Wednesday, August 6, 2014

special comment: 'pop 101' (in defense of the genre: pop)

On August 4 of this year, the Canadian pop rock band Marianas Trench released their music video for a new song titled 'Pop 101', a song that sought to satirize pop music tropes and sounds throughout the past decade, from 2006 Justin Timberlake to 2013 Miley Cyrus. And like Maddie & Tae's 'Girls In A Country Song', The Roots' most recent album ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, and any number of self-aware punk records released since the dawn of the genre, Marianas Trench are commenting upon and satirizing the trends in their own genre of music, and they made a pretty damn solid song along the way.

But the release of that song and the usual slew of comments I get saying, 'Dude, you clearly just don't like pop music, so why bother reviewing it' finally spurred me to put some serious thought into a discussion that's worth having. And this discussion will be centered around three questions: what is pop music? Why do I like it? And is it worth defending? And to answer that question, I'm going to use the example of a Canadian pop rock band who wrote 'Pop 101' and who definitely deserves more attention on both sides of the border.

So what is pop music? Typically, musicologists boil it down to a few key traits: a focus on established craft over art, an appeal to the mainstream public, an emphasis on technology rather than live performance, and a focus on existing and established trends and chord progressions. In other words, to put it in the worst possible terms, it's processed, over-produced unoriginal studio-drive power-chord heavy product designed to sell to the sheep of the mainstream public. Yep, those are some harsh words to level against acts as varied as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Justin Timberlake - and I think you'd all agree that many if not all of the acts I just mentioned might deserve an exception.

So let's qualify the question a bit: what is good pop music? Now there'll be some that'll say there's no such thing as 'good' pop music, and while everyone is entitled to their own tastes, I would say that not acknowledging the sheer talent and storied classics of many of the best pop acts does music as a whole a disservice - in other words, just because it's popular doesn't mean it automatically sucks. Sure, pop music often works on established formulas in song and chord structure, but that's not saying that those formulas can't produce gems of fantastic quality. 

For example, let's talk briefly about Marianas Trench. The band burst onto the music scene with the emo-inspired pop punk album Fix Me in 2006, only distinctive in Canada for having slightly wittier lyrics and more aggression than Faber Drive or Hedley, but not the raw explosive force of Billy Talent. They charted one hit in the US with 'Shake Tramp' and everyone promptly assumed they were just another casualty when the pop rock boom imploded in the late 2000s.

That didn't exactly happen, because in 2009 Marianas Trench released Masterpiece Theater, an album that was a solid hit in Canada but really did nothing in the States - and yet it's one of the best albums of the decade in terms of sheer pop rock ambition, creativity, wit, and cohesion. And yet it was decidedly a step towards pop music in terms of catchy-as-hell hooks, chord construction, and more polished production. I'd be hard-pressed to find a music critic who wouldn't call it a great pop record, and songs like 'All To Myself', 'Celebrity Status', 'Cross My Heart', and the stellar 'Beside You' became big hits on Canadian radio.

Then came their third album in 2011, a concept record called Ever After that somehow managed to be their most pop-friendly record yet. Personally, it wasn't quite as good as Masterpiece Theater in my opinion, but that didn't have anything to do with the shift towards pop outside of just being a little too ambitious and having a few too many overreaches. But note the pattern here: Marianas Trench's career has been one step towards pop after another in terms of production, instrumentation, and focus on killer hooks - and if anything, their music has only gotten better. What this indicates is that it's not simply making pop music affects a band's quality, but that there's a standard of quality with the genre itself when it comes to crafting those killer hooks, choruses, and compositions. In other words, there's a method to making that formula spit out the right numbers.

And yet clearly that formula doesn't always work and it sure as hell isn't easy to crack - otherwise, every pop band would have stellar, memorable songs and it's very plain that's not the case. So what otherwise intangible qualities does Marianas Trench have that other pop bands in their vein lack? Well, most of it comes down to Josh Ramsey, the main singer and songwriter of the band who manages to deliver surprising amounts of charisma and wit to both his performances and his songwriting. Say what you will about the stupid colours in his hair or his infinitely punchable face, he's got a strong enough handle on his own stage presence and his writing to create personality in his music, all the while making it catchy, fun, and even emotionally powerful. And think about this: when we talk about artists in other genres, the very same criteria are held up as strengths. 

In other words, it shows that good pop music operates on an analogous scale of quality despite having a formula or 'conventional' sounds - and yet there will be plenty of people who'll say that simply the formula or convention alone disqualify pop for being good music or worthy of acclaim. So let's ask this question: why? Is it the formula itself? Well, that seems unlikely as all genres have specific conventions or even progressions melodically that can have a common lineage. You only have a finite number of notes on a scale, and thus a finite number of chord progressions. Or is it the fact the formula is widely used and plainly recognizable to a mostly discerning listener? Well, that has a little weight, but that's true of all trends, be they musical or lyrical - and like all trends, there's a spectrum of quality between the originators of the formula, those who improve or innovate upon it, and those simply copying it wholesale? And is it the fault of the artists who find ways to make trends better or even the original article that others chose to copy them? 

But now we're getting to the meat of the real argument against pop music: the fact that certain trends in pop become ubiquitous regardless of their originator, and the music industry that backs pop music leaps upon those trends without thinking or understanding in order to make a quick buck off of hordes of copycats. That's clearly a reason to hate pop music, right, as a soulless tool of the machine? Well, not exactly, especially when you take a look at historical context - do I need to bring up the two punk waves, the rise of grunge and post-grunge, the gangsta rap movements, the rise and fall of hair metal, bro-country, any dozen musical trends that have come and gone over the decades? When you think about it, the fault doesn't lie in the genre itself, but in the industry that attempts to clone it. And since pop music's formulas are slightly more 'obvious', the genre gets singled out instead of the bad business practices that can taint it.

And when I say 'bad', I mean it from an economics point-of-view. If you want to see boom-bust capitalism at work like nothing else, look at pop music. An artist finds a golden opportunity and becomes popular, the music industry piles on and inflates the bubble, it becomes unsustainable thanks to over-inflation, and it collapses when the audience gets sick of it or the market takes its course. And while the industry gets rich off of mining those bubbles, thousands of artists find themselves out of work. Capitalism! The funny thing is that it would be in the industry's best interest to diversify their talent pool, but that requires a certain amount of risk, and it's much easier to stick with an established formula and only hop on the bandwagon when it comes to certain sounds or styles.

Which takes us to 'Pop 101', the newest single by Marianas Trench, and why it works as such a great satire. Lyrically, it's an examination of how to write a pop song, to crack that elusive formula - but it's the sort of examination that would only be done by a music or marketing executive trying to write a pop song, mashing together every possible trope in pop lyricism, instrumentation, and production to produce something vaguely fit to sell, from Kesha's sing-talk gimmick from 2010 to Justin Timberlake bringing 'sexy back' in 2006, from mimicking the electo-pop of 'I Gotta Feeling' to the sample of Imogen Heap on 'Whatcha Say', from disco-inspired guitars to Mumford & Sons inspired banjos, from pitch-shifted vocals inspired by 'We Can't Stop' to the token rap verse punctuated with Josh Ramsey mimicking Lil Jon! Hell, the song even ends with riffs that sound like they're straight out of Nicki Minaj's 'Starships'! All of these are elements that have been used to sell pop music over the past decade - so let's ask the question: is the song 'good' because of these elements mashed together, or because the songwriting and performance and hooks are solid enough to stand on their own and rise above that material?

Honestly, it might be some of both - but that's because there have been trends in pop music instrumentally and lyrically featured here that I've liked as well, I can admit that. And really, 'Pop 101' operates as the best kind of satire and works on multiple levels - leveraging the elements of the past that worked into a fun shallow pop song, all the while showing the ability to laugh at how some might consider the formula so simple when in reality it requires a defter touch to make something stand out. And it circles back to artistic intent: you can tell Marianas Trench are willing to laugh at pop music, but that they're also willing to frame it so that they can laugh at themselves for being a part of it.

So is pop music as a genre worth defending? Well, sure, for a number of reasons. Just because it's popular or commercial doesn't mean it's bad, it just means that it's operating on a slightly different formula, one that can succeed and fail just as often as an independent artist. I've seen indie solo songwriters with grandiose ideas fail and I've seen pop stars with songs written by committee succeed because in the end, the songs still need to have something to make them unique and special, to take either an established formula or experimental adventure and infuse them with the personality and craft to make something good. Pop may operate on a slightly different formula, or have a commercial appeal that's not as experimental as your preferences might lie - and that's okay, to each their own - but in the end, making pop music might be easier, but mastering pop music is a different challenge entirely.

Even if, at the end, it all comes out as one big joke, and you're willing to be a part of it.

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