Somewhere along the way, most of us forgot that the “pop” in pop music is a de facto abbreviation for “popular.” Or perhaps we didn’t, and that’s why it is such a complicated force in modern culture. As much as popularity is the only thing that matters in middle school, as we age, it becomes a complicated word that often takes on negative connotations.
For much of my life, pop music was regarded as taboo in my circles. It is uncool to like something that is so easy to like, it implies a certain simple-mindedness that cannot see through the machine that has produced this music that was predestined for popularity. We must resist its perfect formula of verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus or some variation therein, we simply cannot admit that we derive earnest pleasure from something that was designed to do nothing but please us. As I sit in this coffee shop in east Austin which doubles as my office most days, I can read everyone’s ironic t-shirts and forehead tattoos. They would rather admit they kinda like professional sports than be caught rocking out to the Black Eyed Peas or Taylor Swift. And for much of my life, I was the same way.
Popular music is regarded as the antithesis of seriousness. And we all want to be serious. And taken seriously. How can we speak authoritatively if we can also mindlessly bop along to songs that offer no insight into the human condition or the latent pseudonihilism that haunts our jocuserious daydreams? I spent several years of my life believing that we cannot do both, and that I was glad to have realized my seriousness. I only rarely envied the earnest, typically preferring to smirk sardonically at people who enjoyed the “easy” stuff. We spend a lot of life burying simple, earnest joy beneath complicated oxymorons like the idea of the “guilty pleasure.” This phrase is most often connoted with songs that we somehow “shouldn’t” like but secretly do, anyways.
Of course, one can only resist the allure of a perfectly crafted beat for so long, can only maintain a stoic façade for a finite spell before something cracks. I cracked before my outward insistence on curation did, but those cracks have since been repaired. Part of that repair process was removing the façade and replacing it with a giant wall of windows. It is astonishingly easy to be happy when you don’t care what people think; when you stop caring about things as trivial as resisting popular music, you open yourself up to deeper connections.
I have since met a girl who looks like a pop star and has created an elaborate joke based on that doppelgangerness. Not wanting to miss out on the joke or the joy de vivre was enough to move me to buy the album (said artist refuses to put her music on Spotify) and listen to it in all of its perfectly-crafted poppyness. I have unironically posted on social media about my joy upon hearing that a Nineties girl group is reuniting and been met with staggering enthusiasm by the unlikeliest of people. But to call someone’s love for happy pop country unlikely is tragically based on the expectation that someone who looks a certain way or does certain things could never be tickled by the refrain, “Some days, you gotta dance.” Sharing sincerely in love for the Dixie Chicks has only strengthened our friendship and proven that we both believe in the importance of choosing joy and honesty over calculated bitterness.
And so, now it feels obvious and even ridiculous to reflect on something as simple as pop music and think it worthy of contemplation. But what a blessing that is—because there was a time when earnestness and enjoyment in the simple pleasures seemed distant and entirely impossible for me. Even among those who fancy themselves musically savvy, there’s much to be said for pop music. And it is so liberating to realize that there’s no reason why you can’t say it. The craft of a truly transcendental pop song is every bit as artful as the polyrhythmic, time-signature-shifting work of your favorite alternative rock band. Music is an essential component of humanity, it is an extension of the spirit and soul that make us unique among animals. As soon as we have food and shelter covered, we start making art. It’s always been that way.
Not every human holds music in equal regard, but those who know the value of a song can attest to its personal and communal power. Songs provide solace in the same way as stories, with the additional immutable power of melody. Melody is a bit more suggestive than the written word—it can impart a feeling on its listener with a heavier hand than words can the reader—who may, if they so choose, ignore the lyricism and cadence on the page before them. Writers can learn a lot from music, if they are open to the idea.
And humans can learn a lot from their attitudes toward music—enjoying it freely is essential to enjoying life without reservation. In the least Oprah-tic way possible, I find it important that we free ourselves from the idea of music as ‘guilty pleasure.’ Because there is no guilt nor shame in thinking that popular music of all description is catchy and does positive things to our psyches. Even music that’s often dismissed as base and degrading to the moral fabric.
Rap music is most often accused of this blasphemy, but I also think it occupies a strange place in the pop-vs.-serious music conversation. Last year, some random guy who loves crunching numbers made a chart comparing rapper’s vocabularies to Shakespeare—and a lot of them ranked much higher than ol’ Bill. Take Eminem—who I consider to be the paragon of a poet. I won’t even delve into the complexity of his lyrics, which are hilariously often taken at face value. He once gave Anderson Cooper some of the most incredible insight into the mind of an artist that I’ve ever seen. He notes that people always say nothing rhymes with the word “orange,” which distinctly aggravates him. So much so that he then goes on to demonstrate how he can use internal rhyme and cadence alteration to make six or seven lines in a row rhyme with orange. He has an obsessive drive towards command of language. And towards conquering of all his demons by facing them head on. There’s also the fact that science has proven that his music helps people workout harder than literally anyone else’s. Even in the same genre.
But I digress. The anecdote about Eminem is most apropos because it reminds us of something essential about music at-large. That, like all art, it is firstly an effort to share something deeply personal in order to start a dialogue and offer a sense of community among otherwise disparate people. Reductionist thinking assumes that he’s vile and obscene beyond redemption. But closer inspection reveals him to be deeply artistic, thoughtful, and as poetic as any writer I studied in those droll literature classes I took in college. It’d be easy for me to bury the memories I have of listening to Toby Kieth and NOW 3 and the Dixie Chicks in my mom’s station wagon, to only reminisce on those moments and lyrics among my sisters when I know there are no cameras in the area. Because all of those artists allegedly represent things that are far from the calculated cool that we ought to aspire to.
But instead, I love nothing more than cranking the blink-182 and T. Swift and stringing together a life full of windows-down, volume-up moments that we all have in our respective histories. It’s all too easy to focus on the negative and think that we have nothing to laugh about and no right to yell along to mindless pop punk and not-quite-country and hip hop. But, it’s all too important that we do just that. The more often we remind ourselves that art and laughter make us human, that moments are worthy of enjoying for their own sake, that complicated thoughts and social constructs are no reason to cease enjoying the simple things, the better off we’ll be. Some days, you do gotta dance. And the notion of popular music should be staggeringly encouraging—there are some things that almost all people can agree on! In this day and age, what a treasure that is. We should reflect on the anecdote about the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. They say that New York City went 8 minutes without any recorded crime as the boys from Liverpool bobbed around in their suits on TV sets everywhere. Maybe if Taylor Swift would go back to making country music, that could happen again.