Is Pop Music Becoming Cool Again?


I don’t think that I am generalising when I say that there is a widely held understanding that pop music is crap. I’m not saying that I subscribe to this. In fact I think that this view, like insulting George W. Bush, or arguing with Christians, it is boring. What I am interested in is when pop music became ‘uncool’, and why, as I think, in certain corners it is starting to regain some credibility.

Before we get to the opinionated part of the article, here is a quick-fire run through what pop music means, and a speedy glance at its history. I think this will help to explain where, and why, things went wrong.

It began in the late 50s, and came from Rock ‘n’ Roll. It is an abbreviation of ‘Popular’ and as a genre it draws from a lot of styles, including - Dance, Rock, Country, Urban and Latin. It is simple, usually a verse-chorus structure, and includes catchy tunes. Needless to say, it is this accessibility and digestibility that made it an instant hit. There we are. Definition done. Briefly.

History time. The 60s came along, and with it, The Beatles. They saw mass adoration on a scale never witnessed before, and an idolisation that has not been seen since. The 70s, with Elton John and ABBA, moved things in a more modern-pop direction. The 80s further hammered in the nail (but the music was still good) with artists like Michael Jackson and Madonna. I think that we will all agree that the next chapter is when things took a bit of a nosedive.

This would be the ski-wear clad, Friends watching, Spice Girls adoring, Nintendo 64 playing, Tamagotchi wielding and bleached haired... 90s. It was here that pop music became what pop music is today. This was the time of Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, N Sync, Christina Aguilera and, of course, The Spice Girls. I know they are funny and harmless seeming now, but they completely changed the face and perception of a genre that still had some dignity.

Pop music went through the 90s and up to just about now completely dominating the charts. We have been left with radios playing about 10 people on repeat. Hands up Justin Bieber, stand up Katy Perry, take a bow One Direction and good work Cheryl Cole. It was through the last 15 years that some strong general opinions about pop music began to develop.

I will run through a few of those widely and commonly held opinions on current pop music. Firstly - it is crap. The people that listen to it are stupid. The people that make it are constructs of modern society that act as contrived symbols of consumerism and common ignorance. The people who make the people who make the music are evil mercenary exploiters who are ruining music and rotting the minds of the most impressionable people in society. It promotes the sexualising of artists and the exploitation of women as objects rather than artists. The charts are littered with bands that have achieved success by way of one of a few of the most lamentable television programs in history, and if you try to think of a list of morally crap things, pop music will, broadly speaking, trivialise all of them. This is just to name a few.

I must add here that I didn’t set out to write a pop-bashing article, in fact, as I mentioned earlier, I think it is an easy target. I more want to look objectively at where is sits culturally now against where it has been in the past. This cultural standing directly relates to its perception, and its appeal.

Now to the crux of the piece – my claim. I think that the term pop is beginning to come in again. I think that the non-mainstream artists that began describing themselves as pop probably started with a tinge of irony, and contrariness. This has turned into an acceptance that there are elements of pop in the more niche, or ‘cool’ types of music. There is, of course, nothing more confidence-proving or stylish than to embrace something that is widely seen as potently unfashionable. Once a few bigger names are happy to do it, then inevitably it will become a trend, and this is exactly what has happened.

Where once people would rather have spent an evening cleaning the loos in an Indian restaurant with their tongue than be referred to as pop, now everybody is something-pop - indie-pop, or electro-pop, folk-pop or urban-pop. It has become a tag line that essentially indicates accessibility. The inclusion of the term pop, other than with the ultra-mainstreamers, is a way of saying that the music will be digestible, it won’t be weird and that you don’t need to be a music anorak to understand and enjoy it.

Does this mean that pop music is becoming cool again? In its conventional sense, and in its mass market form is as ferociously uncool as ever, but derivations are being emphatically welcomed. A pop undercurrent has arisen, and people are becoming unafraid to admit, even to embrace the poppiness in their music – and to acknowledge it, even take pride in it. Like high-waisted jeans, its cool if you are confident enough to pull it off. Of course there will always be the people who still wear their jeans around their nipples, and have done so since the 70’s, and that is fine, but unfortunately they’re not in the club. In a hipster-like fashion, it is ok to make a nod towards something, but to embody it is dangerously committal.