Music Mondays: Pop music isn’t stupid. In fact, it needs our attention.

Happy Bloody Monday, everybody! Here’s to another discussion about our favourite thing in the world from a writer’s perspective.

I’m one of those people who don’t listen to the radio. I owe it mostly to the fact that I don’t drive long distances, because c’mon, that’s what radios are for: long-distance driving. Right…?

girl with radio

“Girl listening to radio” by Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I was that snobby 14 year-old who dressed in black, dyed her hair, and scoffed on “popular music.” How it’s not actually music. How it’s shallow. How it’s musically simplistic, lyrically even more so, and basically a way to package sex and sell it to our ears over broadcasted sound waves.

Well, I’m not 14 anymore. Granted, I’m still a cynical douche most of the time (winky face to my friends IRL 😉 ).

Pop music deserves our attention. Yeah, I know, we’re paying it attention already by listening to the radio, going to clubs, and being responsible for Lady Gaga’s multi-million-dollar paycheque. But that’s not the kind of attention I’m talking about.

To make a comparison, let’s look at other forms of art.

In any form of art – visual, musical, literary – the Snobs separate it into two categories: high art and low art.

gallery

“WLA moma Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond Monet” by Wikipedia Loves Art participant “trish” – Uploaded from the Wikipedia Loves Art photo pool on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

High art = the stuff in galleries: the stuff that tries to evoke some sort of statement; usually conceptual. Low art = the stuff that’s pretty: fanart, video game art, anime, etc. High literature = the stuff of the masters: Shakespeare, Chaucer. Low literature = your Barnes & Noble bestseller fare.

Let’s pause on books because technically I’m supposed to be studying them for this piece of paper called a BA. I’ve always found it kind of useless to study Shakespeare and Chaucer. Sure, high literature is interesting. It flexes your brain. It’s good practice. It’s good to know how to appreciate it. But if I ever get another piece of paper called a PhD and was expected to beg the government for a grant to write a book about a book…I wouldn’t touch Shakespeare and Chaucer. People have been talking about Shakespeare and Chaucer for hundreds of years. Sure I can add myself to the conversation, but I’d rather start my own conversation.

orchestra

“Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra performing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 in Charlotte, North Carolina” by Derek Gleeson. – Own work.. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I’d start a conversation on the books of my generation. I’d study Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Grey. I’d study Orange is the New Black and Breaking Bad. Why? Because so many people love them. So many people are directly influenced by the authors and writers of these works. I think this is because they are so relatable. They reflect us. Somehow. And that’s the point of art: art expresses the world we live in. It etches our experience forever into print, into paint, into sound, into our minds.

High music = the stuff of symphony orchestras, so-called “art music”: again, largely conceptual, attempts to express something. Low music = the stuff on the radio.

Yet most people couldn’t care less about symphony orchestras and their overpriced wine. We’d rather pre-drink and flock to a Katy Perry concert in a loud-ass arena. But why?

nightclub

“Gatecrasher” by Original uploader was Mushin at en.wikipedia – Transfered from en.wikipedia. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Pop music is popular because it reflects our experiences. And when it goes out of style, we know our world is changing. For this reason, I think pop music is a vital part of our society that deserves a second glance. It’s part of our world history book of collective consciousness. I listen to Lady Gaga and can affirm that positive identity and equal rights are pillar values of my generation. So is freedom of expression and the right to be crazy. I listen to “Blurred Lines,” hear the uproar it effected, and can see that a new wave of feminism is riding strong in my generation. And I hope people in the future can look back and see these things too.

Besides, pop music isn’t necessarily “bad,” musically. I dare you to look up a super-popular artist and listen to their entire album. You’ll find gems in there that were never promoted on the radio waves.

Also, everything was once pop. Shakespeare was once Hollywood material. Da Vinci was the greatest expression of the Bible fandom. Mozart’s music was freaking pop music when Mozart was alive.

So go ahead, people. Listen to the radio shamelessly and listen to it well!

(By the way, I love writing these things. If I’m not a weirdo and people like yourself actually enjoy them too, please let me know by liking/commenting/sharing these Music Mondays!)

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13 thoughts on “Music Mondays: Pop music isn’t stupid. In fact, it needs our attention.

  1. Pingback: 6 thoughts on music and productivity | breakfast with words

  2. Having visited many a museum in my time, I have come to find that what is considered “low art” is often more inspiring and beautiful than “high art.” But then I am a bit of a snob about modern art in general, and although I admire the sort of portraiture skill that renders a painting akin to a photograph, I have never been one to prefer the skillful to the inspiring (or the unskillful to the inspiring, as often seems to be the case with modern art).

    As to your literature comparison, I quite agree. I have read more Shakespeare than I can possible keep track of, as it comes with the territory of having an English Literature degree, but I have always preferred the postmodernists to the modernists. (I tend to think of Shakespeare as being a part of the classical genre, but my very wise professor considered him to be the first modernist, so I tend to refer to him as such).

    And I think that your analysis of pop music is very insightful. Many of the classic hits were popular at one point or another, and correspondingly reflect a particular moment in time. In order to better embrace our own time, we should keep up with the signs of the times.

    Please forgive the excessiveness of this comment, I am typically more concise. 🙂

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    • Oh no, I love excessive comments!

      Might I add to your discussion on visual art: I actually find much of modern “high art” to be less about stuff like portraiture and more about concept. I’m talking about those art pieces where it’s a toilet paper role on a stick and I don’t know what it means… I get into many spirited debates with my artist friend on how out of touch this kind of art is with the general public who can’t make head nor tail of it.

      I also prefer postmodernism as well, but I particularly like media (especially music) from the 60s/70s/80s era where public consciousness was changing radically (and drugs were also taken liberally!).

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  3. Well it’s totally my fault that I don’t get the connections. 😉 I don’t understand any of the TV references to breaking bad or something that have tenuous connections at best but certainly most of the students do. The balance of connecting with less-familiar students and students who wish to go focus on real connections between art forms is a struggle that characterizes all classrooms certainly, and is not limited to english class. I just don’t want to have to watch breaking bad in order to understand what the prof is trying to say. 😉

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  4. Actually, interestingly enough, I went through a phase this summer where I tried giving away all my childhood favourite books None of them were high lit and I disdained to be associated with their writing anymore. If it isn’t high art, how will it improve my writing? Do you think there is merit in non-literary writing? Since then I’ve kept them because they are the foundation of what i write, no matter what I’m told. They are keys to how I interpret my existence and write about it…not re-reading them will not make their influence disappear. On music, I only listen to music on transit too or while snowboarding when I’m lonely. I never sit down and listen. That’s the difference between consuming art for the sake of art and consuming art for the sake of consuming something something new and raw.

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  5. Pop music isn’t stupid, and it certainly has value in the sense that it reflects the interests, values, and preferences of (most) people today. Examining pop culture is a great way to get insight into a society, no doubt, from Fifty Shades of Grey to Lady Gaga.

    Where I disagree with you, however, is people flocking towards this mainstream, “low” art is because they find that it resonates with them and they can connect to it on a profound level. While this does play a role, I feel that it’s a bit more complex.

    Something that makes me feel rather uneasy about pop culture (mostly music, though) today is the fact that it’s very… accessible. Of course, this isn’t a particularly novel concept, but a large percentage of young people today seems to gravitate towards easily digestible, often homogenous (I know this term has negative connotation) songs, made to cater to the mass-market. I would like to emphasize that this not specific to our time (in fact, Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz coined the term “bubble-gum pop” in the 1960s), but it is a legitimate reason to dislike the Top 40 chart.

    That said, it isn’t inherently wrong to choose different genres of music that deviate from the mainstream because of the belief that a lot of the mainstream culture lacks substance, and it isn’t wrong to belt out “Firework” in the shower. It IS wrong, however, to discount something as worthless because it isn’t something you can identify with. With a little humility, one can come to see pop music today as functionally the same as the music of 18th century, bringing enjoyment to young people and helping them connect with those around them.

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    • I don’t think accessibility is necessarily negative, though. Accessibility is actually a pretty difficult thing to pull off! Sure, there is art in crafting a symphony, but making a piece of music appeal to as many people as possible is also an art. Albeit a commercial one, but a notable feat nonetheless. What I’m interested in is the mechanics of that art – how can commercial artists know the masses so well that they can make millions selling sounds to them?

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  6. Fabulous post! My husband and I talk about this a lot. He’s getting a PhD, which means he spends a lot of time talking about “high” literature, but neither of us buy into that description. He’s great at working pop culture into his classroom, which means his students relate to the topics better. And as you said, Shakespeare was totally pop culture back in the day! And Beethoven? Sheesh! Talk about a crazy radical! I have no shame in promoting Stan Lee as a creative genius, though many would class his work as “low” art. Thanks for a great post!

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    • Interestingly enough, I don’t like it a lot of time when my profs make high lit relate to popular culture. Unless there IS a correlation between popular and classic works, when there isn’t one or the connection is false, it just feels as if the prof is underestimating the student’s understanding. Done well it enriches history and understanding and done just to appease the students feels inauthentic. I always wondered if profs self consciously tried to work popular culture in.

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      • I think it does depend on the professor, but there are definite influences of German philosophy in pop culture. It also depends on the situation. It’s not always a direct correlation between “high” literature and “low” literature. In language classes, practicing dialogue becomes much more natural if you’re able to use the vocabulary to talk about things you’re interested in, rather than trying to discuss “high” literature in a second language when half the students are only there to complete a core requirement. I agree that it can be detrimental to force a connection, but there are situations where using pop culture can enhance learning.

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