It’s a strange fact, and one common in many artistic formats, be it art or music or film, that so many believe that “pop” or whatever is in the mainstream, is never as good, or as artistically pure, as the independent, or “underground”, scene.
What makes this even more odd, is that the end goal for so many artists is to reach a global audience, thus becoming “pop”. This is the dream so many aspire to, and they sit in envy of the Justin Biebers and Beyoncés of the world who are all, simply put, household names that are so often mentioned when talking about modern music.
Yet you ask anyone who they rate as actual musicians, and neither of these names will be uttered. Often just commented on as being everything that is wrong with today’s industry.
So is it just jealousy that drives this disdain for popular music, or are there other layers to this argument?
To first understand this debate, its important first to lay out the two sides of “pop” music. There is “pop” as a genre, think Shake It Off by Taylor Swift or Shape Of You by Ed Sheeran, and then there is music that is popular.
What is interesting here is that neither is inherently despised. For decades now the music that has been popular has gone on to be recognised as some of the best ever written. The Beatles were a band who were popular, as were Queen, and a more recent example would be the Arctic Monkeys. All bands making music that is popular. All also critically acclaimed and universally loved.
There is also “pop” as a genre. While people make a point of saying that this is the problem, there is widespread acclaim for indie-pop for example. Bedroom pop is another sub-genre to be praised, despite both of these literally being based solely around “pop” as a genre.
There are also a small group of artists who, though seen as primarily “pop” artists, do not always fit the mold. Two who come to mind in the modern era would be Taylor Swift, with her folklore and evermore releases, both well-made indie albums featuring some of the best artists from that genre, and Miley Cyrus, whose 2020 rock-infused album Plastic Hearts somehow ended up being classified as “pop” by genre, simply because of Cyrus’ public image.
As seen above, there are countless threads on Reddit and Twitter focused around this debate. Arguments surrounding the simplicity of pop music for example are common, but they forget that so much music is still based around the 12-bar blues, which contains only three chords, and has been in use for over a century.
There is certainly an argument here, but it seems as though many have not taken the correct approach.
One common aspect seems to simply be human nature, throughout history people have held some amount of hatred for popular belief. Whether it be a certain way of living, a political party or a type of music. Sometimes for the betterment of society, often for nothing more than inherent cynicism.
This group of people, thanks in part to the interent, have become increasingly vocal and have, somehow, managed to make their views appear “cool” or “relevant”. This has led to the rise of the often insufferable “hipster” movement.
With cynicism aside though, all it comes back to is good music. The primary problem with a lot of music is simply when it is created as a product first and an artistic expression second. No scene is perfect, and each has its fair share of those who believe music is simply a business opportunity above all else.
Good music could have billboards on Sunset Boulevard or two streams on SoundCloud, but production values cannot make a bad song good. Soulless, unashamedly over-marketed “music” is what should be shunned these days, not just what is on the charts.
Taylor Swift’s aforementioned folklore for example is a beautifully written album that, while it charted, is worth so much more praise from the indie scene than it already gets. Harry Styles’ Fine Line is another fantastic popular album that is simply shunned by so many because he is seen as a “pop” artist.
If either of these albums were written by Tame Impala, they would be so widely praised.
“Pop” is not, and has never, been the problem, and those who reach that status should be praised for their efforts. The problem is, and always has been, music as a business.
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