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A Defense of Formulaic Pop Music: Why It Isn't So Bad

Canadian pop-rock group Marianas Trench has a song called Pop 101 that satirizes the formulaic nature of modern pop music. Pop 101 is a collection of parts of hit songs thrown together to form a new song. The insinuation is that a lot of pop music is the result of following trends rather than true artistic creation. When a certain type of song becomes big, everyone imitates that style until the masses get tired and demand something new.

While this is a valid criticism of pop, it's typical of all genres of music. Revolver by the Beatles is one of the albums that influenced the rise of psychedelic rock. The grunge rock explosion of the 1990's was said to be inspired by Nirvana's Nevermind. New genres also tend to arise out of existing ones. Funk was inspired by the blues and soul music popular in the 1960's and 1970's. This is actually how music evolves. Artists take what others have done and add to it. Pop 101 fails as a parody in this area simply because that's the nature of music and always has been. Where it does get things right is in the line "Hurry up and get to the chorus." It's not uncommon for people to know the catchy chorus of a pop song without ever paying attention to the verses. They may have little idea what the song is even about. They just care about the catchy hook, the beat, and cool effects.


Marianas Trench - Pop 101

Pop music is usually criticized and dismissed because it's built on a formula. Pop songs have catchy hooks and similar chord progressions. They have a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus or similar structure. Pop will typically avoid lyrical complexity or obscure references. The meaning is usually straight-forward and easy to understand. However this doesn't automatically mean pop music is bad.

Spectrum Pulse - In defense of the genre pop

"So what is pop music? Typically, musicologists boil it down to a few key traits: a focus on established craft over art, an appeal to the mainstream public, an emphasis on technology rather than live performance, and a focus on existing and established trends and chord progressions. In other words, to put it in the worst possible terms, it's processed, over-produced unoriginal studio-driven power-chord heavy product designed to sell to the sheep of the mainstream public. Yep, those are some harsh words to level against acts as varied as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Justin Timberlake - and I think you'd all agree that many if not all of the acts I just mentioned might deserve an exception."
-- Spectrum Pulse, special comment: 'pop 101' (in defense of the genre: pop)

Many songs by the Beatles, Phil Collins, Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac, the Bee Gees, Prince, Paul Simon, Carole King, Ben Folds, Adele, etc. fall under the category of pop. Songs that could have been dismissed as throwaway pop when they came out like Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and Footloose have become classics. Spectrum Pulse goes on to make the case pop as a genre shouldn't be entirely dismissed because there's good and bad pop. And even music made within a formula can be excellent.

Set Fire to the Rain by Adele, Human by Christina Perri and Boom Clap by Charli XCX are all modern pop songs but sound very different

One major criticism of pop is that it's manufactured music specifically designed to sell to the masses. Critics of pop think if only people listened to "better" music, they would realize how mediocre pop music is. If the masses weren't willing to accept the music spoon-fed to them by the major record labels and mass media giants like Clear Channel, artists would have no choice but to make "better" music. But many people who enjoy genres like jazz, classical, blues, classic rock, metal, and soul listen to pop music as well. Not everyone who buys pop music listens solely to pop music. But that's an assumption often made by those who dismiss the pop genre by questioning the taste and intelligence of the millions of people who enjoy it. However, it is also true that many people are unable to appreciate songs that stray from a strict pop formula.

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This isn't anything new. Based on songs that reached the #1 spot on the Billboard charts in the 1960s and 1970s, upbeat and catchy songs have always been popular.

Pop music gets a lot of grief when it comes to the issue of talent. Many pop singers are written off (sometimes unfairly) as talentless. Singers perceived to be talented may be criticized for not using their talents to make better music. Since pop music is manufactured at times the people purveying it don't always need musical talent.

Pitbull is an example. He can't sing, rap, or write good lyrics but he's had a huge career using the production, singing, and songwriting skills of others to get hits. Pitbull is a talented performer who knows how to entertain a crowd, but most of his success has come from using other people's talents. He used business savvy to make it big while many genuinely talented artists toil away in relative obscurity.

Paul Doucette - The City (Is Bound to Do Us In)

Pop is often manufactured. Some pop stars aren't very talented. Some popstars make music they don't want to make. While all of these are true, it doesn't make sense to reject the whole genre. Like in every other genre, there's good and bad. In pop, there are people with varying levels of talent, which is true in all genres. And just because it's pop doesn't mean it's manufactured.

Many artists do enjoy making pop music. The Beatles made both pop and rock music. Many of their songs were catchy with easy-to-understand lyrics. Tegan and Sara transitioned from alt-rock to pop on their album Heartthrob with mostly positive reactions from critics and fans. Paul Doucette of Matchbox Twenty made a pop album called Milk the Bee as a side project that was never aimed at the mainstream. Indie country/rock singer Lydia Loveless closed out her album Somewhere Else with a cover of the pop song They Don't Know by Kirsty MacColl because she's a fan of pop music and she thought it would be a cheerful end to an album that went "downhill emotionally."

While pop music is based on a formula, there's a lot that can be done with that formula. Pop music can be made using acoustic guitars, pianos, banjoes, electric guitars, keyboards, saxophones, and strings. Or it can be made using computers. It can pull influences from rock, folk, country, R&B, and hip hop. It can run the spectrum from serious to lighthearted. It's a very diverse genre. Even if you think Blurred Lines or Gangnam Style are terrible they shouldn't be used to dismiss a genre that's also brought us Penny Lane, Monday Morning, When Doves Cry, Wouldn't It Be Good, Beat It, Wind Beneath My Wings, and many other enduring classics.

Lydia Loveless - They Don't Know

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2014 LT Wright


Rachael Lefler from Illinois on March 09, 2016:

My main problem with pop music is that it's often vulgar in subject matter and the way it's presented, appealing to people's sexual appetites rather than being artistic in the sense that it refers to a higher philosophical truth that's personal to the individual artist. But then again, something can be appealing to the senses and also personal and artistic, and something can be popular without being cheap, tacky porn for the masses. What I also hate are when singers try to sound "deep" with their music when their lyrics are actually shallow and vapid.

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