There is a long-standing debate in music criticism about whether pop music should be considered worthy of review, or whether it is a guilty pleasure best left undiscussed in polite company. With limited amount of time to write and listen and limited space to post reviews, these “rocktivists” argued that we should be focusing our reviews on Serious Art. The opposing poptimist camp won, as you’d expect: In a generation where the Internet promised there will always be a surplus of reviewers and space to post their opinions, why not review everything?
The problem with this debate is few people ever bothered to define what pop music is in the first place. It used to be so simple in the days of Nirvana. Pop music was inoffensive and danceable. Rock music was brash and unpolished. But the postmodern era we live in teaches us that labels are elusive bastards that refuse to divide most things in life into tidy binaries. The underground dance movement has shown us that there’s plenty of dance music that is clearly not pop. The success of corporate rock b(r)ands that “did it all for the nookie” will get the same snub treatment from rock critics, even though they aren’t thought of as pop. And even back in the days of Nirvana, what the hell was Bjork? Where did Future Sound of London fit in?
So what is pop music?
Conversely, all the rage and hubris the rock critics have flung at the poptivists seems almost silly. The poptivists have done themselves a dis-service by asking critics to take pop music seriously. Pop music is serious business but it is not, cannot be, serious art. Serious art stands for something. Serious art reflects someone’s vision. Because it is a hodgepodge of the cogs, whatever vision the writer began with will be diluted by marketing teams who wish to promote trends or avoid offense. It’s the difference between Jill Sobule singing in favor of kissing a girl and Katy Perry the product who sells the kissed-a-girl brand.
We need to move away from thinking of pop music by the symptoms that describe it–polished, electronic, trite, overly-produced–and think instead of the machine that produces it. We need to stop thinking of pop stars as artists and think of them instead as the logos for carefully tailored marketing campaigns. These surgically perfected smiling dolls are as sad as Frankenstein’s monster, as close to music as hamburger meat is to fillet mignon. We can take pleasure in what is the fast food of the art world while seeing it for what it is, while going on to chase these monstrous stars with our pitchforks and torches. We love the monster. We hate the monster. We consume the monster. She sells art, but she is not an artist.