One Fan’s Trash is Another’s Treasure: The Highly Subjective and Unpredictable Landscape of Popular Music

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After hearing “Timber” by Pitbull and Ke$ha for the thousandth time on the radio on my drive home today and then seeing Justin Bieber’s shirtless tattooed body on the cover of the new Rolling Stone issue that came in the mail, I started thinking more about popular music and what makes an artist or a song “popular” these days. Is it the particular sound, beat, rhythm or mood of the songs, the lyrical content or message the artist is trying to convey, the image and sometimes shock value surrounding the artist, or perhaps a combination of all these factors? What makes more Americans gravitate toward artists such as One Direction or the Dave Matthews Band as opposed to, say, Beck or Erykah Badu? What defines “popular” in the music world, and do we categorize top 40 artists as different from artists who may be popular in terms of critical praise and widespread cultural appreciation but not necessarily huge album sales or massive radio hits? Should Miley Cyrus and Arcade Fire both be lumped into an amorphous category called “popular music,” and is it fair to make a bold statement like “all pop music is unoriginal?” when there are vast differences among many artists who are considered to be popular and a fuzzy definition of what “popular” even is?

The more I grappled with these questions and the more research I did, the more blurry and confusing things became. I was originally going to write about how the majority of songs that make the iTunes top 10 tend to be largely unoriginal and rehashed and how image and notoriety tend to sell albums more so than creativity, artistic integrity and lyrical content. But then I reminded myself of all the trashy novelty hits of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s that we don’t often consider when glorifying the popular music of past decades and also the shock factor and scandals surrounding artists of years past. We can be quick to judge today’s popular music landscape based on Justin Bieber’s antics or inane, annoying novelty songs like “What Does the Fox Say?” but what about all the scandal that surrounded artists like Madonna and even Fleetwood Mac or annoying, vapid songs like “Rock Me Amadeus” and “Afternoon Delight?” The sounds that are considered popular have of course evolved and changed, and the shock factor and scandals surrounding certain artists seem intensified due to modern technology and to the ability of information to travel much faster, but the trash and the fluff that we typically associate with pop music has always been there in some form.

I wish there were an algorithm to help determine what will make an artist or song become popular enough to crack the top 10 songs in iTunes and what will allow an artist to experience long term commercial success versus fading into oblivion after a few successful songs or albums. Unfortunately, these things don’t seem so easy to predict or determine. For example, I never would have guessed that Lorde would have a song in the iTunes top 10 after one of my good friends and main music sources sent me her EP last year. I played “Royals” in my yoga classes early last spring, way before it was “cool,” and was actually surprised when I heard it on the radio that summer, driving back from Maine and saw it on the iTunes top 10 list that same week. It’s an example of a song has gone from indiepop ear candy that I couldn’t get enough of to a completely overplayed hit I can’t escape and that even the second graders I work with know all the lyrics to. It fascinates me that although “Royals” and Lorde herself are far different than “Call Me Maybe” and the image that Carly Rae Jepsen sells, little kids seem to embrace both of those artists and will eagerly sing along to their songs. I had a similar experience with Avril Lavigne back in 2002. When she first came on the scene, I was a freshman in college, and although my friends and I were listening to mostly indie bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Saves the Day, we would play “Complicated,” around the time when it started to get a bit of buzz on MTV, and we sang along at the tops of our lungs (albeit in a slightly ironic way). Fast forward to the winter of that following year when I was in the middle of an internship at an elementary school and all the kids I worked with were singing it at the tops of their lungs at recess, and by that point the song had become much like “Royals,” completely overplayed to the point where it was way too “popular” to embrace or even tolerate anymore. Both Lorde and Avril Lavigne are examples of artists whose image and sound don’t seem to fit the mold of what’s currently embraced by the mainstream or what will become part of the next “Now That’s What I Call Music” or “Kidz Bop” compilation, but who somehow broke the mold and made it big anyway. Do these “outliers” tend to have staying power in the world of pop music or do they tend to fade back into the forgotten landscape once their 15 minutes is up?

It also makes me wonder, what makes an artist like Justin Timberlake or Britney Spears continue to dominate the pop charts years after they first rose to popularity while artists like Beck or Pearl Jam who had a few pretty big radio hits in the 90’s have continued to be showered with critical praise and support from a sizable fan base, haven’t had a radio hit or iTunes top 10 song in years? I’m sure in a case like Beck’s it’s due to him keeping a rather low, mysterious profile and being willing to experiment with his sound, not caring too much what the mainstream thinks, while Spears and even Timberlake thrive on selling their image and are highly influenced by forces and popular trends in the music industry. Given this dichotomy, should we lump Beck, Spears, Timberlake and even Bieber into an amorphous category called “popular music?” And do people take into account slightly less mainstream but still popular artists such as Beck, Radiohead, and Arcade Fire when they start making bold statements about the state of “popular music?”

Given all these questions and debates, I think our idea of what constitutes “popular music” is vastly different from person to person, and since we’ve had a hard time agreeing on or defining what’s popular, it’s unfair and unfounded to make blanket statements like, “all pop music is mediocre/unoriginal/trashy” etc. In any given year or decade, the songs that will become popular can be very diverse and hard to predict. The charts will always be filled with catchy, trendy songs, annoying one hot wonders, and outliers like as “Royals.” Artists who put themselves out there in a provocative or ostentatious way and are fueled by the hype machine will probably have long term popularity and commercial success, whereas artists who have a certain “je ne sais quoi” and slowly become popular by word of mouth but go on to ignore or buck trends will probably fade into the background, and popular music will continue to be somewhat of a strange, unpredictable, fascinating, and ever changing phenomenon.

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