Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“You know what? It’s been a long day. I just need a little something to take the edge off, you know? Just a little taste. It’s not like it’s dangerous or anything, and it’s only illegal if you get caught. You think you’re better than me? You should lighten up. Come on, you should try some too…it’ll help you relax.”
Everyone at this school needs to listen to more pop music. Everyone in the world needs to listen to more pop music. Why a painfully obvious drug-metaphor to describe it? Pop music is not a subtle thing. It’s loud, it’s simple, and it is entirely obvious to anyone who listens. It has nothing to hide. It has no secret agendas. There is not some secret cartel of shadowy figures trying to communicate their Masonic plans by yelling “shots shots shots shots shots shots/ shots shots shots shots shots/ shots shots shots shots shots/Everybody!” It has no delusions of grandeur or plans to change the world; it just wants people to have a good time.
It seems people often underestimate the importance of that consistent “have fun” pop music axiom. If you tell people that you enjoy pop music, they say (or at least think) things like “Oh my God! How can you stand that pop trash? It all sounds the same!” or “Pop is for the sheep who need the radio to tell them what to listen to. It lacks the depth, complexity, and social consciousness of all the bands I listen to. What bands do I listen to, you ask? Oh, my favorite one right now is some steam/electro/psuedo-dubstep-punk/hipster-hipster-hipster band from Bumblefuck, Nowhere. It’s an extension of the Big City X underground scene, you probably haven’t heard of them . . .” Occasionally, you’ll get people who’ll respond with a “Ewww! Lady Gaga! I heard she has a penis!” as if that’s a valid criticism of your music choice, or a “Back in my day, we had real music” (go ahead, check the comments of any song on YouTube that was written before 1990, you’ll see).
Those kinds of people take their music far too seriously. Why so serious? If you listen to a band because you like their music, that’s great. More power to you. But if you listen to a band because you like the sense of superiority it gives you to listen to them, that’s kind of pretentious, and makes you a poseur with a capital “EU”. Most people do not go as far to fall into a few categories as I’ve blatantly stereotyped them, but they hold these kinds of views in more subtle ways. If you have an extensive music library that’s taken years to assemble, it’s wonderful to be proud of the time you spent looking for music that you like and the things you’ve been able to find. However, it’s pointless to take pride in the fact that you like the type of music you do; that’s like being proud of the fact that you like apples instead of oranges. You should be proud of the things that you’ve accomplished, like the extensive orchard you’ve been able to maintain for year in your backyard, or that one time when you ate 25 apples in an hour, but the preference itself is out of your control. It’s exogenous, man. Let it go.
If people can’t change their preferences, why would I encourage them to listen to more pop music? Because I think a lot of people have not given pop music a fair shot. It’s hard to develop a taste and an appreciation for oranges when every time you’ve tried one, you’ve been surrounded by people telling you that oranges are the devil. Before I came to college, I know I certainly didn’t give pop music a fair chance. I was one of those people who thought “How can those idiots enjoy pop?” (though, to be fair, there were a lot of idiots in high school). I thought that pop was simple and repetitive and shallow, so only a less-cultured individual could possibly enjoy it. The lyrics were meaningless, the vocals were unimpressive, and every song sounded the same (though I’m a little tone-deaf, so that could’ve just been me).
But as I came to college, that perspective began to change. I came to realize that the lyrics were meaningless, the vocals were unimpressive, and every song sounded the same (as Mixed Company pointed out at Jambo last year and this video sums up pretty well). The songs hadn’t changed, but I had, and I came to realize that the reasons I criticized pop before were the same things that make it such a powerful entity. Songs use the same 4 chords because those are 4 incredibly catchy chords that people (including myself) enjoy listening to. The vocals don’t need to be impressive as long as they have that earworm quality, and the lyrics are supposed to be shallow and meaningless because no one wants to think too hard when they’re trying to escape reality.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of that meaninglessness. The world can be an unforgiving place, and sometimes you need that escape. Sometimes, you need to be able to sink into a state of meaningless bliss where no world exists beyond that of the pounding 808 drum giving rowing orders to the party ship, telling it to bring Bacchic revelry to the places where there used to be order. Pop music isn’t unintentionally devoid of meaning; it’s a rebellion against it. It’s a rebellion against all the cares and the troubles of the world. All those other meaningful things in the world are meaningful because they help toward progress of some kind, but in order to work for progress, you have to first acknowledge that the current world is incomplete. The world of pop music will never see progress, because it is always complete. There is no progress to be made in a perfect world. It does not acknowledge that imperfections exist, and in order to do that, it has to reject the very idea of meaning. That shallowness isn’t some sort of oversight on the artist’s part; that shallowness is what gives pop music its fun, eternal soul.
When all those serious things and serious people became too much to bear and you need an escape, I’d encourage you, dear reader, to hear the word of the Top 40. Take it for what it is. Don’t be disappointed when it isn’t deep and meaningful, because if you judge a fish to be inferior because it can’t climb trees, you might miss its extraordinary ability to swim through this sea of troubles. Your pop conversion may not happen all at once (I know mine didn’t), but you may eventually appreciate its majesty, feel your mind wrapped in its cool Novocaine embrace, and join in the meaningless revolution.