Is POP a Bad Word? - Promoting the NO-BROW Approach
MUSIC is not a GENRE - Season 3 Episode #20
ALL ABOUT IT
What is pop music? Chances are, whatever your head just said to you is wrong. Or if it’s not wrong, it’s absolutely not the whole story. One easy definition is that it’s anything that’s popular. “Pop” is right there in the word, right? But that’s TOO facile. Let’s dig deeper. Where does “pop” or “popular” come from? The shared root of those words means “people”. Like in “populace” or “population”. So pop music is music of the people, by the people, for the people. It’s the “people’s music”.
Music made by people is pop music? That seems super broad and “duh” inducing. Well sit down, because I’m going to tell you how it’s even broader than you think.
The definitions of “pop music” and “popular music” I’ve found online bend over backwards to make all these distinctions & divisions. They are also WRONG. They’re wrong because they all start with the base assumption that there’s a difference between “high-brow” and “low-brow” music – that classical, jazz, avant-garde, world, and several other more esoteric forms are worthy of more status & study than rock, hip hop, soul, country, folk (which by the way “folk” is just a synonym for “people”, so at heart means the same thing as “pop”). Not only is the assumption of difference WRONG, the distinctions of “high-brow” and “low-brow” themselves are equally meaningless.
People listen to what they want to, and like what they like. This has never been truer than NOW, because the internet gives most of us access to almost every piece of recorded music in history, which includes music created long before sound recording was a thing. Assuming one person listens to classical while another listens to hip hop is, plain and simple, profiling. We all have tastes that go well beyond our assumed demographic. And by the truest definition, what PEOPLE listen to is POP music. This has historically included music from every imaginable genre & sphere, regardless of its perceived status, popularity or financial success. Music floats in and out of the zeitgeist & marketplace all the time. In the same way that the stock market’s health has nothing to do with most people’s day to day life, what songs sell or stream the most has nothing to do with the longitudinal identity of pop music.
In fact, the only honest way to describe what pop music sounds like is: everything. It sounds and has sounded and will sound like every kind of music that’s ever existed, no matter what scholars claim. No other definition of pop music is useful or constructive. No division holds. There is no high-brow or low-brow. ALL music is NO-BROW. Is it fun to research what the best selling music was of different eras? Absolutely. I love hearing the changes & evolution. But these are cross-sections of a body of work that in no way tell the whole story. They’re as representative of the body of pop as a person’s clothing is to their existence – which is to say pretty much not at all.
We’re constantly making distinctions & divisions. Every day – usually unconsciously – we make multiple decisions about what things, ideas & people are deserving of more status, respect, popularity, power. It’s human nature to categorize, to create hierarchies. And it’s the nature of most people in power to want to reinforce these distinctions to create more division, to the point where we take on their way of seeing the world, and start to subdivide ourselves. People who otherwise have 95% in common become enemies because of that 5% difference.
It’s important we see this power play, admit our very human part in it, and remain aware of it daily, so that we can consciously redirect our judgments and open our thought processes to the notion that all of these distinctions are artificial. Just like how a dance song can be as sonically & theoretically worthy as a Mahler composition, or a hip hop song can be as deep and meaningful as a Miles Davis work, people & ideas & organizations & objects & all art are not defined by class or race or mode of communication or look or how much money they cost. What people love is what matters. That’s pop, and pop is us.