Although I don’t listen to normal radio very often, I have always cared a great deal about pop music, whether it meant going to the occasional concert, being a DJ on college radio (where my tastes were considerably more populist than everyone else), and keeping track of music charts and conversations about pop music and books about musicians and music critics and so on and so forth. For something considered so trivial, pop music is surprisingly complicated, with the involvement of a large host of different interests, the tension between the business and artistic side of affairs, and the immense amount of popular fervor there is for popular musicians in popular culture. While I would not consider myself a stan of any group, I am deeply interested in the intersection of business and creativity as well as popularity that pop music involves, and I would like to talk about the different expectations and longings that make pop music such a complex area.
Who all is involved in the complexity of pop music? For one, we have the musicians who make pop music, be it singers or bands or studio musicians, songwriters and producers, labels, various rights holding companies and unions, as well as deejays and veejays, curators of one kind or another, and companies involved in owning radio stations or streaming platforms as well as companies involved in compiling chart data of various kinds as well as the audiences that they are trying to reach. Each of these groups of people brings different assumptions to the table and has different interests and ambitions. Many performers, for example, want to achieve popularity and wealth and also express themselves through their creative effort. Many writers and producers aspire either to be label owners or performers themselves and that is sometimes the case for studio musicians themselves, who toil largely anonymously to keep up the profitable fiction that bands are creating their own material. Many of the businesses involved seek money and also want to know (and influence) what music becomes popular to support certain social trends or approaches and to focus on “new music” to build hype around acts and ensure continued sales of product to audiences. Everyone involved is looking to gain some sort of clout by virtue of the music they support or promote, and audiences themselves often look for pop music that speaks to their own longings and desires and allows them to insert themselves into the song’s narrative and perspective, which tends to make the blandest and least idiosyncratic efforts of musicians to be popular as opposed to the ones that are the most personal to the artists themselves.
All of this has consequences. While a musician or band may desire popularity, there is often a great desire to be authentically true to themselves that is harmed by some of the machinery involved in crafting and releasing pop music. Likewise, labels and producers themselves often seek a formula for creating pop music that allows for more reliable and profitable popularity as opposed to the chance and risk and uncertainty that governs the music business at present. Curators and data companies desire clout and profit from the control of information about what music is out there and how popular it is by various metrics, such as sales, streams, and spins. And what audiences want is for someone creative to create something that they can relate to. What becomes immensely popular does so because it allows for people to have something that they can use to aid their own self-expression, be it a world that allows them to create fan fiction or an emotionally resonant piece of work that is non-specific enough that it can apply to a great many people and not just the writer/performer for oneself. And, of course, music critics have an active interest in despising that which is popular and deliberately seeking out what is idiosyncratic and that which can allow them to gain credibility for their superior taste. Naturally speaking, these longings tend to be in conflict with each other.
It is this conflict that provides a great deal of the tension that exists within pop music. Labels desiring a formula push songs that have mass appeal, but artists find that these songs are not nearly self-expressive enough and so there is tension here. Curators and critics who try to push for different standards of taste find popular music unappealing even if they themselves are somewhat parasitic when it comes to pop culture themselves in their attempt to be gatekeepers of what music is acceptable to enjoy. Artists desire to be popular but also to be themselves, and find that the more idiosyncratic their self-presentation, the smaller and more niche their audience, even if that audience is deeper in having more to appreciate about the artist on a personal level. And lamentably those that consume the most of popular culture are of then those who are unable to create it themselves, or else they would in the way that they create selfies with filters or might write their thoughts sporadically online. It is the gulf between the market for creative works and the group of people who are themselves actively creative that accounts for the profitability but also the various tensions involved in pop music, and also the intensity by which people support those artists they relate to, which makes it deeply fascinating as well as important.