Top of the Pops: Rethinking the Value of Pop Music

In 2012, Carly Rae Jepsen’s breakout hit Call Me Maybe took the world by storm and instantly became a radio staple. Then relatively unknown Jepsen shot up the charts alongside names like Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Adele. The song became inescapable, with constant radio play making it difficult for one to go about their daily activities without hearing it. With the song’s overplay soon came a deep, widespread disdain for the violins of the opening, the vague lyrics, and the sickly-sweet chorus. Call Me Maybe became a common target of criticism, with numerous articles written about it being the ‘worst song of all time.’ In 2012, at the age of 11, I likely would have agreed with this assessment after hearing it some 2,000 times. 

However, I recently stumbled upon the song after it disappeared from my conscious memory and was struck at how it is truly the quintessential pop song. At just over three minutes, it is the perfect length for a pre-chorus that draws you in, a chorus bursting with sharp strings, a perfect melody, and a bridge that is impossible not to sing along to. Upon rekindling my love for this song, I began to wonder why pop music is not taken as seriously as other genres, and why it is often brushed off as frivolous and even mindless.  

Pop music is a notably commercialized genre, as its heavy promotion along with the celebrity status of many artists largely influences music charts and media. Many pop artists are deemed ‘industry plants.’ Music industry executives have a lot of say in what music will be released, closely controlling artists’ images and resulting in a lack of authenticity. The power of the music industry is often the cause of music that feels soulless and forgettable, albeit easily digestible. It is also worth mentioning that the majority of the top names in pop are women, and women are the target demographic for the genre. This has largely contributed to discarding pop music as a legitimate art form, and not taking artists seriously. However, there are a plethora of female pop artists who have released fantastic music with depth and excellent production. 

One of the first artists to come to mind is Janelle Monáe, a multi-talented singer, rapper, and actress hailing from Kansas. Monáe’s music is liberating, exciting, and completely intoxicating. On their 2013 album, The Electric Lady, Monáe reflects on queerness, sex, sexuality, and individuality. On one of my favourite songs off the album, Q.U.E.E.N., with an excellent feature from Erykah Badu, Monáe poses the question, “is it weird to like the way she wear her tights?” This is a simple, yet poignant line about questioning one’s sexuality, with Monáe later repeating the lines, “even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am,” an empowering mantra and message for listeners. Monáe’s 2018 album Dirty Computer remains one of my favourite albums of all time, full of lyrics about accepting yourself no matter what, with features from Brian Wilson, Zoë Kravitz, Grimes, and Pharrell, along with musical input from Prince.  

Rina Sawayama’s 2020 album SAWAYAMA is an electrifying outburst of confidence and anger, flawlessly incorporating influences from Y2K pop and nu-metal. On the album’s opening track, Dynasty, Sawayama pays homage to her ancestors with the lyrics, “I’m a dynasty, the pain in my vein is hereditary.” Sawayama, born in Japan, emigrated to London at the age of five with her family. She was denied eligibility to be nominated for major British music awards in 2020 as she does not hold British citizenship. This gained much attention, with Elton John tweeting in her defense. On the album’s lead single, STFU!, Sawayama summons rage against racist music label executives, with a striking, tongue-in-cheek music video to go along with the song. The chorus is a repetition of the words ‘shut the fuck up,’ with Sawayama asking “have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut,” perfectly summing up the feeling of having to hold your tongue.  

Finally, I want to talk about Charli XCX, England’s rose. Establishing herself as a great hook writer in the mid-2010s with hits like Boom Clap, I Love It, and Fancy, she initially found success as a mainstream pop singer. However, her music style changed drastically with her 2016 EP Vroom Vroom, incorporating futuristic production and many features, resulting in a complete stylistic breakthrough. Her 2019 and 2020 releases, Charli and how i’m feeling now, respectively, secured her a spot in the music industry as one of the most innovative and creative artists, with intricate production, brain-tickling melodies, and a venture into hyper-pop, a relatively new genre that she now dominates. 

Despite being cast aside as uninspired and mass marketed, pop is a dynamic genre that’s constantly reinventing itself. It’s a shame that, along with the women who dominate it, pop music seldom gets the widespread artistic recognition and acclaim it deserves.

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