The Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees, the Bieber: Pop music knows what we want, and pop music, for the past six decades of its "modern" incarnation, knows when we want it. That's important to remember these days. There's a lot of doomsday chatter about the death of popular music.
But wobbly sales figures and fractured listening audiences be darned because pop music — rock, rap, soul, Motown, disco, dance, whatever juices up the masses in great tsunamic sonic swells — is self regulating based on our wants and needs.
In other words: It can't die.
We feed pop, and pop has always fed us — even if it's just stale Funyuns like Bieber.
Pop music, an expansive category but one that basically boils down to what's popular at the time, soothes and signifies cultural shifts, reshaping itself based on our ephemeral dancing demands. For instance, after the seriousness of punk and postpunk, metal mavens Motley Crue scuzzed up the hedonistic '80s until Nirvana and the furrowed-brow grunge movement buzzkilled that party during the introspection of the Clintonian '90s. At the same time, and for not dissimilar reasons, the giddy rap of the early '80s gave way to the incendiary inner-city mouthpieces of Public Enemy and N.W.A.
Party's over. Listen up.
Sometimes the shifts are based not on cultural vagaries, but a matter of taste. There's only so much an A&R man or a producer can do; ultimately, the listeners decide. Kind-of-country diarist Taylor Swift and soulful belter Adele set sales records a few years back in the wake of vacuous dance-pop specialists Rihanna, Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson's plugged-in, synthetic effluvia. Want real and real weepy? You got it, boys and girls.
Pop has had a sky full of supernatural shooting stars — especially the royally designated Elvis and Michael Jackson — and yet for all their lasting appeal, they excelled exactly when they were supposed to, when they were needed. There are more stars coming, more shifts, more surprises. Yes, the landscape is different. We're getting our music in new ways. Digital sales have rendered obsolete physical records — and physical record stores. But believe this: Pop music always survives and provides.
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If you're not buying the notion that pop reshapes itself based on demand and society, then you shouldn't buy Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music From Bill Haley to Beyoncé, an exhaustive, and exhaustively fast, and entertaining book by Bob Stanley, a British journalist and co-founder of indie pop band Saint Etienne. Stanley's not out to lambast our collective taste in tunes but to wholly celebrate it, no matter you who dig, cranking out 599 pages of stories, mystical theories and wonktastic riffs like a jukebox spinning vinyl.
He's a fan, and then some. And yet his proclamations — whether they're about Otis Redding or Elvis Costello — stick with quotable force, as much for his knowledge as his way with a juicy word: "Bob Dylan created, for good and ill, the modern rock star. On the debit side, he pioneered sunglasses after dark; along with the Stones he sealed the concept of snotty behavior as a lifestyle."
The history of pop, Stanley ultimately reasons, is fascinating because we're fascinating. "With rock 'n' roll," Stanley writes early on, marking Bill Haley's 1954 hit Rock Around the Clock as the advent of modern pop, "three gulfs had temporarily vanished: the gulf between black and white, the gulf between child and grown-up, and the gulf between the United States and the United Kingdom. This shouldn't be forgotten, but it often is." And you better believe Stanley won't let you forget it again.
The author's approach is quick and chronological, encyclopedic and yet slyly interlocking. Rocker Haley made a loose, loud ruckus; his rise also coincided with the surge of pop radio, powerful pop charts and a wider international audience. Nothing against Sinatra, the blues or any progenitors that came before, but when Haley barked "One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock!" the world changed. And yet Haley's tragic flaw was a schlubby lack of looks. (Very often, pop likes pretty.)
Hot on Haley's heels, Elvis Presley knew what the kids wanted to hear ("his taste in songs was usually as solid as his taste in interior decoration was dubious," Stanley quips), but the King was also a swooped-haired, snarled-lipped, swivel-hipped dreamboat, as incandescent as any artist ever. "(I)t seems that Elvis Presley," Stanley writes in one of his most moving passages, "was the only person in the world who was aware of his mortality."
Presley, in turn, was a huge influence on a kid across the pond named John Lennon, who, with three of his Liverpudlian pals, would soon enough render Elvis' brand of rock dated. Pop invaded the U.K., then the Brits invaded right back. The Beatles would set (and then reset) the new pop template in the '60s, eventually veering rock toward expansive psychedelic sounds and mysticism championed by the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix — until the '70s, when acts like Elton John and Rod Stewart embraced more straightforward "shades of gray" songcraft. That's when punk, here and abroad — the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Ramones — would shake things up nice and rowdily, raging not just against the powers-that-be, but against rock's soft-pop leanings. That's until the '80s, when people wanted silly and sexy over all that seriousness. Cue the Crue. That's simplifying things, sure, but you get the cyclical gist.
And so it goes in Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: hit after hit, star after star, ch-ch-ch-change after societal change. "There's a school of thought." Stanley writes, "that sees a modern pop revolution occurring every ten years: rock 'n' roll taking over in '57, psychedelia in '67, punk in '77, house in '87." With that as his guide, he proceeds to fill in the spaces with verve and fearlessness. He touches and entangles everything — linking Madonna and Prince, Bruce Springsteen and, oddly enough, Boston — with really only country music, a parallel universe, as the one building block he can't quite fit into the greater picture.
Stanley is an appreciator to a fault. The Archies' Sugar, Sugar, he says, "is one of pop's most beautifully constructed singles." About those Bee Gees, who also helped tick off the punk movement in the '70s: "They were childish and childlike. Forgive them. They wrote a dozen of the finest songs of the twentieth century." He's totally at ease picking Micky Dolenz's vocal on the Monkees' I'm a Believer as "one of the best blue-eyed soul performances ever." Stanley takes an obvious populist thrill in savoring the silly over the sacred, but the honesty is refreshing.
His zeal, and fannish squeal, is equally infectious, even when he's irked. He has a serious problem with great swaths of the '80s. Huey Lewis "had the worst haircut in pop, not usurped until the arrival of Simon Cowell." Even harsher: 1985's all-star Band Aid single Do They Know It's Christmas, which I thought everyone loved, was not only "atrocious," but "has arguably done Africa more harm than good." Yikes.
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! has a bittersweet ending. Stanley calls the compact disc "the Trojan horse of digital technology" and basically blames it for all of music's current disorganization. It led to digital dominance, which not only sent labels into a tizzy but, frankly, took some of the heart out of our listening experience. The lack of the physical form, of "details," he says, changed the way we enjoyed, and collated, music. It became less fun, less communal. And yet, in a way, Stanley betrays his central conceit: Pop adapts, maybe slowly, but often reliably. We never saw Elvis coming, or Freddie Mercury, or Hendrix. But someone will save us, you can count on that. And when they do, my advice is to sing out loud for as long as you can.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife.