The Curmudgeon: Pop Goes The Music

Music Features

“Pop music” is a tricky term because it can be used several different ways. In its broadest sense, it describes any music that is neither art music nor folk music. If art music (i.e. classical music and perhaps jazz) is intended for an educated ear within an institutional framework such as academia and fine-arts halls, and if folk music is intended to be shared by a local community without emphasis on authorship or commerce, then pop music is everything else: anything that is thrown upon the commercial marketplace to be patronized or ignored.

In its narrower sense, however, “pop” can also refer to a subgenre within the larger umbrella of popular music. It refers to music that seeks the broadest, most universal audience possible by emphasizing strong, repeating, easily grasped melodies; strong, simple, easy-to-move-to rhythms; and sentimental lyrics in easily accessible language. It can be Patti Page’s “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window,” ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” or Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.”

Critics often seem flummoxed by such music. In some eras, critics dismiss pop out of hand, as if merely aiming for the broadest possible audience disqualified a project from artistic success. The reflexive use of the word “sellout” by rock critics in the late ‘60s, punk critics in the late ‘70s and by hip-hop critics in the late ‘90s is a symptom of this. In other eras, such as the present one, the ability to capture a large audience with a hit single is by definition an artistic triumph—proof that the act is doing something important. And one extreme is as bad as the other.

Imagine if historians took this same approach. Imagine if anyone who campaigned for elected office was automatically dismissed as a sellout. Imagine if anyone who won the presidency was automatically acclaimed as a genius. Neither camp would be able to distinguish between Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon.

In truth, describing an artist’s genre tells you absolutely nothing about the quality of the art. Saying that someone is an avant-garde jazz musician, a trip-hop experimentalist, an Americana singer/songwriter or a pop star provides useful information about the kind of music being made, but tells you nothing about the music’s value. Pop is just another genre, and its music can be as bad or as good as the music in any other genre.

Myself, I found Perry’s “Dark Horse,” Billboard’s No. 2 best-selling song of 2014, a terrible record, so empty of wit, thought and pleasure that it commits music’s greatest sin: it’s boring. On the other hand, I found Billboard’s No. 1 best-selling song of 2014, Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” one of the year’s most rewarding recordings, boasting an indelible melody, a radiant sense of joy and a modern/retro arrangement that yanked it out of any particular era. I enjoyed it as every bit as much as the chamber-country of Rosanne Cash’s “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” as the blue-collar-rock of Hold Steady’s “Spinners,” the hard-country of Lee Ann Womack’s “The Way I’m Livin’,” the hip hop of Wu-Tang Clan’s “Preacher’s Daughter” or the jazz vocal of Kat Edmonson’s “Who’s Counting?”

Nor was Williams the one token pop act on my best-of-the-year list. I was also quite enamored of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and Royksopp & Robyn’s “Monument.” These songs too were triumphs of creativity—not because of their popularity, not despite their popularity, but because they stimulated the id and illuminated a particular corner of human nature.

If you look at the list below of my 100 favorite albums of 2014, however, you will find two genres over-represented: jazz and Americana. And I admit it: I’m not as genre-agnostic as perhaps I should be. Perhaps if I hadn’t wasted so much time in 2014 eating and sleeping, I could have listened to more indie-rock and hip-hop records and have discovered more brilliant albums.

To do so, though, I would have had to wade through a lot of mediocre records, and I would much rather eat and sleep than do that. For while it is true that every genre contains both wonderful and god-awful recordings, it’s not true that the percentages are the same in each genre. Genres that emphasize tradition over novelty (such as jazz and Americana) are likely to produce more very good records if fewer innovative breakthroughs. Genres that favor novelty over tradition (pop, EDM, indie-rock) are likely to provide more genuine surprises but fewer reliable pleasures. Each person has to make tradeoffs in allotting his or her own listening time.

But no matter how you allot that time, none of us, professional critics or amateur listeners, can afford to prejudge music by its genre. When we use the term “pop music,” we can’t in good conscience add a patronizing sneer nor a stamp of approval. Each song has to stand or fall on its own.

Geoffrey Himes’ Best Albums of 2014:

1. Bob Dylan and the Band: The Basement Tapes (Columbia/Legacy)
2. Mark Turner: Lathe of Heaven (ECM)
3. Rosanne Cash: The River and the Thread (Blue Note)
4. Justin Townes Earle: Single Mothers (Vagrant)
5. Pharrell Williams: Girl (Columbia)
6. The Hold Steady: Teeth Dreams (Razor & Tie/Washington Square)
7. John Fullbright: Songs (Blue Dirt/Thirty Tigers)
8. Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes: The GoGo Suite (Creative Differences)
9. Lee Ann Womack: The Way I’m Livin’ (Sugar Hill)
10. Taylor Swift: 1989 (Big Machine)
11. Jeff Ballard Trio: Time’s Travel (Okeh)
12. Old Crow Medicine Show: Remedy (ATO)
13. The Wu-Tang Clan: A Better Tomorrow (Warner Bros.)
14. Billy Hart: One Is the Other (ECM)
15. Gaslight Anthem: Get Hurt (Island)
16. Kat Edmonson: The Big Picture (Sony Masterworks)
17. Miranda Lambert: Platinum (MCA Nashville)
18. Pat Metheny Unity Group: Kin (Nonesuch)
19. Rodney Crowell: Tarpaper Sky (New West)
20. Lucinda Williams: Lucinda Williams: 25th Anniversary Edition (Highway 20/Thirty Tigers)
21. Kenny Barron Dave Holland: The Art of Conversation (Impulse)
22. The Black Keys: Turn Blue (Nonesuch)
23. The Drive-By Truckers: English Oceans (ATO)
24. John Adams: City Noir Saxophone Concerto (Nonesuch)
25. FKA Twigs: LP1 (Young Turks)
26. Avishai Cohen’s Triveni: Dark Nights (Anzic)
27. Billy Joe Shaver: Long in the Tooth (Thirty Tigers)
28. Queen Esther: The Other Side (Queen Esther)
29. Hurray for the Riff Raff: Small Town Heroes (ATO)
30. Royksopp: The Inevitable End (Dog Triumph)
31. The Kinks: Muswell Hillbillies Legacy Edition (RCA/Legacy)
32. Robert Ellis: The Lights from the Chemical Plant (New West)
33. St. Vincent: St. Vincent (Loma Vista)
34. Sunny Sweeney: Provoked (Thirty Tigers)
35. Shelby Lynne: I Am Shelby Lynne: Deluxe Edition (Rounder)
36. Lucero: Live from Atlanta (Liberty and Lament)
37. The Bad Plus: The Rite of Spring (Sony Masterworks)
38. Marty Stuart & the Fabulous Superlatives: Saturday Night/Sunday Morning (Superlatone/Thirty Tigers)
39. The Kronos Quartet: Kronos Explorer Series (Nonesuch)
40. Stefano Bollani: Joy in Spite of Everything (ECM)
41. The Strypes: Snapshot (Photo Finish/Island/Def Jam)
42. Angaleena Presley: American Middle Class (Slate Creek/Thirty Tigers)
43. Henry Butler Steve Bernstein: Viper’s Drag (Impulse)
44. Joshua Redman: Trios Live (Nonesuch)
45. Centro-Matic: Take Pride in Your Long Odds! (Navigational Transmissions)
46. Thompson Family: Thompson Family (Fantasy)
47. Bill Frisell: Guitar in the Space Age (Okeh)
48. Diego Barber + Craig Taborn: Tales (Sunnyside)
49. Willie Nelson: Band of Brothers (Legacy)
50. The Fred Hersch Trio: Floating (Palmetto)
51. Aretha Franklin: Sings the Great Diva Classics (RCA)
52. Lori McKenna: Numbered Doors (Liz Rose)
53. Sonny Rollins: Road Shows, Volume 3 (Doxy/Okeh)
54. Swamp Dogg: The White Man Made Me Do It (Alive)
55. Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20/Thirty Tigers)
56. Bob Mould: Beauty & Ruin (Merge)
57. Parker Millsap: Parker Millsap (Okra Home)
58. Nels Cline & Julian Lage: Room (Mack Avenue)
59. Luther Dickinson: Rock’n’Roll Blues (New West)
60. Charlie Haden-Jim Hall: Charlie Haden-Jim Hall (Impulse)
61. Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin: Common Ground (Yep Roc)
62. Candi Staton: Life Happens (Beracah)
63. U2: Songs of Innocence (Island)
64. Wye Oak: Shriek (Merge)
65. Mary Gauthier: Trouble & Love (In the Black)
66. John Hiatt: Terms of My Surrender (New West)
67. Future Islands: Singles (4AD)
68. The Roots: …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (Def Jam)
69. Tinariwen: Emmar (Anti-)
70. Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball Deluxe Edition (Nonesuch)
71. Chick Corea: Trilogy (Stretch/Concord)
72. Bruce Springsteen: High Hopes (Columbia)
73. Mike Farris: Shine for All the People (Compass)
74. Oran Etkin: Gathering Light (Motema)
75. Mariachi El Bronx: Mariachi El Bronx (White Drugs/ATO)
76. John Coltrane: Offering: Live at Temple University (Impulse)
77. The Allman Brothers: Play All Night: Live at the Beacon Theatre 1992 (Epic/Legacy)
78. Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Against Me)
79. Anthony Hamilton: Home for the Holidays (RCA)
80. Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band: Mother’s Touch (Positone)
81. Amy Lavere: Runaway Diary (Archer)
82. The Michael Carvin Experience: Flash Forward (Motema)
83. Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band: Landmarks (Blue Note)
84. Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer: Bass & Mandolin (Nonesuch)
85. Weezer: Everything Will Be Alright in the End (Republic)
86. Jesse Winchester: A Reasonable Amount of Trouble (Appleseed)
87. Lake Street Drive: Bad Self Portraits (Signature Sounds)
88. Martin Wind Quartet: Turn Out the Stars (What If)
89. Matt Wilson Quartet + John Medeski: Gathering Call (Palmetto)
90. Mary J. Blige: Think like a Man Too (Epic)
91. Meshell Ndegeocello: Comet, Come to Me (Naive)
92. Dierks Bentley: Riser (Capitol)
93. Ron Miles: Circuit Rider (Enja)
94. Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn: Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn (Rounder)
95. The Copenhagen Philharmonic: Dessner/Greenwood (Deutsche Grammophon)
96. Sam Amidon: Lily-O (Nonesuch)
97. Ataloft: Ataloft (Zobird)
98. Selwyn Birchwood: Don’t Call No Ambulance (Alligator)
99. Bill Mallonee: Dolorosa (High Horse)
100. Dom Flemons: Prospect Hill (Musicmaker Relief)

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