Is Pop Cool?

I got an interesting e-mail last week. Ben Rayner, a writer for the Toronto Star, wrote to me asking for a couple of quotes for a column he was writing about pop music. Because of the World Cup, I’ve not been checking my e-mail much lately, so I missed the deadline to help him, but I wrote back anyway. Here’s what he said:

“based purely on my own anecdotal evidence, i’m making the observation that there’s been a bit of a shift lately in the way would-be hipsters in these parts relate to a certain class of pop music – think kylie, pink, sophie ellis bextor, robbie williams as shorthand – or, more accurately, that those would-be hipsters are no longer deeming it necessary to hide the fact that they occasionally enjoy a well-made destiny’s child tune. i’m wondering aloud, among other as yet half-formed thoughts, if: A) the critical “elite” might finally be getting over it’s tendency to dismiss everything in the top-40 as one lumpen, evil whole; B) the present, five- or six-year-long wave of top-40 pop itself is taking on a slightly less sugary and homogeneous character that makes it appealing to a more (supposedly) discerning audience; or C) the publicly divulged listening habits of my too-cool-for-school music-geek friends have any bearing on what’s happening in the rest of the world.”

And here’s what I replied:

“Is there a move towards a ‘pro-pop’ sensibility among ‘hipsters’? (I’m assuming you mean indie or alternative music fans, basically) I’m not sure. The attitude to pop I think is very dependent on what’s happening with alternative music – if there’s a credible alternative in the charts, hipsters will latch onto that and ignore more ‘mainstream’ pop. At the moment hipsters are rejecting the n’th-generation grunge bands like Nickelback and they’re also rejecting most nu-metal. And then away from the charts there’s not a really big idea to unite the indie nation currently. I think alternative music has been pretty dour and inward-looking for several years now, so it’s less of a crime to admit liking a pop alternative at the same time, even if you cloak that in a claimed ‘irony’.

The spanner in the works here is the rise of retro-garage punky stuff, which seems the best current shot of hipster-approved bands getting into the charts. This has actually happened in the UK, and it shows. I started a club last Summer mixing pop and indie and dance stuff up by whim, and initially people danced to everything. By this Spring, people would either dance to the pop/dance (Kylie/Sophie/Basement Jaxx) or the indie (Strokes/White Stripes/Hives) – nothing united the audience. It was as if the hipster types realised that they didn’t have to like, or say they liked, pop any more.

So to address your ABC points –

A – I’m not sure. There’s always been a pro-pop element in the “critical elite” and it might be that those voices are more audible or consistent right now. I think the Top 40 = lumpen mass thing will always be with us, cos of its implied disdain for the people buying top 40, which is a cheap way to set yourself up as ‘discerning’, as a critic.

B – is pop improving currently? Well it depends what you mean by pop – teen-or gay-demographic pop (eg Kylie) is a different thing from mainstream ‘urban’ music (eg Destiny’s Child), though the one is currently heavily influenced by the other. Teenpop I think has peaked aesthetically – it’s getting to that horrible stage now where all the main players are sounding a bit tired and are trying to ‘mature’ as artists, which leads to a self-consciousness creeping in (viz. that awful last N’Sync album, and that tiresome latest Britney one).* Kylie’s been there and done that and her current approach – this is what I’m good at, this is what I’ll do – is fruitful but doesn’t much capture the imagination. The chart-oriented end of R’n’B and hip-hop though is still fantastically exciting – excellent pop songs musically and lyrically, brilliant hooks and constantly surprising production tricks. Teenpop was excellent in around ’99-’00, R’n’B has been excellent for a good 5 or 6 years and wasn’t bad before that – so to claim that pop is on an upward curve and that hipsters, being the sharp fellows they are, are noticing this is to make excuses for missing the boat a while ago.

C – you never know!

* Of course another factor is that teenpop is very vulnerable – partly because the teenpop audience is the most demanding/fickle out there, partly because record industry people like it for its manageability and revenue but don’t respect it at all – everyone from store clerks to CEOs would rather be pushing a White Stripes or Wilco record than a Mandy Moore one, and so the second the wind changes marketing for teenpop becomes very lame – omnipresent sure but strangely half-hearted too.”