Pop music is pretty abstract when you think about it. Working in an officespace beside a radio has forced me to think about it, and how much a value my life as a result. It gives artists poetic licence to spout absolute nonsense so long as it’s catchy. To tread the well worn path of those that came before, and to leave their mark as an empty looping jingle in your brainspace. One that makes you want to go through your eyes to scratch them out. Songs about love
and… that’s most of them. New love, lost love, love locked-down etc. There is something truly bizarre about pop music (how bizarre?) – something that everyone seems to buy into and chooses not to acknowledge: the clotheless emperor that appears to you in the car, in shopping centres and in the background of adverts; every time you look around he’s dancing there with his bare naked body right in your face. At first it was my patience being tested now I fear it’s my sanity.
As a genre the defining feature is popularity. So really it shouldn’t be a particular style but an evershifting trend. It becomes somewhat paradoxical to consider how a pop band would start out, or how a pop song is released. How do you predict popularity? It seems many a boardroom has been filled with executives working out how to capitalise on the interests of the public; how to turn an artform into a cashcow – like a team of robots trying to work out the allure of a flower for the sole purpose of catching bees.
There is in fact a formula to making something popular. [Score = (w1 x f1) + (w2 x f2)…(w23 x f23)] in case you were wondering. This is not a joke – not entirely anyway. There is a field of study called Pop Music Automation that is dedicated to producing successful pop music based on algorithms. This isn’t unique to the music industry – House of Cards the hit show on Netflix that just released its third season evidently used an algorithm to certify success before it was launched. What makes pop music, or rather a pop song, different is that it is: short, self-contained, doesn’t require your full attention (perhaps even benefiting from this subconscious absorption) and it can be repeated. Endlessly. So whether you like it or not, you know it.
Sometimes when I have a song stuck in my head I find it satisfying when it inevitably crops up again, or I actually have to seek it out like I’m suffering from withdrawal. It’s hard to tell this Stockholm Syndrome from actually liking a song, if it is different. Most of the time I’ll start out uncaring but will be driven to the point of utter disdain through overfamiliarity. As soon as the track begins it’s too late, it will continue on in my head uninvited. The intro of Happy by Pharell Williams, or any songs produced by Pharrell apparently, is enough to make the entire song bubble up from my unconscious.
There is no doubt that popular music sounds very similar, and this is because it is. If you think about it as a commodity, why would you risk making something different when you can reliably make something successful… like any franchise there is a trend to be capitalised on. So once you have your formula and have crafted your song – you get it played. Enough times for it to plant in the listeners head; so that it may grow and push outward, erasing memories of loved ones and distracting them from whatever it was they were doing. If you listen to the radio for stretches of time or over multiple days you’ll notice that there are playlists; collections of songs that are mixed up from day to day like spam, bacon and spam. Broadcasting networks will be obligated to play certain tracks a certain number of times. There is a quota, an embargo. There must be. Listening to BBC Radio 1 it feels like a joke sometimes. You can hear one song over 5 times in the same day.
It must say something about the state of affairs when competing radio stations claim to have a ‘no repeat guarantee’. However what this means is that during a set time period they won’t play the same song twice. Outside of this time is fair game. And from day to day they can play the same playlist. All radio stations playing new music will play the same songs thereby making it the next popular song. A self fulfilling prophecy. As for the content of pop music it doesn’t really matter. If it’s simple enough to be absorbed and repeated by the unconcious mind then the actual meaning is arbitrary. Save for the odd cultural buzzword – thinking: Selfie, Zombie, Dr. Who – and a loose rhyme scheme – thinking: the Kanye Rhyme.
Pop music is made to be heard but not listened to. The lyrics slur between clichés and babble. Quite surreal in some ways, whether it be non-sequiturs loosely stitched together or the endless reiteration of the same inane statement. And whilst my stance is wholly pejorative, I do like this quality. Like dada poetry within a structure; applied to the formula. Like Brian Eno’s work with Talking Heads, or Radiohead’s Kid A.. just.. unintentional.
All the more satisfying is when the formula is subverted, when new meaning is injected into the hollow frame. DJ Earworm, a DJ in the true sense of the word, mixes and splices music to create a single multi-layered track comprised of all the popular hits of the moment. Managing to merge up to 25 of the top billboard tracks into one coherent song, his songs, as far as I am concerned, become both a celebration and a criticism of pop music today.
Lyrics are appropriated, cut together to fit a new rhyme scheme and changing the meaning of the song. In some cases a recurring theme or phrase is used as the focal point of an edit, highlighting the tropes that have become part of the nomenclature (put your hands up, down – apparently prepositions are pop gold). The similarity of melodies and hooks are used to blend tracks together, some are warped and yet they remain recognisable – playing on our, perhaps subconscious, familiarity with these songs. That feeling of satisfaction that accompanies the replay of a pop track is magnified by the sheer amount of songs and the ways in which they are interlaced, keeping you in a constant state of recognition.
The lyrics are meaningless. The words are just excuses for musical notes, like jibberish doo-wop but formed from actual words. People don’t really care about the meaning of the lyrics. Gangnam style topped the charts a few years back – a song which was almost entirely Korean. I knew someone, not a friend mind, who could and would sing the lyrics verbatim: every. word. That is not to say she knew what they meant. You’ve got to respect that, a system so devoid of meaning that people sing along in a language they don’t understand.
Just as the lyrics are words without meaning, the icons spouting them are just that: empty symbols. The vast majority of pop music videos are the all the more strange and nonsensical, and yet they are accepted commonplace. Pretty incredible that something so outlandish can remain unquestioned. Postmodernism for the masses that has ultimately opened the gate for more surreal and experimental forms to flood the mainstream. All it takes is to remove the music to realise how fantastically peculiar things have gotten.
So the tunes are the same, the lyrics are irrelevant and yet they keep people from noticing how strange the music videos are. I am certain that I would really appreciate the otherworldly nature of pop music if wasn’t forced upon me. It comes as no surprise that alongside waterboarding the prisoners of Guantánamo Bay were forced to listen to Britney Spears on a loop. In the words of US citizen Donald Vance, an Iraqi contractor and former prisoner of Guantánamo, on being forced to listen to Queen’s We Will Rock You on a continuous cycle, he says that the experience “sort of removes you from you. You can no longer formulate your own thoughts when you’re in an environment like that.” This explains a lot about my feelings toward my office. Not to draw comparisons or anything…