Watch two members of the indescribable Merchandise perform a stripped-down version of “Become What You Are” in an intimate backyard venue in east Austin.
1. Don’t insist that pop be hip. A good chunk of mainstream music gains inspiration from more cutting-edge stuff — always has. (Remember when The Monkees went psychedelic?) But plenty of it plays by other rules: It could be rooted in Christian contemporary music, emo, or soft rock. That doesn’t make it less meaningful; it just takes work to understand these other legacies. It’s cool if you find John Legend corny, but respect that for millions his grounding in group harmony singing and Bacharach balladry signals sophistication. Respect values other than your own.
2. Understand that selling records is the point. The major players in creating mainstream pop don’t care about integrity, in the restrictive sense. They’re collaborators, and they’re interested in making money. So yes, Dr. Luke encourages his ingénue protégés to trade in feminine stereotypes (sometimes in highly questionable ways), and Avicii goes for obvious beats. Great pop sneaks in subtleties to enrich and even sometimes undermine the obvious elements that make a song pop out of the radio. Appreciating that requires an adjustment of one’s aesthetics. Recognize the value in familiarity and big gestures.
3. Acknowledge that the assembly line is a cornerstone of pop. Since the days of Tin Pan Alley, pop’s spirit has been one of energizing collaboration and seat-by-the-pants innovation. There’s little room in this game for purist notions of artistic integrity. “We Can’t Stop" has seven writers and was originally intended for Rihanna. What’s interesting about the song is how it transformed in the process of becoming Miley Cyrus’s signature. Know the limits of this kind of production while also noticing where the soul can slip in.
4. Physically connect with the mainstream, but don’t presume you know what its different corners are all about. Lindsay Zoladz recently wrote on her Tumblr about attending a Miley concert and realizing that — at least sometimes — she wanted to write for the Bangerz, Miley’s devotees, not for her fellow Pitchfork nerds. I applaud her insistence that music obsessives need to look outside the confines of their own tribe and learn from non-fetishists. But the desire to identify can sometimes obscure that “otherness” you mention, even for poptimists. As enriching as it is to feel good in a crowd of strangers, it’s equally useful to go where things are less comfortable. For every charming fan you might meet at a non-hipster show, there’s a drunk one, and one whose political views are really different than your own, and one who (if you go see Kirk Franklin or Mary J. Blige) might ask you to pray with them. As you’ve said, encountering the other can be difficult — for poptimists too. It should be difficult. Insight comes from wrestling with the awkwardness.
5. Go beyond Beyonce. I think we all need to acknowledge that King Bey is not your average diva-bear, and that putting her on a best-list is not an adventurous move. Assignment for all poptimists: have an opinion about the Jason DeRulo album that drops today.
Hear some never-before-heard cuts by Bruce Springsteen, Lydia Loveless, Dana Falconberry, Devo and more on the Record Store Day edition of All Songs Considered.
Bleak… and delicious! —Lars