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A View of Modern Pop (Part 1)

What exactly is Pop music? This appears to be one of the hardest questions in modern music. Why? Anyone can be pop. Ranging from Drake to Billie Eilish to Katy Perry – all can be seen as leaves on the ever-growing Pop tree.

The genre’s name derives from “popular music”. To gain further insight, we must discuss the meaning of popular and ultimately, what is Popular music? In today’s times, genres are versatile. They tend to emulate and integrate multiple elements, not necessarily restrained to pure genre characteristics. So how do we essentially describe the genre? Over the years, the genre seems to ebb and flow so how can you narrow it down?

Let's navigate:

It's 1995. Pop Music greatly resembles today, it’s:


Vanilla.

Tasteless.

Polished.

Bland.

Led by the guiding and gripping hand of the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy, Pop has been processed down into a quick, enjoyable and easy to digest product ready for mass consumption. This formula was pushed by the industry through its darling and face, Mariah Carey. Someone who defines this period of pop. Her 5th studio album, “Daydream”. The album title in itself is ironic because the album captured Pop in its purest sense – out of focus and hazed. While there was no denying Mariah’s talent, she was making safe records. She struck a chord with youth but older generations weren’t convinced. Their complaints heavily based on the music being devoid or in a sense – empty. Soulless. Especially when compared to D’Angelo’s debut album, “Brown Sugar”.

 

The was an ebb, a crease in what was considered Pop music. Well packaged, well presented and conclusively, well marketed. Industries perfected selling the youth a particular sound. Media dubbed it as “Gloss Pop” – led by Bad Boys records and other music labels who pumped out safe singles, ready for mass consumption friendly mould. It’s similar to Ford and their signature Model T in the 1920s. By simplifying the music process and limiting creative control – they controlled the mainstream airwaves. However, what transpired a decade before was unlike Pop then.

It's 1985 and Pop Music is:

Colourful.

Tasteful.
Raw.
Raunchy.

10 years before, Pop was defined by 2 glorious albums. Both capturing that period in a perfect way, it's almost illogical that two of the most talented musicians to ever walk the Earth would be Peaking at the same time. Admittedly, their respective albums dropped within a two-year release period, however, the projects became prominent due to the two's relentless touring.

Michael Jackson, Thriller. It shattered what Pop could be. In fact, it collected all those fragmented pieces from the genre’s floor and shattered them into a thousand more pieces. With electrifying “you just had to be there” live performances, he was promoting what is now the highest selling album of all time. An album so popular that two years after its release, it was still charting. The King of Pop. To an entire generation of people, what Michael ushered in was what defined Pop. Yet it wasn’t safe radio friendly records. His music had a pulse. Something lively, able to pick up your mood and make you dance. Contrastingly, another musician found a way to connect with the mainstream radio but on a deeper level.

Prince, Purple Rain. Prince shaped modern Pop with his very own magnum opus. An album which refuses to be pinned down stylistically. Integrating Jazz, Funk, Folk tales, Pop Rock, Soul, Traditional Pop, Psychedelic Pop, Hard Rock and many other genre and forms which now define modern Pop. While it was Michael, who popularized the genre, many will cite Prince as its best embodiment. He could be anything at any time. He could be raunchy while maintaining innocence. He could be colourful and expressive while showing you that he was introverted and shy. He was a person who despised attention while also being the most commanding performer you'll ever see on stage. He did this all while entertaining and never losing the audience.

These two albums defined Pop for a generation. Record labels tried to pin this sound down into something they could profit off for years. The first Pop wave surprised them, and they were obviously reluctant not to miss the second. As such, they decided to create it themselves but in doing so, they diluted the genre. What made Pop special was the lack of boundaries creatively or expressively. Nothing was restricted. Label’s diluted the genre and its content to fit all moulds of the earth – ultimately, increasing the potential market reach.

So, we fast-forward back to 1995. D’Angelo has just dropped what would be the flow for an entire generation with his brilliant debut, “Brown Sugar”. Full of call backs to what Pop used to be, his brilliant falsetto voice dancing over gorgeous instrumentations. He was a clear product of Prince’s influence. He not only embodied Prince’s spirit, he wore it with pride. He lived up to it. D’Angelo has been cited as influence for artists such as Beyoncé, Usher and Chris Brown. He also inspired his peers. These include the previously mentioned, Mariah Carey alongside Aaliyah and many others who existed in the polished and refined Pop world, where everything was thought-out. D’Angelo lead single was a double entendre on a beautiful woman of colour and the joys of marijuana. Singing about the similar high which both gave him "Brown Sugar". The song was a throwback, full of covers. Well-executed and able to show Pop’s origins. While every song was original, the songs showed a path from the past that would eventually create a new lane. It exhibited the older generation’s idea of soulful music.

The new Pop lane was championed by those who looked to call back to the past, yet the music wasn’t afraid of music norms. At times, unpolished and unrefined. Regardless, the audience sang their hearts out. It was called Neo-Soul. The genre was then furthered by the Soulquarians. Easily the greatest super collective of all time. Members included Erykah Badu, Common, Bilal, D’Angelo, Roy Hargrove, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Pino Pallladino, James Poyser, Q-Tip, Questlove and J Dilla. As musicians, they are main influences for a whole new generation. They changed the sonic landscape of R&B/Soul alongside jazz and Hip-Hop. Over the next decade, alongside Maxwell, Erykah and D’Angelo shaped everything of what Pop would be for another generation.

What generation, you ask?

It's 2020. Pop music is back to being:

Vanilla.

Tasteless.

Polished.

Bland.

Ariana Grande, thank u, next. From the moment I heard it, I knew the music industry was in a bad place. Ironically, Mariah Carey is centre stage again yet this time, her spiritual successor is the immensely talented, Ariana Grande. If you know anything about Ariana, she’s got incredible vocals and she can sing her heart out her fucking chest. Yet, for the most part, you can’t do that with thank u, next. Look at songs like “7 rings”, “thank u, next”, “break up with your boyfriend, i’m bored”. They scream label cuts. Inorganic. Made for H&M and Cotton On stores. Meant to be in adverts and to be financially fluid. While Ariana is afforded space to be who she wants on cuts such as “needy”, “imagine” and “raindrops (an angel cried)”, she falls squarely in the creation of inorganic Pop. It’s actually sad. She has heaven-sent vocals, but she’s forced to please her label with modern Pop cuts. It’s frustrating to note because we are firmly entrenched in an ebb, here is a singer pouring out to a hope which I have. She may hit a flow before we miss one of the most gifted vocalists of her era’s prime. We need less conditioned pop and more soul. Whitney Houston managed to do both in 1987.

It saddens me when I gaze at the modern Pop landscape. How can a generation that experienced Pop, from its most bright and positive angle – Beyoncé’s 4 to its darkest corners – The Weeknd’s House of Ballons, have to deal with labels championing artists like Shawn Mendes or Camila Cabello? Musicians who will go 11 songs deep without saying shit. While we still have beautiful exceptions to the norm. Namely, SZA’s destined classic, “Ctrl” alongside Solange's magnum opus, “A Seat At The Table” and Beyoncé’s legacy stamp, “Lemonade”. The reaction to these albums shows how restrictive soundscapes have become. It’s like a breath of fresh air when the release takes a hold of its audiences in an unusual way. While music is consumed at a higher rate, accompanied by more releases than ever, that just leads to more trash. Especially to generations who grew up in an era where Beyonce, R-Kelly, Mariah, Alicia Keys, Usher, Rihanna, Chris Brown and Ne-Yo could drop within a singular year.

So now you wonder – what causes a flow? In 1995, it was a surge of young black artists, who grew up on the Pop of the late 70s and early 80s. They decided to make throwback honorary music to the art which was already dearly missed and almost non-existent in their pop climate. We’re reaching a point where, for my generation, I hope to see our own Neo-Soul revolution.

Part 2 on the way. 

Written by: Elijah Mwamba | Twitter @ElijahMwamba24
Edited by: Dithekgo Mogadime | Twitter @Dithekgom

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3 comments

  • I enjoyed this, very insightful and interesting to think about.

    Imani Basquiat
  • Great piece of writing.

    Elijah Kabwe
  • Great piece of writing.

    Elijah Kabwe

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