I love pop music.
Airy lyrics, catchy hooks, hand claps, vocals that sound like they were sung with a smile?
And I’ve felt that way for as long as I can remember.
The seventies — the decade I was born — brought a fairly broad mix of music to the masses: singer-songwriters like Carly Simon, James Taylor, Carole King, Elton John, and Paul Simon; rock acts like Kansas, Journey, Queen, and ELO; and R&B and funk acts like Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Bill Withers, and Al Green… some of the most definitive voices of the era in which I took my musical baby steps.
My parents exposed me to all of it. They loved great voices and great instruments, and anywhere the two met on a great album.
By the late seventies and early eighties, however, disco was bringing a different kind of energy to the charts — love it or hate it — and suddenly the candy-colored tunes of the fifties and sixties had a sexier, sassier, less innocent new sibling. All the energy and bounce pop delivered, with none of the chaste eye-fluttering of early Beatles tunes, or even The Monkees. Not to mention a healthy dose of Marvin Gaye-esque sensuality and David Bowie-esque androgyny.
I didn’t take much notice of disco — and neither did my parents — but it set the stage for an era that would change my musical life.
POP! POP! POP!
I was old enough to buy my first album in 1984, and I chose “Make It Big” by Wham!
George Michael was a perfect hybrid of American Bandstand-heartthrob, movie star-cute and disco-glam, and I loved nothing better than doing a lip-sync with my girlfriends to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” or “Everything She Wants.”
Bright colors! Cute boys! Great beats! Dancing! Singing! Laughing! Fun!
No one else in my family liked it, mind you.
My dad: classical, jazz, singer-songwriter folkishness (as above), hymns, doses of more traditional country (bluegrass, Texas swing, etc.)
My mom: Motown, singer-songwriters, and anything my dad felt like listening to — probably the most musically easygoing member of my family.
My brother: mostly rock (heavier and lighter), and a little bit of everything from Duran Duran to Mozart.
But bouncy basslines, giddy horn riffs, electric beats, and “keytars” didn’t quite make the cut, so I dutifully fostered that love on my own by calling the local radio station to request favorite songs, and then recording them on my “ghetto blaster” to listen to over and over and over.
The eighties and nineties brought in a million pop mainstays, introducing us to everyone from club kid-to-stadium success stories like Madonna, to growing-lighter-by-the-day (no pun intended) stars like Michael Jackson, to chirpy girl acts like the Go-Gos and Bananarama and the Bangles, to the boy band freakout, which ushered in the New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, and many, many more. If it got played on the radio and it made teenage girls scream, I can sing it for you verbatim.
There were many other musical movements afoot during this pop resurgence, mind you. These were the decades when “hair bands” took stadium-level performances to a completely different (eyeliner-wearing) level, when “grunge”, “alternative”, and “indie” became common rock descriptors, when neo-soul crooned onto the charts, when hip-hop and punk landed firmly the mainstream, and when the popularity of the multi-day music festival (Lollapalooza, Lilith Fair, Warped Tour, Coachella, etc.) made it possible for artists to develop a whole different kind of community with their fans.
And me? Well, I had the classic Beatles phase.
Then an earlyish hip-hop phase starring LL Cool J, Salt & Pepa, and plenty of others.
Then a singer-songwriter phase, where I’d get misty-eyed to David Gray, Van Morrison, Ben Harper, Dave Matthews, Paul Simon, and more guitar-wielding poets.
Then I settled into my current phase of loving a bit of almost everything.
And accordingly, the current era of popular music seems to be defined by the way everything overlaps as much as it is by the niche in which you exist. Genre-benders dominate the charts. You’re as likely to find a pop hook in the middle of a punk-identified jangly track as you are to hear a “country” song on a top-40 station.
That works for me.
But if I’m honest with myself, I still love pop best.
The odes to teenage heartbreak, the get-out-on-the-floor breakdowns, the giddy declarations of love, the top-down convertible anthems, the cheerleader-inspiring jams, the songs that beg for a couples’ skate at the roller rink.
When the hook is so irresistible, it won’t leave your head… and you don’t actually mind.
When you’ve picked up the lyrics after three listens because they’re both simple and catchy.
When it sounds like the singer is beaming by the time they hit the bridge.
When you can’t help but dance in the grocery aisle, baguette in hand.
When it feels like the sun shines a bit brighter every time you hear it.
When you mortify 13 year-olds — you’re cramping their style! — by singing along loudly in the car.
It takes a perfect storm of melody, rhythm, vocal tone, instrumentation, and attitude to make something that addictive and joyous. And when it succeeds, I’m like a bulldog with a swimming pool.
That doesn’t mean I love every pop song or pop performer, mind you. Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Jessie J and many others have passed me by without even stopping to share their glitter. If it seems like it’s taking too much yell-singing effort and posing and costuming and makeup and staging to get there — and yet I’m not quite sure if you’re having a good time because you’re so fierce about making me have a good time — I lose a bit of the desire to follow you there.
Besides, I like my pop to be a bit of an influence salad, as with the genre-bending I mentioned before. Add a little R&B, add a little British Invasion, add a little punk, add a little pop art quirk, add a little jazz, add a little hip-hop — and a sense of humor, please — and you’ve got me. Sure, we can argue about classifications; some of what I call pop might not be what you call pop. But since pop is short for “popular” and pretty much everything ends up on the pop chart at some point, I can make my definition as broad or as restrictive as I like.
I’m contrary like that.
It might not be complicated, emotional, deep, heart-wrenching, game-changing, life-altering, symphony-worthy, indie-credible, thunder-striking, masters-level stuff. Critics might pan it. Hipsters might disdain it. Emo kids won’t get tattoos with these lyrics. Your parents might loathe it. Your friends might wonder what’s gotten into you.
But that’s okay. Come dance with me anyway.