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Is Pop Music Defensible?

Is Pop Music Defensible?

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Every day America swallows lots of sickly sweet pop music, without hint of a stomachache. But what about in the long run -- will it give us, to extend the metaphor, stomach cancer? Now pop ain't all bad, but it's certainly a hydra-headed monster of paradox; the more you ponder its complexities the more snarling heads it grows.

The Good: The best pop music's best quality is that it unites us. It allows a lot of people to connect over a piece of music until it becomes a sort of cultural bridge. Michael Jackson's "Thriller" is an example of this, completely infectious, yet original and creative. A musician's vision can manifest itself into something that can bring a lot people together in an artistic context. That's powerful.

The Bad: But is unification always a good thing? Does it matter under which banner we rally? Bad pop music reduces all the details of our lives to a series of repetitive images that can be horrifically homogenizing. When The Beatles sang "I want to hold your hand" a lot of people related to that, but on a very superficial level, accepting something cliche and ingrained as an honest expression of how they felt about love. (Unless you were just really really into holding hands, that is.) Homogenization allows massive scope but there are some things more important than scope. McDonald's is available and recognizable to billions of people, but it sort of tastes like shame feels.

There is also the concept of "imagined nostalgia" in pop music -- maybe listening to it allows us to remember things about ourselves that never really happened. You can see this idea in artist Lucien Marc Smith's peanut-butter-cup sculptures: Even if you never ate Reese's as a kid they still make you feel nostalgic for childhood. Pop music can have the same effect, a strange familiarity somehow making you feel all warm and fuzzy about things unfamiliar to you. How many people that never set foot on the beach in their life have danced with a glazed look in their eye to Katy Perry's "California Gurls"?

There is a certain inherent falseness in this if you do it seriously. And if you don't take pop music seriously and just listen to it ironically (the "Call Me Maybe" phenomenon), then it's just more of the postmodern self-aware dicking around that's unfortunately become the norm in art -- a sort of apathetic circle jerk.

Below: The Ugly

The Ugly: Behemoth corporations with no interest in music become involved with the careers of major stars. Look at the transformation Nicki Minaj underwent since signing million-dollar endorsement deals with companies like Pepsi. Suddenly artists have to become digestible to consumers, rather than relevant toward listeners. Expression becomes muddled with branding and, in my opinion, that's just dangerous.

The main defense here seems to be: But I like to dance to pop music. I guess it just boils down to the question of why we dance. When we dance to the ugly kind of pop music we dance to forget, or dance to remember falsely, or dance because we were duped into buying something, or dance because dancing that way is most familiar to us. Maybe we need to try dancing to something better.

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