For far too long pop music has been unfairly treated as some bizarre entity that only tween girls and gay men can enjoy. Not only are these both damaging stereotypes, but they are also degrading of a musical genre that, in name, is “popular” among those who are listening. While the means by which artists market their music may belittle the work in the eyes of most critics, it is important to, if only once or twice, listen to the music itself and try to get the broader picture.
Not many pop musicians discuss the frivolity of pop music. In fact, most avoid it entirely. One could argue that this is because on some level even the musicians, who often seem to have become corporate property themselves, do not believe in their music. One artist who does not shy away from this idea is Lady Gaga, who has grown to revel in her relationship with the popular. Her latest album, ARTPOP, delves into a discussion of the commercialization of art through high-energy dance music, with the occasional ballad. The title itself is meant to reverse Warhol’s Pop Art, a concept which put the popular within the realm of art, and put art back within the realm of the popular. Her collaboration with Jeff Koons, a notable artist who prides himself in the commercial appeal and uniformity of his works, goes on to further her position that the audience needs to look for the art within the popular.
Aside from the artistic philosophies that put value back into the popular, we can look at the actual songs themselves and see why pop music does not deserve the name that it has.
The airwaves are admittedly full of overly sexualized songs that often take little to no stance on topics that most would consider important in cultural discussion. However, that is not completely true. Popular music occasionally has provided us with uplifting anthems that spurn the status quo and invite the world to empower itself.
As of late, Colbie Caillat’s “Try” is a great example, with lyrics like “You don’t have to try so hard / You don’t have to, give it all away / You just have to get up, get up, get up, get up / You don’t have to change a single thing.” Through the beauty of her voice and musical capabilities, Colbie reminds us that we do not need to meet anyone’s standards and can simply be ourselves without putting on a facade.
Another perfect example would be Sara Bareilles’ “Brave,” in which she calls upon people to “Say what you wanna say / And let the words fall out / Honestly, I wanna see you be brave.” The upbeat tempo and sweepingly empowering lyrics are a refreshing reminder that popular music can have a positive effect.
Popular music is no stranger to having meaningful messages, especially if we look to what could be heard on radio stations of the past. Songs by artists such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Bob Marley came to challenge the mainstream thought regarding topics such as racism, anti-war sentiments, and the overall dissatisfaction of the youth with what was going on.
What is worth note, though, is that current popular music needs more musicians who care about what they are saying to their listeners. An interesting trend is that regardless of the casual sexuality found in most popular music, some artists are still taking a stand. Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, with songs like “G.U.Y. (Girl Under You)” and “***Flawless” respectively, have been able to channel extremely feminist messages to their audiences. “G.U.Y.” discusses the idea that a woman does not have to be domineering to be powerful, that she can have power and control even while submitting (definitely debatable, but nonetheless an interesting take). “***Flawless” is less sexual and takes a much more direct stance on feminism. Beyoncé asserts that women are flawless as they are. While it is considered by many to just be a quality song, Beyoncé also reminds the world that feminism is alive and must be discussed, going so far as to include a snippet of an April 2013 TED talk of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie where she affirmed that “we should all be feminists.” One could argue that songs like those of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga have greatly contributed to the revival of the mainstream discussion of feminism.
Ignoring pop music serves little purpose except to exacerbate the issue of having nonsensical, overly sexualized music flooding the radio and internet. Digging to find the songs that have artistic substance makes a difference. It is important that we remain engaged in the discussion of popular music because by recognizing and promoting what we find to be important and culturally relevant, we’re casting our vote as to what we want to hear. That is, in essence, how a capitalist economy works. You buy and support what you want to buy and support in order to see more of that commodity.
So, give the “Pop” tab another listen next time you’re browsing iTunes or SoundCloud. You never know what artist may have something to say.
Ehrlich, Brenna. “Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP Cover: Artist Jeff Koons Explains What It All Means.” MTV News. Viacom International Media Inc., 8 Nov 2013. Web. 14 Jul 2014.
Gaga, Lady. ARTPOP. Interscope Records, 2013. CD.
Caillat, Colbie. “Try.” Universal Records, 2014. MP3.
Bareilles, Sara. “Brave.” Epic Records, 2013. MP3.
Knowles, Beyoncé. “***Flawless.” Columbia Records, 2013. MP3.