Is It Uncool To Like Pop Music?

May 27, 2020

Interviews & Inspiration | Rhiannon Wardle

Taste in art is an incredibly subjective thing. As we fly through the 21st century, our access to music in particular is increasing at an exponential rate, and this means there is an incredible number of artists constantly emerging. One music genre continually evolving is pop. Derived from ‘popular’, the term ‘pop’ has typically alluded to whatever music is mainstream at the time, although one could argue that it has become a more specific genre in its own right. For example, the charts in 2020 are filled with rap, hip-hop and many other hybrid genres, which can be differentiated from pop in succinct ways. Pop and pop artists, however, are often under a great deal of scrutiny that perhaps other well-loved genres are not subject to. The real question here is, can music really be objectively good or bad? And if it can, where does pop fall on the scale?

The credibility of pop music is often questioned because it is viewed as manufactured as opposed to the ‘realness’ of more indie artists. This ties into the idea that pop music is an example of capitalism at its worst – where greedy producers try to use young and impressionable artists to make money by making music that appeals to wide audiences, draining their creativity and turning them into replicas of each other. Many pop artists, more often female, have spoken out about pressure they have faced in the industry or manipulation they have suffered at the hands of producers – Ke$ha is one widely reported example. But while there are undoubtedly problems with the industry, we are moving past the age of talent shows such as Pop Idol and X-Factor deciding who gets to be the next big star. Good riddance, Simon Cowell. Additionally, more pop artists than ever are producing and writing their own music. Grimes, Tinashe, Imogen Heap, Charli XCX and MUNA are just a few pop artists who produce and write all of their music. Although some of these artists are slightly more left-field of pop, plenty of more typical pop artists write all of their own music too – take Taylor Swift and Dua Lipa. If the artist has all the creative power, can we still allege that their music is manufactured?

Some people have more of an issue with the way the music sounds itself, rather than the process that goes into creating pop music. Autotune is one of the common features that listeners resent. Pop artists are often accused of not really being able to sing if they use autotune to any extent. While this can sometimes be the case, this argument disregards some of the immensely talented live performers born out of the genre. Ariana Grande, for example, is undoubtedly one of the most famous pop artists worldwide, and her live performances exhibit incredible talent. In addition to this, the critique of autotune refuses to acknowledge the innovation that autotune can bring to pop musicians. Frank Ocean, Charli XCX and Charlie Puth are three extremely popular artists who frequently use autotune to distort their voices into new sounds and techniques in music, and they have proved successful in their innovation.

However, it seems that some listeners are not so keen on technological innovation, as another argument against pop music is that it often lacks real musical instruments, and therefore, lacks soul. Many people will agree that being able to play instruments is impressive, and that especially with live music, it’s more immersive to see and hear instruments play. However, criticising artists that take a different approach doesn’t take into account the reality, that most of us listen to music on a device far more often than live, in which case it doesn’t matter as much how a sound is created, so long as we like it. Sure, most of us would rather be at Glastonbury festival every day, but unfortunately we’re more often resigned to listening to music through our headphones on the bus! Furthermore, with regard to an artists authenticity if they don’t play instruments, we should also be able to recognise the talent in being able to create music digitally. We may not always like it, but there is no denying that technology has infiltrated all areas of our lives, including our creative enterprises.

It’s not just recently that pop has been viewed with a sceptical eye – in the 80’s, ABBA were considered distinctly uncool. Imagine that? You can’t go to a good party without a bit of ABBA playing. Critics tore the band to shreds in reviews, calling them cliché and money-hungry, which was not too surprising considering progrock (progressive rock) was the mood at this time; a genre considered much more authentic and ‘cool’. But ABBA’s fame, after plummeting during the 80’s, only began to skyrocket. Brian Eno, an English musician, producer and theorist, speculated that an artist becomes uncool when they become mainstream and popular. He suggested that bands such as Coldplay and U2 would be called obscure indie artists if they hadn’t sold millions of albums, which is definitely food for thought. So does the scrutiny of pop music then have something to do with the desire for exclusivity, with people wanting to be part of a smaller group in order to feel that their tastes are unique and perhaps superior to others?

So why do we like the music that we do? There are a few main theories for this – potentially suggesting we don’t have as much free will as we think. One theory is that people like music based on their social identity. This could mean that a person who thinks of themselves as an intellectual might prefer jazz or classical music to other genres. People who think of themselves as unique might listen to more obscure music, and people who consider themselves as positive and bubbly may prefer pop. This could also explain why some people are deterred from pop music – they might fear being considered mainstream. It is also well known that our music taste is heavily influenced by what we listened to growing up – so if your parents played a lot of music, there’s a good chance you could be into the same artists as them. Thanks, Dad. One last theory is that we use music for emotional regulation. For example, in one experiment, analysis showed that anxiety and neuroticism were higher in people who tended to listen to sad or aggressive music to express negative feelings, particularly in men. So this could mean that the music we listen to reflects how we feel, or even can be used to manipulate our moods. If this is the case, perhaps it is unfair to judge a person on the music they listen to – it might be helping them through a tough time.

Ultimately, pop music has always been a force to be reckoned with, and it continues to grow. Should it really even matter if some pop artists don’t write and produce all of their own music? It may add to the allure and talent of an artist, but as long as the artist isn’t being restricted or manipulated, and feels they have creative input and control, we should have no qualms about enjoying their art. Even Beyoncé, the Queen of Pop, has come under fire for having so many people credited for writing her album Lemonade, but we are under no such pretences that she is being manipulated – she has a great deal of creative control over her music, videos and performances. Not to mention that some of her work has had a huge cultural impact on audiences worldwide. Are we going to call her cliché? Of course, it is good to introduce yourself to music across all different genres, from different countries, so that you’re aware of all the possibilities of music consumption. But nobody says that if you love pop music, you can’t also love metal, grime or funk. We don’t need exclusivity, rather, let's seek acceptance.