BUT I DIGRESS: What makes a good pop song (and how to make pop music great again)
I have no idea what I’m going to be babbling about today, kiddies.
I know I do need to knock something out or I’ll get chewed out by the boss, so I’m giving it the ol’ “James Joyce” treatment. The results couldn’t possibly be worse than that hack’s unintelligible dreck. Why Hemingway hung around with him, I’ll never know.
I suppose I could delve back into the subject of friendship, or metal, or metal friendships. The lunatics I’ve been lucky enough to have surrounded myself with are a well with an endless source of fresh water.
I dunno, though. I was hoping to write something about music. It’s been a year to the day (as I wrote this) that David Bowie died. A month and a year since Lemmy told the Earth to fuck off. But the losses of 2016 are not only a source of misery that, in the middle of a cold, lifeless January, we don’t actually need. If I write about it, I’ll be responsible for revisiting all those melancholy moments, and I don’t wanna be that guy.
I’d like to write about something new I’ve been listening to, but the newest thing I’ve heard is the last Ghost LP and a bunch of old Motörhead records I forgot I had.
Know what? Maybe it’s time I broached a subject that has brought me much ridicule from my most metal friends… my appreciation of really well-done pop music.
I’m not talking about the auto-tuned Krap$ha brand music that not only showcases phony “performers,” but hack songwriters and old people pretending to be hip, young producers.
Seriously, dude. If you spend the winter in Florida because the New York winter is bad for your lumbago, stop saying “puhdoosuh.” There isn’t enough JFM in Punta Gorda to make you relevant again. It’s fucking embarrassing, dude. I’m old and I know this – imagine how the actually hip and young are ripping your wrinkled arse to shreds behind your back.
No, I’m talking about the stuff that almost killed Liz Phair’s career. Things written by (but not limited to) the likes of Max Martin, Lauren Christy, and Linda Perry and produced by (again, not limited to) slick, pop wunderkind such as Dr. Luke, Cirkut, and the remainder of the Matrix team.
First, allow me to preface the following dissertation (or diatribe, dependent on your point of view): I am by no means a bona fide fan of this music. To be absolutely truthful, I deeply despise and resent its existence and that of those who have foisted it upon an unwitting world and on an absolutely primal basis wish them all a swift, yet spectacularly painful demise.
And it’s because of the skill with which such ear poison is crafted that I, despite my aversions, cannot help but hum the motherfuckers when I’m doing the dishes. It’s maddening. I sit in awe at the feet of these horrible, detestable purveyors of sonic feces.
They can achieve the impossible; they can jam a song I hate firmly within my psyche. Not just as a totem for unleashing my vitriol, no no. Their gifts are far more insidious. They make the insipid unforgettable. They write inescapable hooks!
See, a common misconception is that pop music, by its very nature, sucks goat nads. Now, from an artistic point of view, i.e. having something of any redeeming social value to say, that’s the fact. Pop music is devoid of any enviable political, social, or ethical positions… mostly.
Let’s not forget that it was a pop group that ushered in and inspired the generation that stopped a war and who ultimately pointed the way for those whose empowerment and tenacity allowed us all to be exactly who we want to be today.
Pop isn’t some petulant castoff of its more credible brother, rock ‘n’ roll. Pop was first. Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey weren’t “big band” until big band was the moniker dumped on their era after the fact. It was the “popular music” of the day, as was Mozart, Scott Joplin, Elmore James, Duke Ellington, and Little Richard.
If you underestimate pop music, you wind up repeating the chorus to “Copacabana” endlessly because it’s the only part of the song you remember. Don’t believe me? Why don’t you just tell me what song is playing in your head in three hours?
Barry is wedged in there now like baby Jessica, yo. You’re welcome.
And that’s where my admiration comes in. Pop music insists on the most banal of subjects – love and breakups and “girl power” (not actual feminism, mind you. The audience for that is too narrow a demographic).
The lyrics generally run between criminally rote and annoyingly clever, rarely saying anything remotely revelatory. In fact, the lyrical content is designed to be predictable, to seem familiar upon first hearing so as to find a crack to get into and expand, like freezing water on a concrete garage floor. It’ll take a jackhammer to pull up the damage.
Think Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train.” For that band, this was an obvious attempt at charting, and because absolutely everyone I have ever met thought it was a remake that they’d heard before, it stuck! Nobody could get it out of their heads! Now, I always have and always will prefer “Misery,” but that song sounded like I’d heard it before too. And it’s been stuck in my head ever since because of that. Yours, too.
Yet – and here’s the real mystery – although all great pop sounds familiar, very rarely do any two great pop songs sound like one another! This is where the undeniable craftsmanship truly comes to the fore.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule as well. George Harrison, when presented with the similarities between “My Sweet Lord” and “He’s So Fine,” just went, “Oh, fuck, I totally accidentally ripped that right off. Pay ‘em whatever they want.” And the Flaming Lips “Fight Test” was so blatantly derived from “Father and Son,” even historically über mellow Cat Stevens was like, “Dude, what the fuck?” and made ‘em pony up half the royalties.
But think about it. Some of the most beloved (and/or most reviled) pop songs in history stand, by and large, melodically singular. That’s fucking amazeballs, yo! There are precisely 72 gazillion pop songs out there, with another jillion a day being released and, off the top of my head, I could only recall the two most incredibly blatant (although both unintentional) rip-offs in the universe to cite as examples!
So there’s that.
Add to it the impossible task of creating something so fucking catchy that the people who hate it most catch themselves singing it (fucking Katy Perry’s “Roar” has been plaguing my ass for a week now!). Then they intentionally put it out of their minds, only to catch themselves singing it again in 10 minutes, fueling their hatred further, but still unable to break free from its spell.
Y’all, if I could find out how where they keep the bottle of whatever it is they got that makes ‘em able to do that shit… pssshhhh, I’d be a total sellout on the daily and laughin’ my narrah ass all the way to the bank at the same time.
It’s a rare talent and a genius all its own, no matter what your opinion of the finished product. No matter what your personal tastes, if you don’t acknowledge the singular gift it takes to be able to make you, the hater of haters, unable to help themselves from singing that infernal tune… well, you’re a liar, too.
All the way back to A-ha’s “Take on Me,” I knew there was something irresistible about well-written pop, and I secretly listened to it with great attention to detail. I never cracked the entire code, but I’d captured an Enigma machine by listening and could use it to decrypt certain phrases, phrases I could then take back into the lab and reverse engineer until I came up with a formula for… the hook!
It doesn’t matter where our musical tastes have ended up. Somewhere in the annals of each of our psyches exists the pop tune that started it all. Sure, there are kids out there who spring forth from the womb shouting, “SLAAAYYYYYYEEEEERRRRR!” but they are, by nature, few and far between.
No, it’s usually a pop song, something that reminds you of a certain moment in time… perhaps the first song you discovered on your own. Or something that was playing in the car on some random drive to someplace you forgot, but you remember you were with your mom, so everything was all right.
Maybe it was playing at the mall on a Wednesday morning in November when you were playing hooky with your crew or in the back seat of your dad’s Buick when you got to second base for the first time.
I have a few. One of mine was “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” by Andy Gibb. I remember listening to my radio (we’ve discussed how I adore radio) in my room and hearing it, thinking, “I like the way this sounds.”
I also recall it was a few months after seeing “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special,” featuring KISS. Only a few weeks after that, I got to choose the very first record I’d ever buy with my own money. That album was KISS’ “Alive II,” and it effectively ended my career as a pop music fan.
There were, of course, others. I have a vivid memory of the Eagles’ “New Kid in Town” playing as the car I was riding in as a kid (backseat, no car seat, no seatbelt, miraculously not dead) made a left-hand turn onto Gibson Street from Washington Avenue in Jermyn. The song was released in 1976, so that would put me around 8 years old, but it’s as clear as if it was 20 minutes ago.
There’s Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” that confused the hell out of me the first time it showed up on my transistor clock radio in my tiny bedroom at my paternal grandmother’s house up on the hill in Mayfield.
I seem to remember that being a part of an amazing few years for pop music – Duran Duran, Billy Idol, and even weird pop like Alan Parson’s kickass “Games People Play” and the vaguely retro Moody Blues’ “The Voice.”
It wouldn’t be long after Toto, who already had me with “99,” would set the hook deeper with “Africa,” then Men at Work’s “Down Under” and Huey Lewis and the News’ “Do You Believe in Love” showed up. All remarkable feats in playing, engineering and, since there wasn’t any way to fix a singer who sucked ass with the press of a button, strong performances. Until Milli Vanilli, whose songs were, once again, brilliant, despite the deception… but I digress.
As focused as I was on metal in the ‘80s, pop couldn’t help but find its way in. I liked girls, and most girls liked pop, so I tolerated a lot of it. But some of it stuck!
Weird, random synth pop like Alphaville and creatively strange, yet essentially pop oddities like Tony Carey’s Planet P Project’s “Static”…
…and “Why Me” and Tom Cochrane’s pre-“Life Is a Highway” gig in Red Rider pumping out the driving pop of “Lunatic Fringe”…
…and the greatest pop anthem writer of all time, Donnie Iris, whose “Ah! Leah!” features what is, to this very day, the coolest fucking middle eight overdubbed round in recording history. Also possibly the only one, but still…
As the decade of the ‘80s waned and the ‘90s bounded in, there was much grand pop. Overshadowed and forgotten in the wake of the Seattle scene, it still exists in the ether.
Of course, there was Paula Cole’s ubiquitous “I Don’t Want to Wait”…
But there was also Vitamin C in her original iteration as the vocalist of Eve’s Plum…
There was Concrete Blonde’s more cerebral pop – but it was still nonetheless pop – by the close of the decade…
As is usually the case, the more interesting stuff was done by women. That’s only my opinion, but this is my goddam column no matter how much you piss and moan, so pipe down.
As we drifted into the 21st century, pickin’s have grown noticeably slimmer, but that’s due less to the fact that fewer great pop acts are out there and more to the fact that all of the radio stations are now owned by one record company, and if the act you like isn’t on one of their labels, well, I’m afraid you’re SOL, son.
But if even in the age of iFart Badio and Smearchannel, there exist some gems, the aforementioned Katy Perry nugget being one. As much as I despise it, I cannot, under any circumstances, remove it from heavy rotation on the playlist that is my subconscious.
Alicia Keys can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned, and Destiny’s Child always came with the most expertly crafted tunes available.
Granted, the issue with 21st century pop is that it has no basis whatsoever in reality, as talentless hacks are touted as the new [insert act from the past that could sing without pitch correction and play their own instruments while dancing… say, the Jackson 5, ferinstance].
My inability to connect any longer with modern pop isn’t because I’m old or that pop music is no longer prevalent in my current sphere of operations. On the contrary, I hear more of it now than ever, since terrestrial sources of independent music are all but nonexistent.
It’s because I’m a musician, not a “pop performer.” Time was, even the lowliest man on the totem pole had to have talent. Bobby Darin actually sang “Mack the Knife.” With his own face, even. Madonna made a career out of barely being able to hold her voice together, and Cyndi Lauper had a serious set of pipes.
Today, the labels are so desperate to turn a quick buck with the advent of file sharing that they cull the next pop stars directly from the fans, with the exception of the Lady Gagas out there (not a lotta current pop stars got accepted by Juilliard at age 11 and NYU’s Tisch School, dig?).
The current crop is chosen from according to the following curriculum – they are to have little to no talent, as talented people tend to have a desire to create and to have the freedom to do so. They must be beautiful, above all else. They must be easily groomed and/or manipulated, and if they can be coaxed into taking part in a fabricated “scandal,” all the better.
This isn’t to say that the pop songwriters out there aren’t still delivering the goods. Otherwise I’d never have had the annoyance of a bad singer singing a great tune getting stuck in my head as inspiration for this column.
But what I am saying is that I can no longer connect as deeply as I once could. Even the most familiar feeling of modern pop songs have the stench of artifice that prevents my subconscious from being captivated as the imperfect warble of, say, Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts” once did.
See, the public will only tolerate watered-down versions of what they came to the party to hear for so long before they rebel. Don’t believe me? Ask White Tiger and Firehouse what they think of Nirvana and Mudhoney. The way I see it, one of two things is gonna happen.
Either the anti-pop pop rebellion I just mentioned, or the genre, as we know it, will die. If pop dies, alternative dies. Because without pop, what is there to rebel against? Innovation is the direct result of rebellion against homogeneity. If there isn’t a barometer by which to measure suck, how will we know when we have achieved non-sucking status?
All you young puhdoosuhs out there (it’s all right if you say it, you’re not old fucks like that hunk of music-destroying excrement Mutt Lange. There’s a special place in hell waiting for you, Mutt. And Steve Clark is currently mixing the sand into the Vaseline in preparation for your arrival)… where was I?
Oh yeah, all of you young producers, rather than just swallowing what they feed you about how the public wants everything “to sound like everything else” and drifting into obscurity and obsolescence when the current trend of fake singers and backing tracks is crushed under the boot heel of the next wave of vicious alternative music, try bein’ the motherfuckin’ boot.
Make your artist’s work. Make them rehearse. Make them have to have talent to begin with. You’ll set the trend; the next big thing will be what you say it is. And if your artists can actually bring the goods, then they can reimagine their image every few years and stay current ad infinitum.
Don’t believe me? Then why were Madonna, Springsteen, and Beyoncé’s tours some of the highest grossing tours of 2016?
To the next generation of pop artists and producers, I beseech you – stop disgracing these incredibly well-crafted songs with augmented caterwauling!
To the next generation of pop artists and producers, I’m begging you, please rekindle these shouldering embers of my heart that were once fueled by a burning hatred of whatever annoyingly well-written and perfectly performed and produced pop song that was stuck in my head at the time!
Please, for the love of George Michael, please, please make good bad music again!
Mass has ended. Go in peace.
John "Fud" Zavacki has been a working musician since the age of 15. He owns well over a thousand LPs in every musical genre and erroneously presumes this makes his opinion noteworthy.