In the early ‘90s, I worked in an after school program. I jokingly teased one of the kids about her infatuation with the New Kids on the Block. “They’ll never be as big as the Beatles,” I told her. Armed with this knowledge, she still astonishingly failed to discard her copy of Hangin’ Tough in favor of Abbey Road.
By decade’s end, New Kids on the Block was a distant memory, but I still earned my paycheck the same way. I no longer endured tweens singing the praises of “You Got It (The Right Stuff)”. Instead, they regaled me with self-choreographed dances to the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”. I’d long since abandoned hope of convincing pre-teens of the better music they were overlooking. After all, how do you tell an eight-year-old her tastes are just wrong?
I’m prepared to go a step further. I’m reminded of a famous quotation often attributed to French philosopher Voltaire, although it was actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, as a summary of Voltaire’s attitude. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” For my purposes, I’ll mangle the words to preach that “I disapprove of your music, but I will defend to the death your right to listen to it.”
Truth be told, I have no intention of falling on a sword over someone’s right to load an iPod with Justin Bieber or any other music lumped under disparaging monikers like “bubblegum pop” or “teeny bopper music”. However, there also isn’t any act which I’d fall on a sword to avoid. Well, maybe Celine Dion.
I once penned a blog entry entitled “The Styx Defense”. I professed that they were my first favorite band, despite routine slamming from critics. My argument was that you love a band regardless of critical status or commercial clout. You love them just because you love them.
As such, I see no benefit in disparaging anyone else’s music. In fact, I consider it offensive when someone shreds another person’s musical tastes. Put another way, here’s a line from my book No One Needs 21 Versions of “Purple Haz””: “To mock people’s music is to ridicule their souls.”
However, pop music is routinely subjected to ridicule at the hands of snooty critics bent on eviscerating it as unoriginal, disposable, or paint-by-numbers. I recently read an article, “12 Extremely Disappointing Facts About Popular Music”, posted on Buzzfeed.com by Dave Stopera. The title alone hints at the common bias that pop music will bring about the apocalypse. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration.
The reader, however, can practically hear Stopera shake his head in disgust while he thumbs his nose at the Glee Cast, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Rihanna, the Black Eyed Peas, Ke$ha, Celine Dion, Creed, and Barbra Streisand. On the flip side, the artists he deems worthy include The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Queen, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, Simon & Garfunkel, and Nirvana.
So what is it about that first group, which we’ll call the B List, that evokes such scorn while the second group, the A List, are regularly praised? I should point out here that “Katy Perry sucks” or “Led Zeppelin rules” are not valid arguments. More importantly for the purposes of this article, however, is how is it that one of those lists is considered pop—and the other is not?
Lest the critics forget, “pop music” is merely shorthand for “popular music”. Billboard magazine has long been considered the authority on measuring the musical tastes of the public with its weekly charts. However, Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles (12th edition, 2009), lists the two most successful acts in the history of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart as Elvis Presley and The Beatles. So if anyone wants to rip on pop music, they’ll have to start with The King and The Fab Four.
For those who argue “But that was a different time” and “Music just isn’t as good anymore”, I say “Pffft”. Every generation worships its music as sacred and categorizes everything that comes after it as crap. While teenage girls shrieked at Elvis swiveling his hips, parents lamented how times were so much better in the Big Band Era. While The Beatles led the British Invasion, the previous generation’s battle cry was that no one could croon like Frank Sinatra.
It could be argued that charts aren’t the best measure of commercial success. How about sales? According to Wikipedia, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, and Queen have claimed sales of 300 million + for albums and singles. Celine Dion is the first B-lister to show up and not until the next rung, the 200-299 million range.
So if chart success and sales give the edge to the A-Listers, maybe pop music is defined more by genre. The A List is a pretty healthy dose of rock ‘n’ roll, while the B List relies heavily on adult contemporary and dance. Still, there are no absolutes here. Creed is rock and roll, but their cred level is on par with Nickelback. On the flip side, Michael Jackson is the quintessential dance-pop artist – and it would be folly to argue that the self-proclaimed “The King of Pop” was anything but.
Maybe career longevity is the key; e.g., pop musicians are flash-in-the-pan artists who have a few big hits before disappearing into oblivion. Well, this argument doesn’t work either. Jimi Hendrix may have churned out more posthumous releases than about anyone in history, but his career was pretty much 1966-1970. As dominant as The Beatles were, their chart life as an active group stretched a mere eight years in their native UK and two years less than that in the United States. Simon & Garfunkel called it quits in 1970 after making their first chart appearance only five years earlier. Nirvana exploded on the scene in 1991 and were defunct by 1994.
By contrast, B-Lister Rihanna first hit the Hot 100 in 2005, so she’s already had a longer career than Hendrix, Nirvana, or Simon & Garfunkel. The Black Eyed Peas first charted in 2001 in the US, meaning they’ve outdone The Beatles for years of chart success while an active group. Let’s not even discuss why Barbra Streisand is on the B List, but her ongoing chart career dates back to 1964.
If we can’t use charts, sales figures, genre, or longevity to evaluate what is or isn’t pop, then what criteria is left? Demographics. Readers will likely agree that Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, and other B-Listers appeal to a much younger crowd than, well, about anyone on the A List.
Here’s the problem with that. Most acts’ initial audience base is in their teens and 20s. Justin Bieber isn’t the first mop-top to elicit screams from teenage girls. The Beatles practically invented the form after watching the teeny-bopper crowd swoon over Elvis. Since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, record companies have marketed themselves heavily toward youth and young adults because that’s the demographic that buys the most music. Most recording acts experience their greatest success in their earliest years, as well.
Once charts, sales, genre, and demographics are eliminated as markers of what is and isn’t pop music, about the only factor left to separate the B-List from the A-List is snobbery. Look, I own the entire catalogs of most of the A-Listers and only a handful of albums by all of the B-Listers combined. I would much rather listen to Jimi Hendrix than Ke$ha. Here’s the thing, though. Who cares? Why must some music be dismissed as unworthy of an audience?
So you Gleeks and Beliebers rejoice in your music. Employ the Styx Defense if you must, and cast haters aside with the proclamation that you can like what you want and don’t have to defend it. After all, what kind of jerk do you have to be to tell an eight-year-old she’s a loser for listening to New Kids on the Block?
// Notes from the Road
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