My musical tastes run toward the exotic. I say this without shame, and I offer no apologies. Because of this, there is a belief amongst those who know me that I disdain pop music. That’s not entirely true.
Granted, I have a deep-seated hatred for the bubblegum-oriented, lowest common denominator-driven, ultra simplistic crap-ola that has been or become popular music since I started listening some 44 years ago. But there has been and there currently is some wonderful pop music out there. The key is to look beyond the radio to find it.
How do I define “pop” music? To be honest, I prefer not to. I believe defining a music style is a huge step toward killing it. The instant you try to define a musical style, you almost immediately alienate potential audience members, who bring their musical prejudices into the equation (and I am no exception). That being said, pop music — to my mind — has a bit of a bounce to it. It’s generally upbeat (but not always), it employs minimal complexity, and is generally in 4/4 time. Naturally, there are exceptions to every one of these parameters.
It’s not that I hate pop music. I just prefer my pop music to have a little depth. And that depth cannot be found on the radio. Trust me, I’ve tried. But I need more than a good beat I can dance to. And “catchy” fades. The pop music I like hits deep. It gives me something not only to bounce to, but to think about. The thought process doesn’t have to be lyrical. It can be a unique chord change, an interesting arrangement, or an unusual recording technique. Whatever that factor is, it goes well beyond being “catchy.”
Apparently, there is little to no room for depth on the radio. Consultants and demographic experts hold a firm belief that ratings (and potential advertising revenue) are driven by eliminating the need for radio listeners to think. Keep it simplistic, and play it often, and the people will buy it. That formula seems to work for them, and there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. But my war with commercial radio ended long ago, primarily because of what my musical hero, Adrian Belew, taught me. “Most hits are not good songs,” he told me. “And most good songs are not hits.” I’ve repeated that more than a few times in the 20 years since I heard it.
I have heard some amazing pop music from some remarkable musicians over the years. I’ve come to refer to what these artists make as “Intelli-Pop.” It’s pop-oriented music that adds layers of depth or mild to moderate complexity. The artists making this music all seem to have one thing in common: The Beatles. Rarely do I talk to or read about a musician making Intel-Pop without them making reference to the Fab Four. When the Beatles came off the road in 1966, their music got really exciting. And its influence has known no bounds. To my ears, the door was opened with the recording of Revolver. But the next release, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, blew the door off its hinges. Not many artists were making music like this in 1967:
And just like that, the floodgates opened. The next generations brought with them a wave of intellectual pop music more than worthy of commercial airplay. Unfortunately, few of them ever got it.
I love that XTC was able to present pleasant, uptempo music that also had depth and meaning. When I listen to a song like “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead,” I know I’m getting more than a catchy number I can dance to.
Mike Keneally was influenced by both the Beatles and XTC. In fact, he wrote this gem with Andy Partridge, XTC’s primary songwriter. The collaboration is positively magical. I’ll be telling you more about this brilliant man on a later date.
Jeff Lynne (founder and leader of the Electric Light Orchestra) made one of my favorite pop albums of all time, called Armchair Theater, in 1990. As far as I can tell, it was largely ignored in America. And that’s a crying shame, because it is positively brilliant! Lynne’s Beatles influence is obvious, but he also makes the songs his own.
I don’t think Michael Penn got a fair shake. He charted briefly with a song called “No Myth” in the late ’80s. But he’s made some even better music since then. Alas, you’d never know if you depended on the radio. This tune, for example, nearly reduces me to tears every time. I’ve never said that about a Ke$ha song.
Penn is married to another brilliant singer/songwriter, Aimee Mann. She, too, charted in the ’80s with a song called “Voices Carry” with her band, ‘Til Tuesday. I didn’t feel anything one way or the other about that song, or Aimee’s music. That changed in 2000, when I heard an album called Bachelor No. 2. I was positively floored by the depth of Aimee’s songs. Naturally, I was screaming at commercial radio, wondering why this song wasn’t getting any airplay. But all I had to do was listen to the music. It was far too deep to maintain the ferrets-on-a-double-espresso mindset of the Top 40. They have no idea what they missed.
I seem to recall Squeeze getting a bit of airplay in the ’80s, not long before I checked out of the Commercial Radio Hotel. This song in particular resonated deeply within my musical soul. Perhaps because it reminded me of the Soul music my parents played in the ’70s. This song could have easily been sung by Al Green. And like the other pop songs I love, there is a timeless quality here. It could’ve been recorded last Wednesday just as easily as it was in 1981.
Needless to say, a Beatle can influence himself. When Paul McCartney released Flowers in the Dirt in 1987, I was deep into my newfound Progressive/College radio life. Still, it was McCartney! I had to give it a quick listen. Is it the best song he ever wrote? Probably not. But it works! It resonated with me, and has remained there all this time. “My Brave Face” is definitely a nice musical place to visit, even if I don’t really live there any more.
Can you make a good pop song in 5/4 time? Radiohead says yes, and I agree. This is not a band I refer to when I reflect on pop music. Still, there is definitely a pop sheen in a great deal of their music. That it can be difficult to dance to isn’t really something I concern myself with.
Given the chance, pop music has the potential for great evolution. I’ve heard the music of Bent Knee — probably my favorite modern band — referred to as “avant-pop.” That fits as well as anything else. This is definitely not “See Spot Run” pop music! But it is what happens when a group of high-caliber musicians are left to their own devices and allowed to be creative. It’s not my fault if the consultants can’t keep up. This is music that deserves to flood the airwaves. But I’m not holding my breath.
Intel-pop is a boundless well of amazing music. There are so many more examples I could cite. But let’s save that for the next chapter. For now, do yourself a favor: turn off the radio explore these and other high-caliber music acts. Bandcamp is a great place to start. Create your own musical adventure, and let me know what you find.