How does one define pop music, or popular anything? On the one hand, pop would imply popular. By at least many definitions, anything that is popular is in fact pop, regardless of how it sounds or looks. What people like is by definition popular. Yet there is also pop in terms of genre, that is to say, those things that aspire to be popular through production, songwriting structure, and the like. For me, as a student of genre and as someone who is intrigued in general cultural trends, it is fascinating to see that which aspires to be popular but which fails to be popular.
Fans of pop music online, it must not come as a surprise, are particular brutal when it comes to their discussion of their chosen genre. Any drop in popularity or any poor debut is a sign that a project is a flop and that the artist responsible has lost their grip on popularity. A great deal of music, though, is not released by artists who are already popular but who want to be. They want mass success, but for whatever reason do not get much of it. Their fans are passionate about their music, and often for good reason, since the music is well-written, well-performed, and well-produced, but for whatever reason only perhaps one song or not even any get any sort of popular sort of success. Either they are remembered as one-hit wonders or not remembered at all, and their aspirations for mass popularity becoming being known for perhaps unrepresentative aspects of a larger body of work that would receive more respect if known.
What is it that makes this pop unpopular? What is the disconnect between the elements that people create in order to achieve popularity and the lack of popularity that results, that leaves such music to be appreciated by small but fanatical cult audiences as well as critics but not appreciated or enjoyed by the great masses of listeners? These are questions that fascinate me. An act like Fountains of Wayne, for example, clearly knew what it took to make popular music–Stacy’s Mom was a hit, 1985 became a hit for someone else, and at least one of the group’s two songwriters had a whole career of making pop songs that served as imaginary hits that frequently hit the real charts (like “That Thing You Do!” and “Pretend To Be Nice,” among others). Yet such bands frequently had far more fans among the critical community than among mass radio audiences.
What is it that makes a song popular, or at least popular enough to be considered a hit? Songs like “Yummy” by Justin Beiber and “Bam Bam” by Camilla Cabello f/Ed Sheerhan, frequently have received terrible callout scores on pop radio that have demonstrated that radio fans are not very fond of the songs, but they are pushed long enough to hit 20 weeks on the chart and a spot on the YE list that shows that they are at least moderate hits. If there is enough label support (some might call this payola) that pushes a song onto the radio for long enough, it is a given that the song will be a hit. Whether or not this is something that pays off is perhaps debatable. But if there is commitment to push something from a major label, a hit is more or less inevitable. Similarly, if something goes viral, like “Broadway Girls” or “Fancy Like,” then even if radio stations are reluctant to play a given song then it will also inevitably become a hit because it has enough streaming to attain hit status regardless of its radio.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the vast majority of music that would qualify as unpopular pop fails because it does not get a push nor does it have enough people who are passionate enough about it to listen to it on their own accord without having it pushed to them. Far more than other genres, pop is all about mass popularity. Once something is no longer popular enough to be known to the masses, it is no longer pop music. It may be indie pop, or adult contemporary, and there may be a small core of committed fans who cheer on music even after an artist is dropped from a major label, but without popularity one is no longer making successful pop. Some people get that popularity and then lose it, some struggle hard but never, or at least not for long, attain it. And such failures are deeply interesting to some of us because of what they say about the gap between ambition and achievement.