terrible pop music from the 80’s has all but disintegrated, yet “Take On Me” by Aha remains, because everything about that song is absurdly awesome.

    I feel like music is in a transitional period right now, everything about it, from creation to distribution to consumption…particularly pop music. With peoples’ attention spans growing ever-shorter, I think pop artists understand that it is more important now than it ever was to put everything you’ve got into that 3 minutes. I have a feeling that, despite the economic woes of the recording industry, we’re going to hear some incredible, groundbreaking stuff this decade.

  4. ‘we’re going to hear some incredible, groundbreaking stuff this decade’

    I just came into the office and Robin played me something that he’s been working on for the last few days. I know you have to take everything I say with a pinch of salt, because obviously I’m biased. But. Seriously, the tune was awesome. To use your words, incredible, groundbreaking.

    You’ve read enough of what I write now to know that I’m not easily impressed. Also, you know that there are times when I’m quite obviously frustrated by the music business, and occasionally just plain unhappy. But just listening to this track made it all worthwhile. I think you’re right, adversity does push people harder. Most of the great music of the 80s that you mentioned, came out of social and financial circumstances that were absolutely awful. I remember the 80s, and they were grimmer times even than the present, but out of them came some incredible music. So maybe the present difficulties will bring some really great music. I wouldn’t have believed that yesterday, but if you could hear what I just heard, you’d understand why I agree with you today.
    Seriously….mind completely blown.

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