Let’s be honest: Does anyone really know what the hell “pop music” means anymore? The phrase has been stretched out, continuously misconstrued and applied to such a scatter plot of splinter genres (see: bastard pop, pop-punk) that, frankly, its diagnostic abilities have gone the way of the dodo.
When you hear the word “pop,” who or what springs immediately to mind? Maybe it’s a pin-up of Britney Spears striking a commercially viable pose in a skimpy tube top. Maybe it’s Michael Jackson, the alleged “King of Pop.” Maybe it’s Auto-Tune, that remarkable software that makes every pop singer’s mediocre voice sound on-pitch.
Regardless, it’s likely that the immediate connotations of “pop” huddle around the central hub of popular music (before the term “pop music” gained genre status, it was simply used to classify music with mainstream appeal). Pop music, in its most basic form, is often confined to airbrushed radio darlings including boy bands, American Idol divas and the Jonas Brothers.
Still, pop subgenres like indie pop and avant-pop fly directly in the face of pop music’s historical roots. The raison d’être driving both indie music and avant-garde music is the freedom to deviate from the sonic norm — the joy in shucking off the burden of widespread commercial appeal.
But somehow, these counterculture genres have ended up as prefixes in the sub-pop catalogue. Call me a cynical douche, but it certainly seems like our country’s capitalist machine finds a way of taking art that is “against the system” and integrating it back into the very system it opposes via oxymoronic labels. It’s like “pop” is the Time Warner of music, buying up all the niche genres and throwing them into the conglomerate meat grinder.
Case in point: Sirius Blog Radio. When an artist as underground as Ariel Pink makes it onto any form of public broadcast, you know the apocalypse is on its way.
But I digress. If the modern definition of pop music can’t be decided on an “airplay vs. non-airplay” basis, then what about attempting to draw the line based on formal qualities? Is it the verse-chorus-verse template (with the obligatory bridge) that constitutes pop music?
No, because bands like Deerhoof and Animal Collective, who have tossed conventional song structure into the blender, are still referred to as “avant-pop” outfits. Is it a strait-laced sense of acoustic cleanliness and accessibility that puts them into this category? Apparently not, because an entire subgenre (noise pop) has been sanctioned for bands like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine that mangle their hooks and choruses with jarring guitar feedback and grating drones. People could play this game forever and find exceptions to every seemingly fitting criterion.
When push comes to shove (and, if you ask me, it has), it almost seems like the “pop” label has been spread so thin that it applies to essentially any type of music with discernible vocal melodies — a far cry from its original meaning. This may seem like a rash statement, but scan your iTunes library and you’ll start to see what I mean. Sure, there’s the occasional anomaly — avant-kraut-prog outfit Can (to truly bastardized these hyphenated mash-ups) may sport vocal hooks, but no one in his or her right mind would ever associate the band with the word “pop.” Regardless, virtually any band that sports semi-melodic vocals or the occasional refrain can be categorized under some obscure strain of the pop taxonomy.
Maybe it’s easier to work backwards — to define “pop” by first defining what clearly isn’t pop. Let’s see … what about instrumental music? Given the latest, outlandishly broad definition (essentially, music with vocals), it certainly seems like vocal-less music would be exempt from the “pop” stamp by default. But no — some asshole named Kenny G had to make instrumental music so lame it could only be classified as “instrumental pop” (although, intriguingly, arguments have been made that G’s commercially-defecate-all-over-legendary-compositions style of “smooth jazz” doesn’t even qualify as music).
But what about real jazz? Jazz seems to stand for everything anti-pop: improvisation, complete structural freedom and a “no-rules-allowed” mentality. It seems like one could safely assume jazz is one genre that hasn’t been linguistically deflowered by the “pop monster.” Right? Wrong (I’m sure you saw that one coming). Google jazz-pop. It exists. Cry about it.
If it seems likes I’m trying to sketch out an inductive proof for how almost every incarnation of music can be drafted by some distant faction of the pop regime, then rest assured that that’s not my mission statement here. I’m not a hardcore radical, but I don’t think that classical music and pop music intersect anywhere on the musical Venn diagram (although “baroque pop” is defined as pop music with classical elements). And post-rock, orthodox electronica, rap (no, that doesn’t include Nelly) and jazz are all on the short list of relatively pop-safe genres (disregarding the odious jazz-pop genus).
I guess my point is that, somewhere between Internet blog culture and our country’s consumerist labeling fetish, the word “pop” has been conflated so grotesquely it has essentially lost all its oomph. It’s just a little something to ponder while you’re listening to your favorite sophisti-pop album.