Pop music is a funny genre. Firstly, because “Popular Music” unlike “Jazz” or “Teutonic Thrash Metal” doesn’t really have specific musical or lyrical characteristics. It’s defined almost entirely by culture and time: what’s currently popular.
Seen more as a commercial enterprise than a creative one, Pop is often belittled by ~more serious artists~. The mass-marketed junk food of the music world. “All Pop sounds the same.” Scoff the hipsters as they sip black coffee from a mason jar, some Alt J vinyl spinning in the background.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Alt J. Sometimes I drink my coffee black. I am occasionally that hipster. But let’s be honest. A lot of alternative music sounds the same too. It happens in every genre.
Heck, every Blues song follows the same exact 8- or 12-bar chord progression. It’s what makes it Blues. Yet Somehow there is great Blues. And there is also crappy Blues. HOW?! You may ask. It’s almost as if genre is not a good determining factor of the quality of music.
I have certainly fallen into the trap of disparaging an entire genre of music. I really don’t like reggae. Or at least I thought I didn’t, until I realized that the Arthur Theme Song, AKA the beloved soundtrack to my childhood, was written and performed by none other than Ziggy Marley, prominent reggae artist and son of the legendary Bob Marley. I was enlightened. Humbled. Inspired to revisit my childhood aardvark friend.
Miles Davis said it best: “Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is.”
Ok, so now that that’s out of the way. I want to talk about some new pop.
Zayn Malik’s famous breakaway from One Direction has finally culminated in a solo album, Mind of Mine, which was released almost exactly a year after he left the band. It predictably shot to the top of the charts.
I was mildly bitter about the whole thing, largely because of the blaring double standard that Zayn could drop his contract with the biggest boy band in the world – in the middle of a tour no less – without serious repercussions because he “just wasn’t feeling it anymore” whereas another famous pop star (ahem Kesha) can’t get out of a record deal contract with a producer who allegedly assaulted her. I mean…come on.
But I digress. There’s a lot to say about Zayn’s album, like its strange use of capitalization in the song titles and the fact that the album cover is eerily similar to Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III”
I’m all for cute children with tattoos, but let’s show a LiTtLe oRiGinAliTy, Zayn.
And the music? To be honest, Zayn could’ve made an entire album of nails on a chalkboard and it probably would have been #1 on the charts because it’s Zayn Malik. (Side note: Taylor Swift once accidentally released a track that was 8 seconds of static noise and it went to #1). So he should get some credit for making what I think is good music. And he definitely has vocal chops, there’s no question about that. Those falsetto notes are positively heavenly.
But these things were fairly predictable. He likely had access to some of the industry’s best producers and essentially unlimited funding; One Direction may have been creatively constrictive to Zayn, but it definitely made him a lot of money. He also likely felt a lot of pressure to make really good music and prove himself to the literal millions watching his every move. This much attention on a debut album is a blessing and a curse.
It seems like many reviews Mind of Mine focus on the “sexually-charged lyrics.” “One Direction would’ve never let him say those things!” marvel reviewers. True. But Zayn’s lyrics are actually pretty tame. (When I first heard the song, “lUcOzAdE,” I figured Lucozade was some sketchy new opioid or something. It turns out it’s kind of like the British version of Mountain Dew. This, I feel, represents the album as a whole in many ways.)
In fact, I find Zayn’s occasional swearing and allusions to “mature content” less offensive than One Direction’s propensity to feel they have to explain what makes me beautiful (spoiler: it’s the fact that I don’t think I’m beautiful) or dictate why it’s such a privilege that someone might like me despite the “little things” that would otherwise deter any romantic prospects (including, among other things, eye-wrinkles, having to squeeze into jeans, stomach, thighs, etc etc). Anyway, Mind of Mine distinguishes itself from 1D in other, more meaningful ways than just sexy lyrics.
For example, in “INTERMISSION: fLoWer,” Zayn sings in Urdu over a sweet and simple guitar melody, a nod to his Pakistani heritage. This from a Muslim superstar who literally received death threats from any public mention of his religion or political leanings. What a beautiful response. And that is something you’d never hear from One Direction.
It’s reminiscent in some ways of Rihanna’s “Work,” a hugely popular new song sung in a Jamaican Patois/Bajan accent that gives nod to Rihanna’s Barbadian roots. What was thought of as slurred, unintelligible lyrics by many a listener, including myself at first listen, was in fact Rihanna showing us a piece of the world outside of our mainstream American Pop bubble.
Even the superest superstar of all, Beyoncé, addresses some politically charged and nuanced ideas in her new music. The Guardian describes her song and music video, “Formation” as depicting “archetypical southern black women in ways that we haven’t seen frequently represented in popular art or culture.” The video also shows imagery that references the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality. Beyoncé has publicly spoken out about these issues recently too. It would be a stretch to say that Beyoncé has done more than allude to any political issues in the past. Now she’s diving headfirst into them.
I’m really excited about pop stars contributing to the cultural education of top 40 listeners. Like, really excited.
And they aren’t just exploring new avenues lyrically, they’re also doing it musically.
For example, the music from Zayn’s “Blue” is a straight rendition of Bach’s Prelude in C major BWV 846.
Similarly Lukas Graham, who broke into the charts with his single, “Seven Years,” sings over a piano track almost identical to Beethoven’s famous 1st movement of the Moonlight Sonata in his song “Better Than Yourself.” I really hope popstars giving nod to 17th and 18th century classical composers becomes the new cool thing to do.
One Direction’s new album has some interesting twists too. Like the song “Walking in the Wind,” which is like a 2016 boy band version of classic Paul Simon. A long shot from “What Makes You Beautiful”…in a good way.
And Adele. Oh, Adele. If Adele’s voice had a voice, it would be laughing in the face of the heavily autotuned era of Pop’s past. Did that make sense? Whatever. Adele is amazing.
And I think it’s hard to talk about today’s Pop scene without mentioning Swiffy T. Tay Tay. Maybe her music isn’t exactly revolutionary, but the fact that Taylor Swift writes and co-produces her own songs in an age where most pop songs have several dozen writers, producers, mixers, sound engineers, etc attached to each individual track is exciting. Maybe singer-songwriters don’t always have to live in that one corner of iTunes that no one ever visits.
Even former teen pop artists like Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez show some growth in their new albums, “Purpose” and “Revival,” as they address slightly more nuanced themes of struggling through early adulthood. Sure, it’s no Black Lives Matter anthem, but it’s a little deeper than “I wanna love you like a love song, baby.”
I guess what I want to say is this: the pop superstars of yesteryear are becoming more and more interesting, musically and lyrically. That’s exciting.
Yes, there will probably be new boy bands and teen stars singing things akin to “Baby, baby, baby oooh//Baby, baby, baby, nooo” to fill the void left by maturing pop musicians. And yes, a lot of pop music still has the singular goal of producing a beat that’s easy to dance to with some surface-level lyrics and a familiar four-chord melody thrown in as an afterthought…
But let’s not dismiss a whole genre because of those songs. I mean, let’s not even dismiss those songs. Sometimes you just want to dance, man.
Pop albums deserve a good, critical listen every now and then. Haters gonna hate (hate, hate, hate, hate).
(cover image via POPArta.com)