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Yesterday's bubblegum, today's chewing tobacco

Pop music then and now (part 2)


Aaron S. Bayley


The kids today, you wonder if they even really want to make music. I think they just want to be famous...These young people are seriously underequipped for dealing with the real world. You don't just put Armani and lip gloss on them, throw them out there and say 'Go!'

-renowned pop artist Barry Manilow, in an interview with Toronto Star


To see how much pop music has evolved since the innocence of the 1950s we need to define what pop music is. Although the word "pop" is an abbreviation of "popular," pop music is not simply popular music. After all, when Mozart was composing his magnum opuses in late 18th century Vienna both he and his music were very popular, but we would not call his symphonies pop music. And no heavy metal band could be said to have crafted a pop song, no matter how popular the song becomes. Pop music is often called bubblegum music, and this seems the best description for it.


Pop music is the antithesis of the Classical music that Mozart composed; they sit at polar ends of the profundity scale. Where Classical pieces are long and meandering, pop songs are short and to the point; where Classical music is targeted towards adults, pop music is geared to adolescents; and where Classical takes on such lofty and complex themes as hope, despair, jealousy, love, loss, philosophy, spirituality, and redemption, pop addresses clichéd subject matter like falling in love, broken hearts, and having fun; where Classical music encourages thought and contemplation and uses a variety of scales and major and minor keys; pop music is satisfied with making you want to dance or act a fool--in four chords or less. In general, pop music is consumed by the masses and is therefore seen as low culture: cheap, disposable, vapid, and not very important in the overall scheme of things. Like a large empty bubble, pop music--blows up large and pops. Its purpose is to distract people from the harsh reality of everyday life, but if done well, it can have a lasting and meaningful influence. 


When we view pop music from that perspective, it becomes clear how much more relevant the term "pop music" is today than yesteryear. Take the Drifters. A popular quartet of the late 1950s, they performed songs like "There Goes My Baby," "Under the Boardwalk," "Up On The Roof," and "Save the Last Dance for Me." All of these songs are considered pop songs, but the pop music of today rarely compares. Take this verse from "Under the Boardwalk":


From the park you'll hear

The happy sound of a carousel

You can almost taste the hot dogs

And french fries they sell


Reading this verse, the thought and care put into the lyric becomes apparent. Like a poet, the songwriter (and it doesn't matter who wrote the song) wants to evoke certain emotions in the listener. The song begins with a bass riff before a mix of different instruments including violins kick in. The verses paint a picture of being at a seaside resort before the song shifts to a minor key at the chorus and ushers in the singer's pining to be with his baby. Now let's compare this to a verse  from "This I promise You," by another all-male group, NSync:


I've loved you forever

In lifetimes before

And I promised you never

Would you hurt anymore


Notice that the verse is really just two clichés. When this song was released in 2000, it reached the top 5 on the Billboard chart and made teenage girls swoon. The subject matter includes the standard pop fare: a boy naïvely pledging everlasting love to his girlfriend, which is why it resonates so strongly with teenagers. And although it is over a decade old, the lyrics sung by today's male pop icons are even worse. Take reigning teen heartthrob Justin Bieber's "Baby":


Oh, Oh for you

I would've done whatever

And I just can't believe 

We ain't together


This lethargic dribble might be excusable if it was written by Bieber, but he had help. Now let's compare this to something by The Beatles from 1963, when they were early in their career and still writing simple pop melodies:


Oh please, say to me

You'll let me be your man

And please, say to me

You'll let me hold your hand


That's from "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," and it's admittedly unspectacular. Still, The Beatles wrote their own songs and played their own instruments, and a mere four years later John Lennon penned this line from "Lucy in The Sky With Diamonds":


Picture yourself on a boat on a river,

With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,

A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.


Pop music from the late 1950 and into the '60s moved from themes of innocence to the loss of innocence which coincided with the experimental drugs musicians and teenagers were taking in the mid-1960s. Today, those two themes are still prevalent, but so are a preoccupation with sex and the artist's image. 


Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Beyonce Knowles, Selena Gomez, Mariah Carey, and Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas all sell sex to varying degrees. Their lyrics almost always contain a double entendre or some sort of sexual connotation, and are deemed witty for doing so. Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass" is code for "superb ass." And the nonsensical lyrics to Britney Spears' "If You Seek Amy" play a supporting role to the puzzle suggested by the song title, "F.U.C.K. me," as in, "all of the boys and all of the girls are dying to if you seek Amy." Apparently the desire to appear sneaky and evade the radar of censors is a more important goal than writing memorable and sensible pop songs. The Drifter's "Under the Boardwalk" has been covered by several recording artists; it's not likely that anyone of note will be covering "If You Seek Amy." It's clever though. Kind of. Another song—Fergie's "London Bridge"—is a metaphor for a sex act. It seems that pop music lyrics have been reduced to code for controversial or risqué themes. Female artists of the late '50s and early '60s often sang about their longing for boys, and although their lyrics are often paternalistic—(think Little Peggy March's "I Will Follow Him")—the women could sing well. Today's female pop singers are more visible but hide behind a false notion of enlightened feminism which gives them an excuse to promote a promiscuous image. If it turns out that they can't sing, auto-correct software can fix that.  


Then there's Kanye West. While he certainly is a good songwriter, does he really write pop songs in the true sense of the word? Sure, he is popular and he is a staple of MTV. But if we trace the lineage of bubblegum pop—starting with say, Little Richard, Elvis, The Supremes, and The Beatles to Barry Manilow in the '70s and Michael Jackson in the '80s, and ending with Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber—Kanye doesn't really fit in. He certainly looks the part, thanks to his proclivity for preppy pink and green sweaters. But Kanye West is more pop culture than pop music. Even though his image is carefully crafted and many of his songs feature typical pop lyrics, he flirts with a range of different musical styles, combines genres, and incorporates vocal and musical samples from other songs with his own. He is, after all, credited with revolutionizing hip-hop. All of this is too ambitious to be reduced to pop. 


if Kanye West evades being categorized as a pop artist, does that mean that pop music does not evolve to include other genres and lyrical themes? I would argue that while society's morals and cultural norms change, a pop song's elements remain the same. Without taking subjectivity into account, it must be short, catchy, upbeat, embrace light subject matter, and have simple lyrics and a strong hook. Pop songs used to be performed by artists who paid their dues and longed to record a hit single, never mind an album. Yesterday's pop songs featured genuine singers and live bands. Today's pop songs are often performed by wannabe celebrities using digital software and auto-tune technology. As Malcolm McLaren famously said, the medium is the message. But these days the message is devoid of meaning. 

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