R.I.P. pop music. We’ll miss you
The booming piano chords that kick off Baby One More Time by Britney Spears constitute one of pop music’s great moments. Like the start of Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel or the staccato guitar strums in Faith by George Michael, the Spears intro heralds the start of what is unquestionably one of the genre’s best songs - and one of its last.
Amid all the analysis and reflection on this tumultuous decade as it winds to a close – there’s a powerful interactive trip down memory lane here – there has been a change in contemporary culture, in some ways a sad one, that has gone pretty much unnoticed.
Pop music disappeared.
It was a slow, quiet crumbling – but look around. It’s gone. Like everything else in the media world, pop – that universally agreeable genre of music about good times and young love, highly produced and packaged to sell – has splintered into niches. What was pop has become club raunch (Sugababes, Pussycat Dolls), R ‘n’ B (Beyonce), dance and disco (Lady Gaga and Kylie), pop rock (Pink) and hip-hop (Black Eyed Peas).
But there’s no good honest pop that comes anywhere close to the brilliance of the likes of Madonna, Wham!, Tears for Fears, the Pet Shop Boys, A-Ha or the early Britney Spears at their poppy best. The death this year of the genre’s king, Michael Jackson, serves as a tragic underlining of pop’s passing.
This isn’t a good or a bad thing. It’s just how it is.
The self-consciously vacuous Take on Me by A-Ha was an apogee for the genre. It was vaguely something to do with love and relationships and had a watchable video clip featuring pencil sketches of a guy dancing in a mirror and some cartoons of a motorbike race and a chase. Lyrics in the first verse captured the spirit of pop perfectly: “I don’t know what I’m to say, I’ll say it anyway.”
It meant nothing, and didn’t have to. It was pop.
The purest classics shared this frothiness. Think The Only Way is Up by Yazz!, We Built This City by
Roxette Starship, Manic Monday by The Bangles, Freedom by Wham! and Faith by George Michael and, his introspective Man in the Mirror phase aside, most of Michael Jackson’s discography.
Now all the good popular music is about things that actually matter, like promiscuity and self-confidence. The essential vacuity of pop has been overtaken by various niches that portray a grittier culture that celebrates only behaviour that pushes the boundaries of taste and propriety. There’s no room for a song celebrating the innocence and safety of a giddy crush.
As we head into Christmas the only things resembling pop songs in the ARIA chart are Little Black Box by Australian Idol winner Stan Walker and Bulletproof by La Roux – two templated, unoriginal songs. Little Black Box is a perfect example of just how worn-out and uninspired today’s attempts at pop are.
Kylie Minogue still does, arguably, fly pop’s flag with her image. But her music – like Wow – is really disco, made for mixing on a DJ’s turntables.
There’s Lily Allen, but as pointed out by Tory some time ago here, her explicit sexual references about men underperforming in bed are a far cry from Big Fun’s cover of Blame it on the Boogie.
Pink is probably the closest thing music has left to good pop. But she has moved from her frothy belter Get This Party Started to a much rougher, guitar-driven pop rock, in a way taking it back to its roots.
When the Spice Girls arrived in late 1996 it was a why-didn’t-they-think-of-it-before moment. The mould was cast in the early 1990s by boy bands like New Kids on the Block and Take That who, in turn, had borrowed much from the great pop producers Stock Aitken Waterman. SAW’s successes were often short lived, but they showed the power of packaging artists like Bananarama, Rick Astley, Jason Donovan and – the stayer – Kylie Minogue.
The Spice Girls took the sexual aggression of the boy bands, but replaced the guys with girls. Playful froth and prettiness were out. Sex was in. Female pop artists would never be the same.
When the album Baby One More Time was released Spears was marketed as an all-American sweetheart with just the right level of sex appeal to let her quickly but convincingly take the next step into the pop market that was increasingly defined by aggressive female sexuality.
Whether it was her own choice or her management’s – probably a bit of both – Spears quickly settled into the role of sex symbol. Over the following years she slowly descended from pop megastar to celebrity train wreck, trying and failing to balance fame with family, culminating in the head-shaving incident in 2007.
It was a sad parallel to the demise of the true pop brilliance which started her career and which she returned to occasionally in songs like Toxic, but never fully recaptured. Instead it gave way to anger in songs like Overprotected and her cover of My Prerogative, or the open sexuality of tunes like Slave or Outrageous.
Her current Circus tour, beset by the miming controversy and fan complaints, has elements of pop about it. But true pop is carefree, something Spears is most certainly not.
There’s an argument that pop was always a reflection of the world around it and that today’s pop stars with their anger and promiscuity are natural products of modern culture. But the original true pop acts, starting with ABBA and Michael Jackson and right through to Kylie and Yazz, were happy-go-lucky, fun-loving and characterised by a certain self-aware naivety – over decades when there was plenty to be angry and cynical about. And it’s not as if people weren’t having lots of sex back then either.
The truth is that pop as we once knew it has simply disappeared. Much of what has replaced it is excellent music. But it’s not pop in its original sense.
Thanks, pop. We’ll miss you.
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