Masculinity isn’t diminished by taste, nor defined by it—so why can’t real men dig pop music?
It’s not news that musical taste tends to operate as a means of self-identification. The overlap between music and fashion is a notable example, with certain genres “necessitating” certain appearances. We’ve all got the stereotypes in our minds. Punk fans look like Sid Vicious. Metal heads dress in black and look angry, and are often accompanied by at least a ridiculous beard. Tattoos are optional. And pop fans, well they’re little girls. That association with femininity, especially teenage and pre-pubescent femininity, is why I was so reluctant to embrace the fact that I enjoy pop beyond the occasional crossover hit.
Admittedly radio-ready pop is an easy genre to target. Often times, it’s considered manufactured and prepackaged, which can be an issue within the musical community when so many fans are obsessed with the idea of authenticity. Lana Del Rey came under fire from the indie fans she tried to court when they realized how much of her image was constructed. LDR was hardly the first artist to create a persona and bury her past (just look at Bob Dylan) but inauthenticity draws the ire of fans like nothing else. All boy bands, from the golden era of N’Sync and Backstreet Boys to the current crop like One Direction all carried the stigma of being corporate shills that existed more to make money than to make music.
Another strike against pop music is the idea that, inherently, it will never be as good as other genres. A great pop album tends to get pigeonholed as “fun”— implying that great music cannot be enjoyable, or light. And its true that often, to appeal to the masses, pop music is dumbed down and simplified. It’s rarely inventive or experimental, and its lyrics are cookie cutter affairs that lack the individuality of other genres. Many successful songs aren’t written by the artists, furthering the inauthentic gripes. Again, many more respected musicians didn’t write their own songs, but that fact is also ignored in favor of focusing rage against pop artists. Plus, the common counter argument against these complaints that they’re popular for a reason is a failure because it glosses over the fact that sometimes awful things become widely successful.
But then again, just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s awful.
Here’s my point. For a long time, I too got caught up in what I should and shouldn’t like—coming of age in a hipster/irony-saturated youth culture does nothing to expel fears about genuinely liking something. “Call Me Maybe” was a song that I started to enjoy ironically, and when I grew to actually enjoy it, I simply chalked it up as staring too long into the pop abyss. Justin Timberlake slipped through because I adored Timbaland’s production of FutureSex/LoveSounds. I would use these stories to justify my enjoyment, as if I was ashamed that I would be held in the company of teenage girls fawning over their One Direction posters (author’s note: I now own a 1D calendar. It was a gift…).
Of course, there was grounding in this shift towards pop music with my liking of “indie pop,” a genre whose title enrages me. In my experience, it’s just pop music that has been deemed acceptable by tastemakers. The New Pornographers have created some of the 2000s biggest pop hooks, but because they’re signed to Matador as opposed to RCA, they get a pass with the cool kids.
Yet for me, pop music didn’t become more than a skeleton in my closet until 2013. It began in 2012 with a lethal combination of Robyn and Icona Pop. I can easily claim the latter half of that year was fueled by those two artists. Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend” and “Hang With Me” and Icona Pop’s now ubiquitous smash “I Love It” became anthems. Whether I just finished work, was on a run, or with friends, these were songs that I would play, and not apologize for. From there, it was only a matter of time.
I was excited for The 20/20 Experience because of my aforementioned admiration of JT and Timbaland’s collaboration, but I found “Mirrors” to be one of the more compelling songs released this year. Just like its predecessor, 20/20 seems like too weird an album to be successful, bucking the idea that pop isn’t experimental. Seven of the songs are north of seven minutes and the shortest is just below five minutes in length. The sequel coming later this year, featuring unfortunately named but still fantastic single “Take Back the Night,” is one my more anticipated releases. I then checked out Charli XCX’s album because she wrote “I Love It.” I then proceeded to suggest it to everyone for a month because it was just as good as what she wrote for others, and she’s deserving of success beyond her one crossover hit. These weren’t cases of ironically playing “What Makes You Beautiful” (which I’ve been known to do) or guilty pleasure songs. I was simply playing great songs.
And now, I guess I’m indebted to the Top 40. It helped me shed my Pitchfork-esque notions of importance and simply enjoy a track — for the simple justification that I thought it was good. I didn’t care about what my taste in music said about me anymore, I simply just listened to what I liked and let that fact speak for me. Now, I have Katy Perry on my iPod because the song “Firework” makes me smile, and that’s all the reason I need. I don’t care if someone likens my taste to a teenage girl because the insult is immature and stereotypical. Masculinity isn’t diminished by taste, nor is it defined by it.
Photo: AP/Invision, Charles Sykes