The Reclamation of Pop: A Musical Manifesto

Every few days I find myself writing an impassioned and somewhat crappy music manifesto.  Here is one of them.


From at least the 1950s forward, with the popularity of the 7″ single and the commercial boom of post-war FM radio, music marketing exploded and marketers sought not to predict the future of popular music, but to direct it.

Console radios (and later their transistor offspring) moved music from the reach of the listening elite who would attend evening classical events to the masses, most of which had no particular ear or preference for music.  The consequence of democratizing music listenership was that radio was forced to pander to youth culture masses who wanted the short, simple and familiar structure of rock & roll 24 hrs a day.

The 60s were a time of great revolution, reflected in both folk music and in new experimental sounds inspired in part by the drug culture of the day.

The 1970s offered the first hint of an audience demanding more than blues-based guitar riff rock with the rise of progressive rock and kosmische musik, incorporating madrigal song, classical, elements of jazz, and complex polyrhythms and time signatures.

Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, released in 1977 was the first dance track to forego a recorded orchestra and instead consisted of entirely synthesized sounds and voice effects.  This was a warning sign on the path to the cultural “distillation” process, and was quickly gobbled up by the pop creature hungry for dancefloor rhythms and processed vocals.

By the 1980s, Video Killed the Radio Star, making popular music all about image at the expense of content and talent.

Still, a dedicated art rock and post-punk scene prevailed, with acts like Pere Ubu, Einstürzende Neubauten, Throbbing Gristle, and Wire further demonstrating the survivalism of substance in music.

By 1989, ambient music which had (ever-so-quietly) exploded onto the scene with Eno’s Music for Airports found a new audience.  After clubbers heard Dr. Alex Paterson spinning in the White Room at the Land of Oz albums like The KLF’s Chill Out, Space’s Space and The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld were released (all by the same few DJs).  This sparked an experimental ambient culture soon embraced by Aphex Twin, Biosphere, and the then-newcomers Boards of Canada who would gain international acclaim for their LP, Music Has the Right to Children.  This was the new heady music of 1990.

So-called “alternative rock” dominated the FM airwaves for the remainder of the decade with an indie sound that spoke directly to its generation of angst-riddled listeners.  Seattle grunge died gracefully with the release of Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York and rock finished out what would be the last of its 40-year life, signing off with No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom in January of 1997.  Save for a few rare exceptions in the world of pop music, there was a clear path of rotting decay which followed –

Later that year, The Prodigy released Fat of the Land, a best-selling sell-out record whereby they left the rave scene and embraced radio-friendly big beat.  Spice Girls’ Spice followed, recycling the Monkees factory-assembled-band concept for another commercial success, and the nail in the coffin was the album, …Baby One More Time released on January 30th 1999. True to form, another polished and squeaky-clean band released their third album – Backstreet Boys’ Millennium in 1999, a record which secured their super-stardom.

By 2002, rock was dead and buried and the Core Media Group rebranded popular music as a reality program – a vehicle by which to market and directly profit from manufactured acts.

Over the next ten years, pop decayed into the most distilled essence of artificiality.

– An outrageous and exaggerated Madonna-facsimile became a pop icon

– A sixteen year old boy said the word “Baby” fifty-six times becoming the most-watched video of all time on Youtube

– and Rebecca Black happened.  (Mrs. Miller is likely upset.)

f955511d5e7e1e2c650f6a706700713d_r620x349Pop Music.

In 2012, Reuters reported the results of a study which concluded, Pop Music Too Loud and All Sounds the Same: Official.

In fulfillment of The KLF’s The Manual: How to Have a Number One the Easy Way, pop has consumed hip-hop, electronic dance music, R&B, country, and everything else around it.  It has stripped itself clean of substance, fidelity (thanks to the Loudness War), character, style, and any element of unique identity it once bore.

In a now-legendary article about Jamie Wednesday in the NME, written by David Quantick, David mentioned that pop music is ever-recycling its ideas and that eventually, ‘pop will eat itself’.  We are witnessing the realization of this prophecy right before our culture’s eyes.

Pop is now a self-parodying, purely ironic, insubstantial, auto-cannibalistic animal.  It cannot sustain itself for much longer without a supply of original material to consume.

Are we due for a spontaneous generation of classically-trained musically-educated instrumentalists, manifesting in clear defiance of the education system which has long-abandoned arts education?

Instead we are left with a millennial generation who has been carefully conditioned from their earliest years to consume pop and to be collectively uncomfortable (or even repulsed) by the cerebral sounds of polyphony, afro-inspired polyrhythms, or improvisational compositions like jazz.  All they want is a hook and a four-on-the-floor synth beat.

This is the musical incarnation of the newspeak Orwell warned us about – a culture raised from birth to see and hear only vapid, formulaic, 3 minute commercials and to buy the associated line of merchandise.  This is what Clear Channel tells us that “music” means today.

I implore you to play your children classical, play them jazz, opera, experimental electronic music, and the countless micro-genres from around the world.  Maybe, just maybe some of them will pick up an instrument, (whether lute or laptop) and learn to make beautiful new music.

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Published in: on March 15, 2015 at 12:09 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Oh, dark the times………
    Thank God, my daughter is not infected.

  2. This is definitely a problem that I face on basically a daily basis. I’m 16 and, while I’m still not into really experimental music (unless you count bands like Death Grips as experimental) but I’m always open to different genres. In terms of modern pop, yes, most of it is total watered down crap, but I have a feeling that that will change pretty soon. While most people are satisfied with a song as long as it has a ‘brutal drop’ or the other bullshit terms people like to use, there is a growing discontent in the underground. And I think this discontent is beginning to spill over to the mainstream. Take, for example, the new Kendrick Lamar album. In it he basically rejects everything about mainstream rap and fills it with weird, jazz filled syncopated beats as well as featuring tonnes of experimental producers like Flying Lotus. Yes, loads of people hate it because there aren’t many hooks, but I think that many have realised that this is a turning point in modern rap, and hopefully modern music as a whole.

    However, I think to say that all modern music is bad shows a lack of knowledge of music because there are great albums being put out, it’s just that people refuse to listen to them because, well, all modern music is bad. I think also to say that rock died in 2002 is a bit narrow minded, seeing as Funeral by Arcade Fire was released two years later, and Lost In The Dream by The War On Drugs was one of the best albums of last year. Neither are experimental or anything, but just because an album isn’t experimental or avant-garde doesn’t mean it’s bad.

    To be honest I don’t really know what my point is, but I think that the crappy pop that dominates the airwaves will always be there, but eventually enough people will get annoyed by it that someone will change it up. The music industry is much like an economy, it will always rise and fall in cycles. In the 50’s people were bored by the folk and country of the time, so rock and roll became popular. In the 70’s, people were bored by the prog-rock and disco that dominated the world, so punk came about. In the 90’s people got bored by hair metal and synth-pop so grunge became popular. While these genres did end up getting polluted by the media, at their core they showed that pop music can be changed.

    I think/hope that change is coming, and that my generation won’t be remembered as the one that birthed Justin Bieber and One Direction. However, to say that all modern music since 2000 is bad is woefully misguided and shows a real lack of appreciation for music.

    Thanks for sticking with me on what was my longest comment ever!

    • Loved your response, thanks! And you’re absolutely right – my post was more an embittered rant than an accurate framing of present-day music. Pop will always be there, shouting loudly at anyone who’ll listen, but it is hardly a barometer of the actual trends in generational music. And I doubt that your generation will be associated with Bieber and the like. For a much more positive piece on Gen Z’s music, I invite you to check out https://1nnerspaceboy.wordpress.com/2014/09/06/cultural_identity/.

      Thanks again for your valuable response!


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