Published on November 12, 2012 | by Mikkel Stern-Peltz


Pop music for posterity

What music will our generation be remembered for? [Helen Hasse]

Listening to the pop music of our generation will make some people despair.

No one wants to have to explain Justin Bieber to their children. How will they judge us, if this is the music we leave for them?

But what if older generations felt the same way when they were young?

Nostalgia has a way of blurring things, and it is doubtful that they would admit it – “music was much better in my day” is their story, and they are sticking to it.

In reality, we may just be hearing the best ’70s and ’80s pop.

Maybe all the horrendous music they were embarrassed about was just left to rot at the turn of each decade, with only the tracks worth listening to surviving the slaughter.

A Modern Phenomenon

Pop music as a genre is a relatively modern invention. Before the 1990s, it was a term for music with wide appeal, and would also encompass artists that today would be in a sub-genre of their own – Billy Idol, Twisted Sister, and Marvin Gaye have all been classified as pop at one point or another.

Motown, disco, new wave, glam metal, dance and soul were separate genres in the ’70s and ’80s, although these were all referred to as “popular music” as a blanket term. Many of these genres would today be lumped together under the “pop” catchall.

Although it may be hard to believe now, MTV once played music. In fact, they used to play almost only music, and varied music at that.

For the majority of the ’90s, MTV gave substantial airtime to alternative acts that had mainstream appeal, Nirvana being the trailblazer of musical sub-cultures gaining household acceptance.

Only after the deafening sounds of grunge began to quiet down, did MTV slowly shift their focus to pop music, which took its place as MTV’s main headline act around 1997 and onwards.

Suddenly Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, and Alanis Morissette had been replaced by Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, and the undead army of boy bands.

“There was always plenty in the way of pop music to despair at. Justin Bieber is just the latest in a very long conga line of pretty boy/girl acts thrust into the innocent faces of another poor generation of kids who know no better and feed on whatever reconstituted pop is paraded before them.” William Smith.

Digital Definition

With the digital music revolution brought on by Myspace and iTunes, musical categories became more strictly defined: everything had to be labelled by genre to fit into their systems, further engorging the “pop” mantle.

As William Smith, a freelance pop journalist since 1982, puts it: “with everything available at the touch of a button, pop music has become almost too easy to access and almost entirely stripped of its social meaning. It has become the wallpaper rather than the soundtrack of our lives.

“In the digital generation of downloads, iPod, social media and so called talent shows desperate to convert the ordinary into extraordinary, pop as a social panacea has reached saturation point, inevitably resulting in loss of meaning, potency and power.

“The pop industry has always manufactured product that falls short of the high standards of pop music’s illustrious and varied past. It’s a business,” Smith adds.

But for every boatload of bland clichés that washed ashore on the beaches of pop, some genuinely talented artists braved the surf and succeeded as ‘popsmiths’ with good pop music – music to rival ’80s pop legends such as Blondie and Madonna, in both talent and creativity.

A Matter of Taste

Objective ways to measure music are equally flawed. Record sales are in many ways not indicative of the quality of a song or album, however many millions of copies are sold.

Terrible songs by terrible artists can outsell just about anything, without ever warranting comparisons with Thriller or Common People.

Macarena went quadruple platinum in the US, and no one in their right mind would ever call that “good music”. Likewise, no person in the past 23 years has said “Ice Ice Baby really inspired me to make music.” Jedward do not count.

A defining feature of any good pop song is the hook. It is the “you’re toxic, I’m slippin’ under”, the mandolin in Losing my Religion, the synth in Take on Me, the “dun-dun-dan” in Blur’s Country House and, more recently Oppan Gangnam style.

A hook is that one part of a song that you can not get out of your head and the reason why you find yourself having bought a track that falls completely outside of your usual taste in music.

Of course, even good pop artists make songs that are little else than a hook – Sexyback is almost as daft as Stupid Hoe (but only almost).

What makes Justin Timberlake pop hall of fame material in front of Nicki Minaj is the way in which Like I Love You is still a song you turn up when it comes on the radio years later.

Super Bass, on the other hand, is as forgettable as Charlie Sheen’s recent TV comeback.

Forever, Forever Ever?

Even longevity does not provide conclusive proof of an artist’s music-making chops.Of course continuously releasing music is an indicator of ongoing popularity, but at the same time: Robbie Williams, Madonna, and Shakira.

It has been a while since they were relevant and not surviving off the teat of nostalgia – public reception of their recent albums has been nothing but “mixed reviews”.

Does Justin Bieber and Rihanna’s appeal have the necessary longevity to put them on par with Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé? Or will they fall by the wayside like the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus before them? We will have to check back in a decade for the answer, but we can at least hope while we are waiting.

Having lived through several decades of ever-changing pop music, William Smith is less than convinced of Bieber’s longevity: “There was always plenty in the way of pop music to despair at. Justin Bieber is just the latest in a very long conga line of pretty boy/girl acts thrust into the innocent faces of another poor generation of kids who know no better and feed on whatever reconstituted pop is paraded before them.”

Ultimately, music is a matter of taste and it is impossible to be sure of how that will change over time, and how music from ten years ago will be listened to in 2020.

Everyone has a prediction about who or what we will still be listening to by then, and who knows? Maybe some day Justin Bieber will be seen as the Beatles of our time. Although if we are lucky, the world will have ended before then.

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