Music used to be better.

I hate hearing that. Not only because it sounds hopelessly geriatric, but because it’s wrong.

When it comes to American music of the last 40 years, nothing prohibits criticism, appreciation and enjoyment of pop more than generalization. It not only prevents us from understanding and enjoying music, but locks us out of engaging with popular culture at large. Opinion is a classic American pastime, but when we commit to a quick judgment without actually giving music our time, ears and effort, it’s easy to embrace a hardened sense of self-righteous damnation.

It’s easy to point at Boomers for this sort of entitlement, and even easier when they grew up in an era with a wide array of talented singers, songwriters and performers who were popular. The mid-’60s and early ’70s are frequently reminisced upon and painted as an untouchable, golden pinnacle of pop music — a pinnacle that no period beyond it has surpassed.

But comparing the pop music scene of the ’60s and early ’70s to the pop music of today is like comparing a 12-pack of crayons to a thousand-piece art set. It’s irrelevant.

Consider the market structure of your standard American town 50 years ago. How would your parents consume music? Radio and television were expanding and record stores were the only place you could buy music. Assuming you lived in one town for a good period of time, the record store, radio and TV were about as far as you could go.

Since the corporate expansion of the music industry, the complications and variety of music have exploded. What was once a musician’s game has become everyone’s. Advertising, dancers, the blind — the market expanded not only musically, but exponentially with the trajectory of modern communications. The range and quality of recorded popular music today, however objectified, varies beyond any standard of the ’60s and ’70s. There’s more of it, more types, more styles and more than one record store, radio station or hip website could ever hope to summarize.

Does the capitalization of music mean that talented artists don’t get their due? Sure. Does the market take the pretty over the talented? Of course. Is good music ignored? Certainly. But hasn’t it always been? The mentality that music is worse than ever before seems to ignore the simple fact that it is vastly different.

The “rock lens” is a sort of mentality that ruins pop. It’s the acceptance of a set of values that dictate what a “good song” is. What “good music” is. What “rocks.” Plenty of white people I’ve talked to about hip hop complain that it isn’t “melodic enough.” There isn’t enough “musicianship.” They don’t “write songs.” Problem is, they’re engaging the music with the mentality of rock. Songs should have melodies. They should have structures, or singing or “development.” They should “rock.”

But hip hop is hip hop. It’s an entirely different genre of pop music, one that has to be taken on its own terms. It’s like asking a video game to read like a book. You can’t knock a genre for qualities it doesn’t inherently possess. When the “rock lens” becomes scripture, it condemns the qualities of music that offer different things to different listeners.

Then there’s the snob. The person whose taste is set in stone, whose arbitrary decisions on what is “real music” prevents them from admitting or even trying to enjoy songs that are popular.

I love Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” without irony. It’s not the most “melodic” pop song. It doesn’t scare me or provoke much thought. It’s predictable. And yet I love how cold it sounds. I love the bombast of its production. I think the video is sexy. The chorus has no regard for subtlety. It sounds great blasted on the radio. I can accept its faults, and understand why someone could hate it, but that doesn’t stand in the way of the sugar rush it provides.

And as much as I enjoy pop radio, in any time, I strongly believe that to be a true pop music fan, aside from casting aside generalization, you have to work hard. If you truly enjoy the pleasures that pop music provides, you have to spend some time exploring. We have the ability to access just about any kind of music we want now, and to find what truly turns you on takes a little bit of effort. You have to find songs that make you uncomfortable. That challenge you. Spend some time with the songs that you hate at first, or the songs that break down your idea of what music can be.

Of course, this doesn’t even consider the world of music at large. Opera. Classical. William Basinski. Songs you sing while washing the dishes. In the end, the most condemning failure of all is to forget that music is simply complex. Pop music is a tiny facet of that, and in the end it is as subjective as any other art form. Whether we’d like it to be or not.

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