What Is Pop Music?

I’ve been reading a blog called T-Sides for a few weeks now, and it’s primarily a music blog that is authored by a young women in New York. She’s thoughtful, articulate, passionate about music, and will often feature music I’ve never heard of. And that’s why I enjoy reading her work.

A couple of days ago, she blogged on a band called Beach House that she described as an Indie pop band. Now, just that term “Indie pop band” made me wonder what is it about their music that makes it popular in an independent sort of way. Why is it “pop” and what makes it independent? Eager, I did a clicky-clicky on the link and waited to hear my answer. Alas, when I heard the songs she was very enthusiastic about, I couldn’t feel “it.” You know, that moment when a song just grabs you and you said “Ah, this is great!”

Then I started to think, “Well, it’s because you’re an old guy who likes a certain type of music. She a young, hip urbanite who’s open to new music and is connecting with it in a way you never will.” Plus, I’ve only given the songs a few “spins” (i.e., an old radio term that refers to LPs and 45s that “spin” around the turntable), so the jury’s still out on the Beach House.

So what is it about pop music (and I’m using the phrase to mean “popular”) that makes it so emotional? I think many pop songs from the 40s, 50s and 60s are really great, but I don’t hear the music the same way as someone who grew up in one of those eras did. My ears hear the older music devoid of its larger cultural context, and so I just don’t “get it” in terms of what was going on in the world when certain songs play.

And sometimes the emotions and cultural contexts the music stirs often isn’t pleasant.

For example, I love The Who. But I didn’t see them live until 2004 — when they were old and established. I tease my uncle (who spent part of his youth growing up in the Shepard’s Bush section of London) that he could have seen The Who play in the clubs on Goldhawk Road back before they became huge. He just laughs and says that I don’t understand what it was like to be Guyanese immigrant living in London at the time. Translation: You didn’t want to be an young Indian teen attending a Who show back then if you valued your life. I’m not saying that a bunch of Indian-bashing wankers populated Who shows and thought The Who’s music reflected their prejudices, but there was certainly something about their music that brought out the angry white kids.

So see? I hear The Who, and I connect with their more timeless themes of alienation, but when I mention The Who to my uncle, he has a memory of London back in the mid 60s not as some golden era of liberation, but a time of dislocation and simmering ethnic hostilities. He loves The Who’s music as well, but maybe there’s “something else” in their music that I just don’t get that makes listening to it a bit more sweet and sour for him.

So, I guess pop music is more than a good hook, power chords, catchy lyrics, and all those other technical and creative things that keep you humming that song that just grabs you. Ya gotta have “cul-cha,” too. And, sadly, sometimes the cultural stuff isn’t all that pleasant.

–PK

[P.S. Don’t you hate when you do a spell check, click save and then none of the changes take? Yeah, me too. Typos should be fixed now. ]

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