Listening to Pop like a Rockist

Dog-Doo With Daniel: Do you listen to the music or the people who made the music?
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Beyonce self titled

The final battle between rock and its mortal enemy, pop, was waged shortly after the 2015 Grammys. In an upset, Beck’s Morning Phase had beat out Beyoncé’s self-titled, still the hottest album in the world a year after it dropped, for the Album of the Year Grammy. Someone made a meme comparing the number of instruments Beck played on his albums (countless) with the number of instruments Bey played on hers (one – vocals). The poptimist press retorted that Elvis never wrote a song, that Mick Jagger and Robert Plant never picked up instruments, that the Beatles had to speed up the piano solo on “In My Life” because no one could play it. When I get in fights about the merits of pop, anti-pop argument is always the same: they don’t play instruments, they don’t write songs, they need Auto-Tune to sing, they have no “talent.”

My retort: if Beyoncé’s self-titled was credited to Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Drake, Frank Ocean, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Blue Ivy Carter, Boots, Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, The-Dream, Ryan Tedder, Ammo, Noel “Detail” Fisher, Caroline Polachek, Justin Timberlake, Jerome Harmon, Key Wane, Ryan Tedder, Rey Reel, Brian Soko, Majid Jordan etc., with all their names slathered on the sleeve like some fucked-up Fiona Apple album, would it deserve a Grammy?

Let’s assume Beyoncé has no “talent.” Let’s assume being able to sing and perform are gifts rather than skills, that she had no involvement in the writing or producing or conceptualizing of her album. And let’s assume you’re reluctant to listen to a note of her music for that reason.

So don’t listen to what she’s doing. Listen to what’s going on in the background. Listen to how huge the drums are in “XO” and thank Hit-Boy for that. Listen to how the guitars noodle up out of the background and settle like a breathing organism on “Rocket.” Listen to the acres of empty space on “No Angel.” Would you want to sing over that stuff? Go back to Bey, how she inhabits these beats, how she makes her producers’ weird-ass ideas not sound so weird after all.

If this doesn’t stir you, go back in time. Who the fuck decided clanking metal noises would be the best thing for Kelis to sing about milkshakes over? Why does “Cry Me A River” sound like an alien autopsy? What’s even up with the “Toxic” beat? I’ll tell you: talented people. Visionaries. Auteurs, trying to — as Pauline Kael said — “shove art up into the crevices of dreck.” That’s pop.

And I’ll tell you this: it sucks that these people don’t get more credit. Most people still think Lil Jon is just some dude they hire to yell in the back of pop songs. The higher-up in the echelons of pop we get, the harder it is to tell who does what. Singers get songwriting credit for royalties, even on songs their producers literally hand them. Producers and songwriters deserve more love. They should be celebrated as much as the people in rock bands who aren’t the singers, or the jazz cats you might pick up a record just because they played bass on. Of course the person at the front gets most of the attention, but the people in the back need all the love they can get.

I don’t blame anyone for not liking pop, though I imagine most people who don’t haven’t really explored it enough. I say I don’t like bluegrass, but I’ve never sat down and listened to a bluegrass record, and I might just start to understand it if I do. There are also perfectly sound ideological reasons for not liking pop. Pop is, yes, music designed to make money — though, you could argue, any signed act has made a commercial gambit, and most big bands probably have extra-commercial ambitions that wouldn’t fly on the records they feed their families with.

I believe art should stand independent of its creators as much as possible (save for when moral issues get involved, like if a white rapper says “nigga,” but that’s a story for another article). But if you won’t listen to any music where the credited artist doesn’t write the songs or play the instruments, you don’t think that way. There’s a whole wide wonderful world of pop out there, and if you just focus on who’s writing the songs and playing the instruments, you might be able to enjoy it. If not, maybe you just don’t like pop music, and I challenge you to figure out why.

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