Age is just a number, and you’re only as old as you feel. Though my dad has recently celebrated his 65th birthday, he is still acting 20.
But me? I have not aged since sixth grade.
It was in sixth grade “art” class at Columbia Middle School, that I — a 12-year old scholarship student freshly arrived from Russia with very limited English — and my classmates, were asked to vote on a radio station to listen to during class. Everyone wanted to listen to Z100 — everyone but me.
That very moment has remained in my memory for ages, and is easily the root of my dislike of all things pop. I am still that kid, the sole person in the room who wanted to listen to the classical station, instead of Z100. (This was 1990 — we didn’t have internet or web radio, but we did have WNCN. )
My understanding of pop music hasn’t matured much since then. To be sure, I’ve heard things that I’ve loved forever — The Who’s Tommy, The Beatles, King Crimson, Björk’s Vespertine, even some songs by Billy Joel — but on the whole, I’d sooner listen to Webern’s Bagetelles or Mahler’s Symphonies than whatever latest pop thing people can’t get enough of.
Almost every time I go into a store, I hear muzak and promptly put on headphones, load the SimplyNoise app and pump up my favorite jam – “brown noise”. The SimplyNoise app has saved me from a good deal of Michael Bolton and Rod Stewart’s greatest hits.
Clearly, I should listen to more music and try harder. But finding good pop music is even harder than finding decent “new” (contemporary, classical, Q2-type) music. The stuff that plays on commercial pop radio is certifiably horrific, whereas the music on classical/contemporary/jazz/college radio is at the minimum listenable. There’s a certain conception that pop music must be “bad” (as in 80s bad).. perhaps that’s what makes it un-classical.
My sixth-grade education is holding me back. I crave things that are challenging and cheeky, complex but not poppy. If there was a genre tag called “un-poppy”, I would own the entire collection.
To be apprehensive about pop is to be forever socially awkward; to embrace pop is to admit that cooties are healthy (when we all know that they are gross); to stand idly, as I have ever since sixth grade, is polite but ineffective. If listening to pop music scares me, then writing something in that direction scares me even more. At this point, there’s no way that I can write a straight song in 4/4.
And yet, I feel that it is wrong to hide behind “Classical”, “World Music” and “Jazz” labels. We should all strive to write “pop” music – music that is personal and expressive, creative and current, music that communicates and infects the listener. It doesn’t have to be pop in the Lite-FM sense, the Z100 sense, or underground sense. It just has to be good. Smart. Not in the 80s sense.