Michael Clark on the need for 21st century pop

Pop has changed. Gone are the days where the most pressing issue of the day to your average hapless teenager was Elvis vs Cliff. (Definitely the King.) The Beatles vs the Stones. (Harder…) Dylan vs Donovan. (Okay, that one’s pretty easy.) But nowadays, who lies in the stead of these acclaimed icons?

Rihanna. One Direction. Justin Bieber.

Do they match up to their predecessors? Not by most standards. Is it important? Honestly? No. It is all too easy to turn your nose up at 21st century popular culture and act as if you are above it, but chances are you’d be lying to yourself. The same formulas, the same work and the same business models are behind pop music today just as much as they were in 1969.

Don’t get me wrong. I would not, as an example, compare Justin Bieber to the Beatles in anything other than one element, which is this. The cultural space which the Beatles occupied is the same as that which Bieber now occupies. You only need to see footage of the 17 year old in concert feeding off the terrifying enthusiasm gushing from the screams of his female fans to realise that forty years ago the same semi-possessed girls were chasing four young boys from Liverpool through a train station.

Like it or lump it, Justin Bieber is important enough to tweenagers all over the globe that they can do nothing but shriek and cry when even in the same room as the star. Why? Because when it comes down to it, give a handsome boy a set of pipes, some trendy clothes and lyrics so earnestly catchy they could come across as a marriage proposal and you have a star on your hands.

But pop can be good, even brilliant, despite the formula. Case in point: Gaga. For everything that 21st century pop has become, Lady Gaga is to thank. Working from the ground up much in the same way that used to characterise skiffle and blues music, Gaga’s art of showmanship has captivated a generation of listeners tired of the relentlessly marketed pop churned out and gleefully fed to them year after year.

Lady Gaga’s fascination with the topic of fame has characterised her as a self-aware and yet not entirely ironic parody of everything shocking in pop music. If I cared about not sounding bitter, then I wouldn’t go on to say that the vast majority of those who criticise pop and prize themselves so highly for not listening to mainstream music are often one step away, if even that – it’s still pop, hipster snobs, you’re just prancing around in carrot jeans and calling it indie.

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I’d take deranged theatre and wacked-out costumes over Ed Sheeran’s strained wimpy high notes any day of the week. And I maintain that no one that has seen Gaga perform her rag-time version of Poker Face or the bombastic chorus to Born This Way while two-stepping in nine inch heels could ever accuse her of lacking talent.

In an interview with Stephen Fry on the nature of pop, the Lady said “If art is a lie, then I will tell that lie every day until it’s true.” Do these words strike you as a gimmick? Couldn’t they just as easily appear beautifully poetic to another’s sensibilities? Perhaps neither answer is entirely correct, and maybe that’s the point. But the reason that pop music connects and enthralls so many people is because of its pleasing-to-the-ear, catchy and often earnest nature. The line that you can’t get out of your head will soon mean something to you. And frankly, if you still feel disheartened that Radio 1 will play Alejandro instead of say, Here Comes the Sun, then go buy Abbey Road.


Michael Clark


Image 1 – slagheap
Image 2 – petercruise