The Weekly DiScussion: What's pop got to do with it?
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Of all the words I tend to overuse hideously when writing about music - and I’m hankering after the now-blacklisted ‘sophomore’ here - ‘pop’ is the one I’d swear by the most. More so than ‘indie’, whose rep has taken a bit of a battering of late, ‘pop’ is the bandwagon whose wheels I'm happiest throwing myself under time and again. Rather than get bogged down too much into a discussion about semantics (pop-ular? pop-ulist? Etc), let’s instead look at pop in all its vague and polymorphous glory. (As an aside, one colleague’s best stab at defining the word neatly was ‘anything you dance to at a family wedding’, to which the obvious riposte is I would dance to Joy Division records at a family wedding, and do it with a shit-eating grin on my face that scares the crap out of the kids.)
For music critics, pop seems more of an ill-defined sensibility than anything, a platonic ideal that has no meaning outside of their own twisted logic. Animal Collective? Pop, innit. Deerhoof? Fahckin’ blinding tunes, geezer. Of course, critics are also by and large overgrown mummies’ boys that never quite recovered from their adolescences and therefore aren’t best equipped to understand when the public at large chooses not to see things their way. Take M.I.A., for instance. Capable of transforming even the most dour of post-rock worshipping musos into rabid, delirious disciples of POP, she is nonetheless incapable of persuading the great unwashed of her universal appeal – 27,000 sales of Arular to date and a little over 2,000 of Kala midway through its first week of release. At the other end of the spectrum to M.I.A’s consummate sense of ‘now-ness’, there's the whole raft of Brian Wilson-aping indie-poppers, regularly written about in hallowed terms as 'perfect pop' but again selling generally bugger all records - The Shins may be a big deal in America but they've barely made a dint in the national consciousness over here, of Montreal have only recently transcended toilet venue status ten years into their careers, and New Pornographers have yet to make a splash four albums in.
At worst, a literate approach to pop music amounts to the kind of convoluted snobbery that’s very much the preserve of indie fandom, but it’s also resulted in some of the best groups of the past few decades, and ones that actually sold a few records, too – from the brainy end of glam (Bowie, Roxy Music) through to the entryist approach of the early new romantic bands (Scritti Politti, Heaven 17) and new pop vanguardists like Orange Juice, Associates et al.
Arguably, though, pop doesn’t need indie lending its music a veneer of credibility right now. As the chart-bothering indie music du jour scrabbles for the centre ground with the unprincipled indignity of a New Labour rally in the home counties, ripe with poorly-observed platitudes or solipsistic epic-isms and riddled with presumptions about the primacy of guitar music over subnormal pop, cred-pop continues to deliver tunes by the spadeful with none of the pomposity – Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, Rihanna, Sugababes, Girls Aloud, Timbaland (okay, maybe he’s a bit pompous). To put it another way, would you rather hear Timbaland’s crisp, sexy production on Nelly Furtado’s ’Say It Right’, or would you prefer to hear Kele Okereke bleat his way earnestly through the track for Jo Whiley’s Live Lounge?
Should this be allowed to happen, ever?
We’re used to hearing bands drone on about the perils of being pigeonholed, but where it’s accurate at least, no band worth their salt would get haughty about being tagged ‘pop’; pop being spritely, irreverent, aware where rock is merely leaden and self-important.
Which brings us, albeit in a very roundabout fashion, to the big question: what are the arty pop acts you’d like to see / have seen selling records by the bucketload? Does pop even need art meddling in its affairs?
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