I was listening to the new Morrissey album the other day preparing for a dissection of Moz’s new studio offering when something occurred to me. Truth be told the review itself was easy, this was the more upbeat Morrissey of late, the Morrissey of the last ten years. The album itself wasn’t as good as You Are The Quarry but way better than Ringleader Of The Tormentors. You can asses the rest from there I think. What occurred to me became bigger than the review and largely took over my afternoon.
Musical landscapes change some for better, some for worse but none as completely as Pop Music. True the technical idea of pop music is “popular music” but those of us invested in music as a way to stay sane know it as much more than that. Pop Music used to be an umbrella under which many bands of varying ideology and styles could stand.
Just using music from when I was growing up Pop Music included Joy Division, The Cure, The Smiths, The Police, New Order and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Pop Music really became an adjective for bands writing great songs filled with melody, emotion, and more than anything else individuality.
The Police didn’t sound like The Cure who didn’t sound like Joy Division who didn’t sound like Depeche Mode but it was all Pop Music. To be Pop Music fan was to be on top of new music, to welcome the underground but stay involved in that which was more in the minds of the radio listener.
Pop Music in the eighties and part of the nineties meant intelligent music layered with anything you could think of. The voices were powerful, the lyrics could be direct or cryptic but they were always crafted powerful. Musically Pop Music was hodge podge of everything you could think of.
The introspective sound of REM, the complex rhythms of Talking Heads, the lush melodies of The Go-Go’s, everybody was invited to play. The only rule was that it had to be good and it had to be original. I’m sure some of you say “What about the one-hit wonders of that era?”
If you really listen to those bands even the one-hit-wonders wrote tremendous songs. Perhaps their whole album didn’t rise to the occasion but the powerful songs stayed with us. Who can forget “Safety Dance” or “Mexican Radio” or the uber catchy piano line of “Take On Me”?
Then something happened, the world of Pop Music stopped existing as this creative bubble and became essentially a large grocery store. The music became just so many bags of potato chips or bottles of soda. Instead of Joy Division we had N’Sync, instead of the Eurythmics we were handed Britney Spears. I suppose in some ways Pop Music reverted back to the original idea of just being a term for Popular Music.
Pop Music stopped having fans and started having hit singles. Instead of being synonymous with individuality and creativity the music became unimportant or worse disposable. Sure the eighties had disposable pop acts like Rick Astly or New Kids On The Block but that idea wasn’t in the forefront, it wasn’t served to fans as anything but throw away singles. In short nobody pushed the term “artist” on a group like DeBarge the way they do on Justin Timberlake. It’s a difference in ideas and a difference in how people are being introduced to music.
When the downbeat sounds of the grunge nineties started to wear on an increasingly shopping mall centered society the giant labels started turning to Pop Music. The problem was they no long understood what Pop Music was. To the bean counters it meant turning out product.
With a need to sell records and sell them quickly in astronomical amounts the corporations realized they needed to compartmentalize music and shill it as the soundtrack to a lifestyle (complete with a look they could also sell), which rendered the creative and spontaneous part of Pop Music persona non grata.
The Cure had to stay within their “Goth” identity so a lot of their more upbeat songs gave way to these overly melodramatic sadness epics. Joy Division were no more, U2 (who started out as a great pop band) turned into the garbage radio crap they are now and anybody who saw The Police reunion show knows how far they’ve fallen.
With the grip of giant music labels choking the life out of creativity with one hand while re-writing the definition of Pop Music with the other bands just started trying to pump out hit records. Pop Music became a sorry landscape filled with repetition and pretentious egos, as music critic Lester Bangs called it “An industry of cool”.
That’s why Morrissey got me onto this whole kick because he’s still putting out intelligent Pop Music the way I remember it, same with New Order and a few other true believers who survived the decimation of what Pop Music once was. Some people point to the Indie Music world and say that it’s the new Pop Music scene but I must disagree.
While containing some truly great bands the Indie scene is largely the same thing over and over. There’s a look, a sound, an attitude, in short a complete package that goes with it. If you don’t believe me open an Indie Music magazine like Under The Radar or Magnet. All of those bands look exactly the same and when you see them you can almost instantly hear what they sound like. That’s just a hipper version of what Pop Music turned into, not a nod to what it was.
The other trend I find most annoying is how bands that are pretty much dance music are tossed into the Pop Music arena. To try and hide their obvious get-on-the-dance-floor sounds these bands are re-packaged and given a vaguely artistic sounding name like “Electronica” then offered up as new Pop Music. Sorry but dance beats and keyboards are not pop music and synthesized vocals aren’t harmonies. There were aspects of that in Pop Music but it wasn’t everything.
I have nothing against Electronica music at all, in fact I dig a lot of it but it’s not Pop Music. People can refer to bands like Loney Dear, Music Go Music or Architecture In Helsinki as Pop Music but that doesn’t necessarily make it so. I’m sure many would argue this point but I have to stay firm, Electronica is electronic music, which is not at all in league with what Pop Music once was.
So why Pop Music? Why did this one musical landscape have to go under such a dramatic changeover? Sure Metal became many different things but it was still all extreme music. Jazz is still Jazz, Hip Hop has changed for the worse but it’s still Hip Hop. Country is absolutely worthless now but it still has some semblance of a country sound. None of these other genres were burned to the ground and re-imagined the way Pop Music was. The truth is I don’t know why, I just know I miss it and hope everyday for its return. Do any of you have any ideas of what happened? I’d love to hear them.
Perhaps it’s that Pop Music became too closely linked with Pop Culture, though the two could not be more different. Pop Culture really is Popular Culture and it is largely filled with forgettable trends and fly-by-night “movements”. I think once the explosion of Pop Culture happened people began seeing the word “Pop” before Pop Music and started believing it was the same thing.
Fewer things separate people from their disposable income faster than a trend they feel they need to jump on. The best thing about that is that every few months’ media can change the trend and those same people will desperately try to be part of the new thing. Just look at how boy bands went to swing music, to pop punk and then back to the boy bands only now as solo acts.
Essentially that’s corporate America telling us that nothing really matters so just buy this, enjoy it and don’t think to much. When Pop Music became entangled in that web of deceit the message stayed the same. These are disposable bands that don’t mean anything so just buy them, enjoy their singles and don’t think too much. Once the definition of Pop Culture became attached to Pop Music it was pretty much downhill from there.
Does this mean that there are no good Pop Bands out there? No. Am I raging here with one hand on my walker and one fist in the air that it was better “Back In My Day”? No. There are some really talented bands out there making really great Pop Music. Antony & The Johnsons, Bat For Lashes, Camera Obscura, Noah And The Whale, We Are Scientists are just a few that come to mind but to find those bands you have to do some digging and they are few and far between. The huge pool of talent that once occupied the Pop Music world has either vanished, sold out or just plain suck. It’s a harsh reality but that seems to be what’s happened.
The evolvement of music is the natural course of creativity. Nothing stays exactly the same, everything shifts, changes and morphs into something new. I applaud that; I think we need that to keep things from getting dull. My sadness here comes from that fact that Pop Music has been so altered over the last fifteen years or more that there isn’t even shades of what it once was.
Even people who say they appreciate Pop Music say it with a tinge of irony as though they’re laughing at it. People are so busy latching onto a lifestyle that defines their music they’ve lost the incredible rush of not knowing what’s coming around the next corner. That hurts the power of what music can do and when that power is gone, music, like television, will be a scorched Earth landscape with little signs of intelligent life.