The cod-philosophical question at the centre of pop fandom is this: is pop a genre or a state? Not all records designed to be ‘great pop’ – in the sense of being good for the feet, the heart and the bank balance – make it to the Top Forty, or anywhere near. But not everything in the Top Forty is ‘pop’, either. Clearly a record like My Bloody Valentine’s Tremolo EP isn’t, but I’d say a single like Sir Cliff’s Millennium Prayer falls equally outside pop’s remit. On the other hand, Oasis and the Stereophonics are obviously pop – they have enormous hit singles which people dance and grope to in discos – even if they’re not addressing the typical demographic.
But what is pop’s remit, anyhow? From the above, you might think I’d define pop as a music you use in a certain way. But you could ask a dozen people and get completely different answers, because pop is a music which listeners tend to define themselves around, and so it has to be this malleable. I might call myself a pop fan, but what would it really mean to be a ‘pop fan’? It would mean operating at the extremes of music fandom. Music lovers are creatures defined first and foremost by their taste, their powers of selection: the first question you are asked when you say you like music is “What music are you into?” . You might reply, airily, “Anything”, but very few people reply “Everything”.
Take the selection process away them and the music lover is cut loose from the opportunity to prove their discernment and define themselves through music. And this is exactly what pop does: you have to take what you’re given – despite your nominal power to affect the Top 40, you are as an individual utterly impotent. With other musics you can follow them underground, but pop has no underground. So if you don’t like what’s in the charts – or at least some of it – you are not a pop fan.
This negation of taste lies behind the widespread difficulty pop-haters have in accepting that someone can enjoy pop innocently, without ulterior motives, when they are aware of other musics. A love of pop can be routinely dismissed as either ironic – I affect to like Britney in the full knowledge that her records are rubbish – or motivated by ideology or a desire to shock. It’s this attitude that Simon Reynolds is getting at when he takes (in his excellent-as-usual ‘Overrated Of 1999’ piece) a shot at critics who praise pop for a kind of ‘authenticity’ based on its very lack of ‘authenticity’.
Reynolds puts this down to a desire to “inhabit the consciousness” of teenage girls, which in my case at least misses the mark. I think teenage girls get a bum deal in music criticism, especially when you consider how the petty nonconformities of teenage boys get such respect, but I wouldn’t want to or know how to be one. I just find the blatant entertainment ethos and capitalistic outlook of Top Forty pop less bullshit-ridden than its NME-featured alternative equivalent – so in that sense, at least, Reynolds is right and my love of pop is about its ‘authenticity’. Or rather, my love of pop seems to spring from a misanthropic disgust at the assumptions underlying all the rest of pop discourse.
Why would you want to be a pop fan, though, if you didn’t like the music? A pleasant sense of dilettante-ish submission to the popular will is all very well, but for a lot of writers liking pop seems intimately entwined with whatever urge led them to become critics in the first place. One reason people become critics is a wish to feel or be part of what’s going on, not on a local or ephemeral level but right in the mainstream of public taste. The critic is torn between the desire to guide their audience towards what is ‘good’ and the desire to speak to as wide an audience as possible by making interventions in the field of the ‘popular’. And I say torn because of the chronic perception among critics that the good and the popular have become different things. (As an aside, this is why wanting to influence people’s taste is a wretched and futile reason to do criticism, but that’s another article.)
One reason earlier eras of rock are so venerated is the sense that, back then, this division between the pop and the good was less stark, if it existed at all. Or, as Freaky Trigger writer Josh Kortbein puts it, “pop-as-popular, pop-as-catchy, and pop-as-a-specific-musical-style were basically one”. The notion of this happy prelapsarian state (contemporary with the Beatles, as usual) leads critics – and the artists who come to think like them – to believe they can square the pop-good circle by making records which sound precisely like records did then. This is why a record like Wilco’s solid Summer Teeth is hailed as a kind of perfect pop breakthrough. Wilco’s album is full of pleasant, knotty, well-crafted tunes which are far too grittily sung or slow-burning or brooding to make likely hits: it is utterly traditional, brined in influence, and – however catchy – no more a pop record than Wynton Marsalis’ last album was.
Though you wouldn’t know it, this is no reflection on the quality of either Wilco or pop. The claiming of Summer Teeth for pop, though, allows critics to luxuriate in the self-fulfilling prophecy which states that the charts must be dreadful if records which sound like more knowing versions of other, thirty-year old records don’t make it onto them. And conversely, when such records do hit the chart – as happened in 1995 in Britain – we are suddenly living in a pop golden age. Critics (The Guardian‘s Tom Cox springs to mind) who rave about Wilco or the Wondermints get all the benefits of liking ‘pop’ – the immediacy, the lowbrow thrill, the hooks, the decadence, the sense of addressing a phantom audience – and at the very same time they can still flaunt their taste and sneer at the pop which people are actually buying. It’s a cosy position to be in – no wonder they’re so eager to claim that anyone who does like high-selling pop is faking it.
Proponents of Proper Music criticism tend to talk about rock and pop records being ‘real’ or ‘fake’, and the assumption seems to be that its ‘realness’ lends a patina of quality to a Shelby Lynne album which is absent from a Shania Twain one. I don’t hear it myself but if that’s your thing, fair do’s. On the other hand as I say I’ll take the transparent bogosity of a Shania over the veiled bogosity of so many indie rockers any day.
Anyhow, the real/fake distinction might have told apart the Monks and the Monkees back in ’66, but in today’s ultra-referential industry it needs refinement up a level. So we can now talk about records which are Real-Real, in other words which mean it for purposes other than making money off people who want their records to mean it. Depending on how cynical you are, this category might stretch as far as Nirvana on one hand and the Dead C on the other, or may not actually exist at all. It’s the easiest type of music to think about, is Real-Real, and the toughest to actually identify.
We can also, though, talk about records which are Fake-Real, whether by design – Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” – or by misjudgement – The Manics’ “Masses Against The Classes” – or by simply being trapped in rock history like a mammoth in a tar pit, like Primal Scream’s recent work. Even when Fake-Real records start life with the noblest of intentions, there’s a crucial gap between their desire to say or be something uncompromised, and the abilities of the people involved to pull it off. Bad Fake-Real songs never lose the unmistakeable whiff of the second-hand record shop: when I listen to Primal Scream’s “MBV Arkestra”, all I want to hear is MBV or the Arkestra, not the lumbering mess of noise which actually squats on my turntable. But there are good Fake-Real records – comedy ‘punk’ like Jilted John which twenty years on sounds easily as nervy and felt as the Buzzcocks, or the Magnetic Fields’ many superb forays into rhinestone synthpop. These have an exciting awkwardness to them – their cynical imitation of genre formulae feels arrogant and tentative at the same time.
Real-Fake records, meanwhile, include commodity pop and little else. But unlike coca-cola, the secret formula for pop changes weekly, and throwaway commodities soon enough become ‘design classics’. Chart pop is often described as lightweight – a more accurate description would be low-density, because it stays mercifully free of interrogation and interpretation, of the creative traces and authorial intentions that listeners love to cram rock songs with. With rock – the Real-Real – the life being lived through the songs is, vicariously, the artist’s, and not the audience’s. How could it be otherwise, given the Real-Real’s professed indifference to whether anyone’s listening or not? Pop is blanker, but more open too.
The Real-Fake is public domain and ephemeral, which is only to say that the media forgets about it quickly. But the D.J.s remember, and so do the fans. Stick with a Real-Fake song long enough and you might end up its only friend, all its tawdry public meaning now yours and yours alone. That’s why the fan clubs for one-hit-wonders are often more passionate and fulfilling than any Beatles or Stones fandom could be, because they’ve turned the tables, shifted the balance of power from star to consumer.
And finally the Fake-Fake – the Elephant 6 bands, the power-pop perfectionists and bands like Saint Etienne, who get called ironists when they’re really only know-it-alls. Fake-Fake is what happens when pop steps out of its context and into history. It tends to be remarkably enjoyable: its only flaw is its sense of propriety, of – as Josh would have it – “pop as a style” bounded by certain rules. This is a necessary fiction – the only rule in Real-Fake pop is an accountant’s slide rule, but Fake-Fake bands tend not to sell many records – but it’s a fiction nonetheless, and it accounts for so many groups’ entire careers having a slightly fusty, pointless air, like people whose hobby is putting ships into bottles.
Do I really believe that this taxonomy works? Not a jot – although it’s as good as any other system of pop I’ve seen. The only way to define pop is by listening to it, even if for a lot of people, pop is simply whatever they don’t want to listen to. Mutable, capricious, and cash-driven, pop – contemporary pop – is the most compromised, controlled kind of music there is, but it’s also the freest from long-term stylisation of the Wilco/Wynton variety, and its appetite for novelty drives innovation in the musical marketplace (all the fastest-moving scenes from the 50s on have been singles-driven, and so in some way working on the pop model). In the end, we need it as much as, and because, it needs us.