Recently, I felt compelled to look up the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Upon reading it, I only recognized the titles of about half of the songs, which makes sense, since I haven’t listened to the radio in about a year-and-a-half, choosing instead to burrow ever deeper into my increasingly eclectic and confusing Spotify hole.
And even though I am generally satisfied with the new direction my music consumption habits have taken, the small corner of my soul that is afraid of losing touch with popular youth culture was mildly alarmed at my shocking ignorance. When I looked up the titles I didn’t recognize, however, I discovered that I recognized every. Single. Song. The result was an odd mixture of relief and annoyance.
My odd relationship with pop music has been a source of guilt for many years. I have fully internalized my generation’s belief in the supreme value of individuality, finding ever more obscure, underground music—rough cuts to make me appear to be rough around the edges. I have found a lot of great music this way. I have met a lot of great (and a lot of shitty) people this way. But my odyssey into the upper echelons of the pop charts reminded me that pop music can sometimes be a wonderful thing.
Nobody who tries to shut down pop music makes the argument that it isn’t catchy. If they did, they would immediately lose credibility—pop is specifically designed to sound immediately, annoyingly delightful to a wide range of people. Calvin Harris isn’t as challenging or inspired as Miles Davis, but damn if he doesn’t make the drive home from a long day at school or work more fun.
The rewards of listening to a complex or unique song unfurl slowly, making them greater in the long run. But the immediate punch of a great pop song is valuable in its own right. Life brings with it a host of complicated emotions, but sometimes the most profound feelings are the simplest: the betrayal of a trusted lover, the desire for someone you can’t have. Most people at least occasionally listen to different genres based on their moods or needs. Why can’t pop music be one of those genres?
Pop’s broad audience makes it a unifying force, as the Thanksgiving skit of “Saturday Night Live” featuring Adele’s “Hello,” satirized.
While you and your family probably won’t break out in song after arguing about political affairs, you probably will all get up and dance to “Uptown Funk” at your cousin’s summer wedding. Songs that get large groups of people energized are powerfully exciting because everybody is feeling the same rush at the same time, with the additional rush of seeing their feelings reflected in the voices, eyes and bodies of others, some of whom they may never normally talk to or bond with. Even songs that are truly awful offer an opportunity for bonding; it’s no fun making wisecracks about Justin Bieber in your own head.
It is this collective experience of pop music that perhaps adds to its polarizing effect. Everybody hears it, so everybody has an opinion about it. If everyone around you is panning Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” you’ll be less likely to brag about how you listened to it on repeat on your way to work that morning. This added layer of shame, however, can make pop songs even more enjoyable; stolen moments with a widely-panned song can be as irresistible as forbidden love.
Listening to pop music can be like paying attention to current events—it keeps you up-to-date on the cultural attitudes of the present. You may balk at the idea that the content and structure of pop music reveals something about society, especially if you listen to artists or genres that more directly discuss political issues or the attitudes of a specific subgroup of people. But since pop music is meant to appeal to as many people as possible, the messages and style of our collective favorite songs portray the values that fit in the center of society’s venn diagram.
Of course, it is difficult to know to what extent pop creates these values, rather than merely reflecting them. An example of this can be found in the ongoing debate over Beyonce and feminism. Loyal fans argue that she is one of the main people who galvanized the increased popularity of the movement, while skeptics say that she merely saw the upswing in feminism’s popularity and jumped on the bandwagon to make money. The likely answer is that she legitimately identifies as a feminist, who just happens to recognize the commercial potential of displaying those beliefs in her music.
Indeed, being successful in the music industry means exploiting human desires to create music that people want to buy. This can be accomplished by either creating a desire, or ascertaining a preexisting desire and fulfilling it. This is why earlier decades saw executives bribing radio djs to get their song aired; it wasn’t just about gaining exposure, but forcing audiences to hear the same song so often that they gradually, often despite initially lukewarm responses, grew to like, then love a song.
Now, thanks to the internet, people don’t have to listen to the radio, which means execs have to focus on figuring out what people already want to hear, and selling that. This could occur in the form of signing artists that are getting shazammed frequently, or giving possible hits to already established artists. For Beyonce, this means recognizing the commercial potential of her likely-legitimate personal beliefs, and displaying those in her music. Either way, Beyonce’s music illustrates the increasingly large space that the rhetoric of female empowerment takes up in the cultural consciousness, as well as the large gulf between such consciousness and political reality.
It can be disconcerting to be so easily affected by the most heavily commercialized corner of the music industry. (Recent music videos by The Weeknd and Justin Bieber feature product placement by Puma and Calvin Klein, respectively.)
But succumbing to the enjoyment of great beats and hooks is not necessarily the same as allowing oneself to be exploited. It is possible to listen to pop music, and view the accompanying music videos, from a critical distance. Pop music simultaneously illustrates the best and worst aspects of our culture. It shows us our potential, while also showing us what we need to overcome to reach it.