A couple of weeks ago I found myself transfixed by a Youtube video of Westlife singing their new single, surrounded by swirling ice skaters and talented lighting technicians. It was wonderful.

As I hit the ‘blog this right now’ button, I wondered if – at 26 years old – I’d finally sealed my fate of becoming a Mum. Not biologically of course (*shudder*), but in my musical tastes. Is Mum-pop really my inescapable destiny?

“Isn’t Mum-pop for people who don’t like music?”

On Christmas Day 1993, I gave my Mum a superb present: the CD single of Bad Boys Inc.’s ‘Walking On Air‘. The low quality of that clip doesn’t really do them justice, though you should be able to determine exactly how far from ‘Bad’ these boys were.

A few weeks earlier Mum had mentioned (once) that she liked the song. An avid chart follower myself, I naturally assumed that this vague preference was concrete proof that Mum was a rabid fan of the ‘Inc., and promptly saved up £1.99 for the luxury Christmas edition single (containing a bonus track where all the Boys smoothly delivered their ‘special Christmas message’).

Mum seemed genuinely pleased with her gift, a definite upgrade on the previous year’s Terry’s Chocolate Orange. She even played it more than once, bless her. But surely if she really had liked the song that much, wouldn’t she have gone out and bought the single herself?

Even if we discard the theory that Mum wasn’t buying *any* music before Christmas to ensure easy present selection for her youngest daughter (a tactic many of us employ these days), would Mum have actually purposefully marched into the Uxbridge Our Price, slapped two quid down on the counter and demanded the finest Bad Boys Inc. single known to humanity?

Well, probably not. Mum rarely bought music while I was growing up: she did once hassle the poor chap in Our Price for a piece of music she’d heard in an advert once, as she wanted to use it for one of her school assemblies. “It sounds like Enya, and I think there was a plane in it!” (The track was ‘Adieamus‘ by a dude who used to be in Soft Machine – amazingly they had the single in stock.)

Yet Mum was (and is still) a keen consumer of pop music: listening to Radio 2 in the mornings, gleefully showing disapproval of the scantily clad ladies in hip-hop videos, and in all likelihood, seeing Bad Boys Inc. performing on Live & Kicking one Saturday morning in 1993 and finding ‘Walking On Air’ pleasantly catchy.

Mum has often reminisced to me about her music-filled youth: having a mod hairdo, wearing out her copy of Revolver from too many plays on the turntable, meeting my Dad at a The Who concert, having to sleep in a freezing car at that festival in the middle of nowhere (hmmm, I can empathise with that last one all too well). But her CD collection today is full of famous classical pieces, songs from musicals, Frank Sinatra, Russell Watson, and Carry On Up The Charts by the Beautiful South. The obvious change in circumstances when she became a parent meant her time and money were devoted to raising my sister and myself. However Mum’s love for music hasn’t diminished since her teens, only changed in focus. How did she go from The Kinks to Michael Bublé?

I decided to find out. This involved the inadvisable technique of getting my mother tipsy, and ‘stealth interviewing’ her. I started at the beginning. What did music did she like when she was very young?

“Oh definitely ELVIS! My cousins brought round this record, put it on and I went ‘WHAT IS THIS?’, and started dancing around the room! Much better than your grandfather’s old 78s. Do you remember 78s?”

Mum was also adamant that she liked the Kinks and the Rolling Stones (“exciting”) and definitely not the Beatles (“boring”). But hang on, what about the wearing-out-Revolver anecdote?

“Oh yes, but that one was *good*. It was all the drippy hand-holding stuff early on that I didn’t like. That copy of Revolver belonged to your Uncle Ron, anyway.”

I tried to keep things chronological, but Mum was on the second bottle of wine and into the eighties already. “I loved soul music! Like Simply Red, and… Tina Turner! Yeah! She was a feisty woman, and I admired that.”

Fair enough. But I wanted to know about the Dark Ages – what happened to Mum’s taste in the seventies? Did she like disco? Glam rock? What about punk? A dismissive shake of the head to all three. “I still watched Top Of The Pops because your sister loved it, but I was singing with the old choir at the time, so I was mostly listening to classical choral music.”

This last admission threw me a little, I admit. I vaguely knew about Mum’s early singing career (she now sings for a ladies’ barbershop chorus), but never twigged that Verdi and Mendelssohn might be the missing link between mod rock and Smooth FM. However if you turn the equation around, starting with a rock band and adding an extremely powerful set of female vocals, Tina Turner doesn’t seem that strange a conclusion. Although it’s still something of a stretch to get from there to Bad Boys Inc.

I helped Mum finish off the wine, and the conversation moved on to Dad’s plans for the kitchen extension.

Mum-pop conundrum: what’s WRONG with me?

‘Mum-pop’ itself has connotations of unchallenging music with smooth, melodic vocals. There’s no need to impress your toddler with how cool your music taste is, so anything goes as long as it’s music that won’t offend or irritate (and that you can sing along to in the car). It’s good for dancing to at weddings but not too exhausting or repetitive. The songs are about love and loss, but not about sex or anger. This is music you’d let your kids listen to. One of the recently be-sprogged FT regulars confirmed this when I asked her opinion*. “You want to protect them from bad influences! No child of mine is growing up listening to emo!”

But I don’t have any kids (nor any feelings of broodiness) – so why on earth have I put Westlife’s Unbreakable: Greatest Hits Vol.1 on my Amazon wishlist? I’ve narrowed it down to five possible theories:

Theory #1: POPTIMIST GUILT

Until very recently I’ve pretty much avoided all contact with Westlife and their wholesome contemporaries, writing them off as dull ballad-mongers – with no idea whether or not this conceit is actually true! But then just five years ago I refused to listen to most hip-hop and R’n’B with similar ignorance, so perhaps it’s time to give Mum-pop a chance. Of course there’s the risk that a lot of it will be rubbish, but I’d like to think there is a spectrum of quality waiting to be explored, just like with indie or dance or any other genre.

Unless you are very dedicated in your research, most of the hard work of chaff/wheat separation is done for us already by music critics or our respected peers. We personally filter out music that has already been filtered to some degree. Unfortunately, the majority of music critics and tastemakers seem to have sealed themselves off from Westlife completely, just like I have. Surely a bad review is better than no review at all? This might be a good place to point out that Westlife have sold over 40 million records during their 10-year, 9-album career; I don’t think anyone could argue that they are insignificant in terms of output, longevity or success. Are there really no writers or critics interested in this phenomena, other than its potential as a comedy 1-star review at the bottom of this month’s singles releases? My curiosity may well be getting the better of me.

Theory #2: THESE VOICES, I HEAR THEM

Whilst I haven’t had any classical singing training in the interim, I definitely have a better appreciation of both melody and vocal skill than when I was an indie-snob student. I also listen to much more techno music, which satisfies the energy/excitement requirement previously supplied by my 100% indie-rock diet. On the whole, techno features fewer vocals and is beat-driven rather than melody-driven, so there could well be a musical gap here which needs filling.

Theory #3: PERSONALITY TEST

Another interesting parallel with dance music is the anonymity of the artist. A common complaint of Westlife is the lack of ability to pick them out in a police line-up. But would you fare any better with Laurent Garnier? What about Booka Shade or the Utah Saints? (Using Daft Punk as an example would be a little unfair, I admit.)

Impressionable teenagers look to personality-rich pop stars for cultural inspiration in fashion, politics, attitude. By the time those teenagers reach their late twenties, the majority of them will have settled upon their particular preference in these areas (nearly all of them also having realised that using pop stars as inspiration for one’s career path probably isn’t going to work out after all). Justine Frischmann certainly doesn’t influence my daily decision-making to the same extent as she did when I was 14. Nowadays I find pop stars with strong personalities to be a bonus factor, but by no means an essential quality.

Theory #4: TIME POOR & IN NEED OF PRO-BIOTIC YOGHURT

I still spend hours listening to new pop music each week, but these days it all seems like a lot of effort for little reward (Turkey’s Europop 2008 squad excepted!). I’m absolutely fine with having someone else drip-feed me music – luckily I’m not short of sources (the charts, adverts, internet communities, Hits!TV and erm, my job, which is vaguely related to the music industry…). There’s no shame in not having time or energy to go ‘crate-digging’. I could be missing out on something amazing by not signing up to iMusicMyFaceSpace, but frankly I have enough stuff to wade through as it is.

Unimaginative radio playlists can be frustrating if you crave original, inventive music – but I sometimes find that I listen to techno precisely *because* it obeys a certain set of rules. I know exactly what I’m going to get when I bung the CD on, no nasty surprises or disappointments after a hard day’s data quality report checking. Perhaps the lure of comforting identikit ballads is nibbling at my poor exhausted subconscious? If this is true, I’m not sure exactly what I can do to reverse this homogenising trend. Perhaps I could buy a sports car?

Theory #5: BLOOD-SOAKED SHORES OF INSANITY ISLAND

Of course there is always the possibility that I’m losing my marbles. Again, not much that can be done there.

Flying Without Wings aka MY JOURNEY INTO THE UNKNOWN

My findings are unsurprisingly bringing up more questions instead of answering them. I may be sliding down the inevitable slope into M People’s Elegant Slumming but fingers crossed I’ll keep going out the other side into the zimmer frame paradise of Cliff Richard (hooray!). I don’t think I’ll be taking my copy of Rave Nation down the Cancer Research shop just yet.

What about Mum? Obviously she isn’t the perfect sample group but I think it’s fair to say that she doesn’t feel the need to be challenged by music, only to consume (and produce) it. Mum doesn’t fire up some Atari Teenage Riot to let off steam at the end of the day, that’s what the John Lewis store card is for. She is also happy to listen from the pre-selected subset of music that comprises the Radio 2 playlist, music on adverts and whoever Jools Holland thinks is best – this may sound like a fate worse than death to You The Culturally Aware Reader, but unless you are a myspace-magpie or an A&R scout then the music you ‘discover’ will at some point going to be passed through the filter of someone you trust. And may you reap the rewards! You’re benefiting from one particular system, and my mother is benefiting from another.

So I’m going to try and step outside the path I’m currently following, see if Westlife and their Mum-pop siblings are worth exploring. With an open mind and a high ballad tolerance level, I’ll look for the gleams of gold among the straw. Could Westlife’s music benefit from a bassline makeover? What if they started wearing name-badges? It may be a long and arduous journey finding out, and by the time I reach the end I will probably have kids of my own forcing me to listen to ‘Mad Noise Inc: Boyband Emo-Booty Hits’ on repeat. I’ll have plenty of anecdotes stored up as revenge though, like the time my Elastica cassette snapped from rewinding it so many times…

*Once again, wine was involved during this conversation – apologies if I’ve misquoted!

Essays   Pop