Pop! Week: Context is King, Context is Killer

I am in my 30s and I listen to more pop music than I ever have before.

I don’t listen to a ton of it. In the car, I gravitate towards silence and news. Partly, that’s because the joy of discovery of new music fades with age. Partly, I feel like it’s because I’ve heard too much music, and remembered too much about it to really get passionate about something new. I catalogued and organized so much music in my head when I was genuinely passionate about music that now everything I hear gets put into little boxes.

But the lack of passion has one benefit. I don’t have the same prejudices I used to about pop music. Like I don’t care if its pop or underground or whatever. Britney Spears sounds more experimental and wild to me than most college rock, and my rockist allegiances have switched polarities. White dudes in their early 20s with guitars bore the shit out of me now. Guitar riffs sound like jokes from ‘80s sitcoms.

This isn’t unique to me. As you get older, you age out of the context that ruins pop music for you.

When I was in eight grade, I liked music. I was really into guitars, and liked fast songs. Metallica were big, and I thought they were ok, except I didn’t like how their songs had slow parts. I was a big reader, and I think I was alone in a school library with some Rolling Stone Magazine encyclopedia of rock music and found the punk rock section. Also, I remember seeing a picture of the Ramones in the Bergen Record’s TV listings for some reason and really liking the photo and the one-sentence description of their music. Anyway, so I found out punk was a thing and went out and bought the Sex Pistols album, because it had the word sex in it.

At the same time, I was listening to a ton of classic rock, metal and a little rap. When I got to high school, “alternative music” was a thing, and I started listening to a ton of Jane’s Addiction and a little Nine Inch Nails while I was digging in the crates for punk and classic rock. I became a huge Stones fan after a friend brought me to one of their concerts. That’s one band where being a lonely little reader came in handy, as I was able to hone in on their classic period pretty quickly without having to suffer through too much of their fallow years. That Doors movie came out, too. Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails started to have hits and then Pearl Jam, etc.

Anyway. This is all pretty boring and my memory is a little confused about all of it anyway. The larger point is that I hated most top 40 songs from about age 10 onwards. Partially, that’s because it was crap—Paula Abdul, C&C Music Factory, hair metal ballads, New Kids on the Block, fucking Bon Jovi—and partially because when you’re that age you hear top 40 songs so many times it becomes oppressive. They’re on the radio at every girl’s house, played at high school dances, fast food restaurants, malls, MTV, movie theaters—everywhere you can possibly go before you have a car.

That’s why kids go goth, punk, metal, indie or whatever: in reaction to the fact that these songs are everywhere. And your personal associations are going to steer you too and from music. You won’t like a song because someone you don’t like likes it. Or you will like a song because someone you like likes it.

I was a lonely, bookish kid with oddly specific tastes (I gravitated towards anything with electric guitars, which I preferred to hear without synthesizers. I sort of liked that “Good Vibrations” song by C&C Music Factory because the intro sort of sounds like an electric guitar.). I sort of turned my social maladroitness and introspective nature into an indictment of the dominant popular culture.

I did happen to be right, though. That music is terrible. Milli Vanilli, Roxette, Wilson Phillips, MC Hammer—that was my freshman year of High School. Then later it was Van Hagar, Extreme, Enigma, Another Bad Creation, that Suzanne Vega techno song.

But pretty much everything is better now. Even groups that everybody shits on, and who legitimately suck, like the Black Eyed Peas, are better than their counterparts from my top 40-hating years.

The top 40 songs of today are so much more exciting than that. Everything is harsher, more angular, fuller. People complain about autotune, but when digital voice manipulation is done right it sounds epic, like we really are living in the future.

And I think the bookish loser kids of today that think Lady Gaga is annoying because weird-smelling Katie in Social Studies likes her are missing out.

Also, dude, be nice to Katie. She might get real pretty someday. And even if she doesn’t, stop being a dick.

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