Pop Music: the enchantment and the illusion
22nd July 2017
Pop music. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. It can lift your spirits, divert your attention, provide a few valuable minutes of escapist fantasy and put a great big smile upon your face. It can reveal the source of brilliant music and equally brilliant song-writing. It can introduce genuine talent that often flowers and evolves into other musical directions, often launching major careers in the process. Pop music is also ephemeral. We don’t have to think too much about it because it has to be catchy, it has to grab you and it has to sell itself in just a few seconds to succeed. Pop lifts your spirits and often your heart.
Pop music. It’s a terrible, terrible thing. It can irritate the hell out of you: ever allow a tedious riff or an annoying chorus to enter your head where it flies around all day making you thoroughly grumpy? It can appeal to the lowest common denominator and, because its aim is to make money, is derivative and often feeds off the hit of the day so you feel that the current Top 10 is a bunch of variations on a theme. Pop can be horribly exploitative, preying on innocent talent, ripping them off in financial terms, showing a thoroughly uncaring attitude to the young and their emotional development, being unashamedly sexist, often bigoted and taking a selfish, greedy and sometimes criminal tone in terms of the behind the scenes business dealings that demands attention only to the bottom line.
Pop music. It cannot be ignored. Why? Because it is everywhere: on your TV, your radio, your computer, your phone, in shopping centres, you name it.
And do you know what? The public don’t care either way. Not really. Why? Because pop is a the Big Mac of music. It is there purely to be consumed. Many people complain that it’s not good for you but many of us indulge anyway. Many listen to it and find it empty of meaning and significance but it is tolerated and enjoyed in equal measure…mainly by the young.
Pop and the public who consume it are a lot more ‘knowing’ now than they used to be. Partly because we all have been educated by the mechanics and the machinations of the media. We know how TV and records work. We know about production, cameras, special effects and the like. Everyone in the street could be a TV presenter, we all know what camera to look in and we all know the tricks of the trade.
Because of that, in many ways, the magic of pop is no longer there which has meant that the music of today lacks a certain frisson of wonder and innocence. We, as listeners, tend to be more cynical and expectant, almost daring pop to entertain us.
The 50s and 60s were the golden ages of pop and retained that air of : enchantment and illusion as did the golden age of Hollywood. Pop had a great charm and a fascination which, because of those things, added to its glamour. Maybe that is why we look back with such a rosy glow of nostalgia.
Back in the 50s and 60s both bands and their songs frequently had rather silly names, for example. You can see this on the excellent Ace CD, Where Are The Girls, Volume 9 compilation where you can find group names such as The Popsicles, The Bitter Sweets, The Sweet Three, Honey Ltd and other sugar-infested labels singing wonderfully crafted pop, it has to be said. Silly song names abounded too. Take the gospel singer, Dee Dee Sharp, on the Cameo Parkway label (a pre-Motown outfit). Sharp, who received her name because she had a tendency of singing songs in D sharp, was given a song to sing called, wait for it, Mashed Potato Time, “I thought that it was the dumbest record I’d ever heard. It was so silly. I was accustomed to singing gospel,” she said. Nevertheless, the published single hit Billboard’s Top 10. Well, she was caught then, wasn’t she? Hence, the reason why the next song she was given to sing was, Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes) which would also enter the Top 10 chart (you can find both tasty morsels on Ace’s It’s Mashed Potato Time/Do The Bird).
Pop’s inflated hot air lack of substance continued with the likes of Ray Stevens who had a massive hit with The Streak in 1976 and bizarrely named ditties such as Harry The Hairy Ape and The Rockin’ Teenage Mummies (other tracks can be heard on Ace’s Face The Music via Stevens).
Sometimes, though, pop ‘clicks’. There’s a blend of musical talent, a social zeitgeist and a sonic implementation that hits a real sweet spot and is surprisingly fulfilling. Take the output from the Innocents, a US-based harmony group that stemmed from the same car club who offered a smooth delivery with oodles of charm (you can find more on Ace’s The Innocents’ Classic Innocents).
And that’s pop. It’s like playing the lottery. Most of the time, what you hear are losers but sometimes, just sometimes, you really hit the jackpot.