In defense of pop

Fake Out

I was originally going to write this column convincing you to like pop music.

My opening line was going to be “Why is inaccessibility cool?” It was going to grab your attention.

This piece was going to accuse you of listening to pop music wrong and intellectualizing it too much or some other equally boring argument. The whole thing was going to be neat, efficient, clever and clean, like pop music itself.

Unfortunately, like a lot of pop songs, I was just going to sound good and be dishonest:

Since the turn of the decade, an admixture of online Tumblr cool kids, Pitchfork contributors and the white kids wearing stonewashed mom jeans from American Apparel have unanimously agreed to turn pop music cool.

I agree. Pop music is very cool, but unlike the laundry list of pop culture fiends desperate to validate their own hipness in the process of commending their favorite pop artists, I’d like to make the case for pop on its own terms.

Pop music is, centrally, a sanitization of an artist’s experience. Pop artists squash down their pain and triumph into a simple package. That end result takes a lot of work — funneling the sludge of one’s lived life through the eye of a needle into a consumable, teachable piece of art.

I genuinely, deeply admire pop as a genre of music. The degenerate coupling of honesty and dishonesty makes me feel sort of normal:

It’s no wonder people try to distance themselves from Pop as a genre. This century is dehumanizing enough!

I’ve always been pretty good at that kind of sterilized, silencing language. I don’t think that most people who have dated me or crushed on me would describe me as a pleasant experience.

My relationship history is a series of false fantasy projections coupled with my own overactive imagination and my penchant for careful curation of how I’m being perceived.

I’m also a great liar when I want to be. As a romantic interest, you’ve only ever heard what my panicked, self-absorbed head wants you to hear. I may seem calm, and my words may be plain, but underneath is a great churning mass of obsessive, self-defeating, wretched voices all vying for my ear.

Pop is easy because even with your heart wrenched in every different direction, it only really says one thing at a time:

Pop can actively affect me in profound ways. Pop can still be political, radical, devastating and complicated. That’s not basic. That’s not uncool. Honestly, who cares if it is anyway.

When I’m actually sad, I go straight to Kelly Clarkson. More than half of her debut Breakaway is sitting in my “Drinking Alone” playlist. When I feel too fucked up for love, identifying with music that’s so straightforward and uninvolved can be a relief.

I love listening to pop music when I’m sad about a boy that my neuroses self-defeatingly pushed out of my life. Pop is pliable on purpose. Any situation can be mapped onto a pop song. That’s sort of the point:

Unlike every other popular music genre, pop music doesn’t shy away from its own commodification. In fact, pop revels in it!

I’m desperately attached to the idea of love. Love might save me, I think, if I just stop self-sabotaging.

The love I’m obsessed with is the clean love in pop music. I don’t really know what it’s like to touch and be touched. I would settle for the plastic, distant, unreal version. No one’s shown me anything different.

That’s clearly my own fault. I have trouble parsing out what I want out of people and why, and even then, I’m a terrible communicator anyway.

In pop, your song gets to just be the parts that float to the surface. Only your stated intentions matter. You can probably get away with it and sound honest if you manage to convince yourself of your own bullshit:

It’s no wonder the cool kids want in on pop. They seem desperate to bring pop into the realm of modern high culture, intellectualizing it away from the masses.

Part of it is an issue of class. Culture has historically been reserved for the leisure class. Even today, the time and energy needed to be cool and listen to cool music is more easily afforded by people with the money and the resources, such as most UC Berkeley students, for example.

I think at some level, no matter what I would’ve claimed I was trying to say, my real intention with this defense of pop was still secretly to sound like the coolest, most nuanced and progressive UC Berkeley kid in the room.

My original piece wasn’t ever going to say what I wanted it to say. As always, I was too busy wading through my own bullshit to get at what was real:

None of this is to say that every pop artist is making quality music. I think everyone can pretty much agree Meghan Trainor is the worst thing to ever happen to music.

I’m joking, of course. Simply put, don’t let anybody disrespect or over-intellectualize your favorite pop music.

If it’s a bop, it’s a bop.

Justin Knight writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on building identity by consuming culture. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @jknightlion.