This one’s prompted by a tweet I read this morning from a writer I follow but don’t know, which tweet said in so many words that, as late as 2018, it’s foolish and snobby to state a dislike for pop music, given its prominent role in the culture. The tweeter, too, had a punk-rock background, so the implication was that an appreciation for pop music was something one ought to grow into or acquire upon shedding certain adolescent trappings.
I didn’t buy it. Or: I bristled at the idea that my stated dislike for pop music was a form of snobbery and not just a value-free preference. But did I’m Not A Music Snob I Just Don’t Like Pop Music carry the same whiff of blind bigotry as I’m Not Racist I’m Just Not Attracted To Asians?
I wanted to figure out why I didn’t like pop music, where that taste is coming from, and because when I hear the phrase “pop music” I think almost immediately of “Call Me Maybe” by that solo artist I need a web search to help me remember the name of,[**] I’ll use it as my prime example here.
I hate “Call Me Maybe” conditionally. I hate it in a waiting room, or a store, or a mall, or any kind of commercial setting. I probably hate it in a stadium or arena. I hate it as a ringtone. I hate it a little less in a car, but I still reach for the tuner. Sitting among a karaoke audience, though, I find I rather like it, and many times on a dance floor I have loved it.
What does this say about my relationship to pop music?
I might relegate pop music to the social, the way I do what I used to call “techno” but now I know to call “EDM”. Much of my enjoyment of music is wrapped up in the private: rewinding tapes in my bedroom to learn the words of a song I loved, blocking out noisy public spaces with earbuds. I like to play the guitar, but I never play the guitar with another person in the room, unless that person is also playing a guitar.
In this regard, I like music the way I like books.
Pop music originates from and amplifies all the feelings and thoughts I’ve had that I know other people have had, too. (How I know this is from a lifetime of listening to pop.) They aren’t necessarily easy feelings, or even feel-good feelings, but they are safe feelings because they’ve been normed. They, by the needs of pop’s dictate to find a huge audience, fit the norm.
The music I like to listen to (shorthand: rock, though not categorically) I listen to because it’s shown me that the weird or dark feelings I have aren’t weird or even that dark, and that I don’t have to feel alone in having them. The music I like helps me feel less alone, whereas pop often reminds me I’m not hanging out with friends at a party or club. I feel more lonely when I listen to it.
No: pop has ever taken Assuaging My Loneliness as its task, but there it is.
Another idea: production matters as much as reception. I hate much of how “Call Me Maybe” sounds in my ears. I like synths (I grew up in the 1980s) but the synth-strings in “CMM” are sheenier than those old synths. They match the raspy sheen work they’ve done on her vocals. The song as produced is all thinned and flattened and leaves little to pay any attention to. (Years ago I read an article about how music producers are working hard to ensure songs still sound good coming from a phone’s tiny speaker.)
I love, though, “Call Me Maybe” as performed by the Roots with toy instruments, from when Carly Rae Jepsen[††] was on Fallon. (Which has been scrubbed from the Internet except with bootlegged-off-the-TV YouTubes that sound terribler than the original.) You can scoff here and say I love this for twee or hipster reasons.
That is: snob reasons. I’ll give you a moment to scoff. I see the argument and I see that it’s irresistible.
BUT, let me just point out how textured the song becomes when thrown together in this slipshod way, and how smart The Roots are to do some Pixies-style loud-quiet-loud dynamics when the chorus kicks in. To put it clunkily, it has more going on in vertical dimensions (Y-axis, I’m talking) while the song moves through its X-axis.
It’s such a good song. It’s just a wonderfully good song I almost always hate to hear playing.
I had another point to make about how the original of “CMM”, the production, seems to be all vocals (the better for folks to sing along) and beat (the better for folks to dance), which was going to bring EDM back up, calling it “dance music for the chthonically stupid”, but I can’t even imagine anything more snobby than that, so I’ll end instead with that positive note just above.
- Brady Mae Stimson is the closest approximation I have to the name right now. Kelly Rae?↵
- The crazy thing is that now I look back to the original tweet and see the abbreviation “CRJ”, meaning she was what prompted all of this, which I, a total dolt, originally read as some kind of K-Pop band, or perhaps an online magazine of pop.↵