I’ve always been slightly envious of those who were educated in the generation before mine. The rigour of the O-level system meant that pupils couldn’t just rely on their natural intelligence to get through, unlike the GCSEs of my school years for which many of us barely revised. When my parents were at school, rote-learning was standard practice, which is why it isn’t surprising to meet Baby Boomers who are still able to reel off the poetry they absorbed as children. I consider it a serious failure of the educational system of my youth that I am unable to recite on request Shelley’s “Adonais” or Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, but can still somehow remember all the lyrics to “Blood on the Dancefloor” by Michael Jackson and “Ooh Aah . . . Just a Little Bit” by Gina G. If only Busta Rhymes had rapped a mnemonic for the periodic table, I would probably be a particle physicist by now.
This is because, for most teenagers, pop music has an immediacy like no other art form. Every teacher knows that the first principle of classical pedagogy is repetition, repetition, repetition. The insistent cycles of verse and chorus in the pop song structure naturally inscribe themselves onto our consciousness, a tenacious ohrwurm that burrows its way into the hippocampus and beds down. Then there is the way in which pop music’s impact is so dependent on fleeting fashions and visual imagery, which for many young fans takes precedence over the song-writing itself. It isn’t an insult to point out that pop is an ephemeral genre. More often than not its emotional power lies in these associations, which is why it is common for people to avoid listening to songs that were the favourites of former lovers. Dancing too is a form of sympathy, corporeally expressed, an immersion which connects the art to its recipient in an osmotic and sensual manner. Pop music taps into the idealisations and ambitions of youth, and for older listeners is one of the most common sources of nostalgic feeling. Its transitory quality means that it is irrevocably tied to time and place in a way that canonical works of art are not.
Fans fall in love with their idols, as they come to represent the source of this addictive rush. We see this in the proliferation of merchandise and copycat attire which makes a pop star more of a brand than an individual, a form of tribal identity that explains the phenomena of “Beatlemania”, diehard “Beliebers”, the iconography of Madonna, and the utterly incomprehensible collective rage of fans of BTS (the world’s most popular Korean boy band) towards anyone who dares to point out that their work may not be the zenith of all cultural achievement. Anne Hegerty, star of ITV’s quiz show The Chase, was recently subjected to a mass onslaught on Twitter for the crime of pointing out that boy bands such as BTS are “fundamentally not important”. Anyone who has any doubts about pop music’s potential to galvanise the deepest emotions of teenagers need only read the thousands of unhinged responses to Hegerty’s offhand remark.
Such reactions signal a departure from the ballad and folk music traditions that were the incipient forms of pop music. These ballads, as Roger Scruton pointed out, were “detachable from the performer”, as opposed to modern pop songs which are “indelibly marked with the trademark of the group”. A raucous rendition of “Bessy the Sailor’s Bride” in an East End pub in Victorian London would have had a communitarian quality. The song is its own entity, belonging solely to those who find camaraderie in the act of singing. This is a far stretch from present-day karaoke where drunken imitations are haunted by the ghosts of their original vocalists, presumably wincing at every dissonant clanger. Scruton saw the popular songs of today as “an attempt to bend music” to “the condition of a stagnant crowd”, an “undemanding” genre “designed as much to be overheard as listened to” that keeps its audience in a permanent state of adolescence. To a certain degree I find this argument persuasive, not least because I have had to train myself to appreciate classical music after only sporadic exposure during childhood. Again, I find myself instinctively blaming the educational system for my own failings. Even if this strategy is unfair, it’s definitely convenient.
That said, I still insist that there is much to be said for pop music when executed well, and I am loath to write it off simply because it falls beyond the category of “high art”. It is true that pop critics are often the most pretentious, with their pompous metaphors, promiscuous use of terms such as “genius”, “masterpiece” and “magnum opus”, and their curious ability to compare Stormzy and Mozart with a straight pen. One review of indie band Neutral Milk Hotel’s album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998) analogises its impact to staring up at a skyscraper, insofar as it “inspires an inarticulate awe, a strange joy at the chance to witness so marvellous a thing”. Alternatively, one might simply say that it is an accomplished sequence of catchy songs with intelligent lyrics. It makes no pretence of rivalling Bach’s St Matthew Passion in terms of artistic significance, so why treat it as such? I tend towards E.M. Forster’s view that the function of art is “to make us feel small in the right way”. Pop music can be exhilarating, but it is rarely humbling. And surely there is nothing wrong with that.
To make the distinction between what has been called “high” and “low” culture is often interpreted as disparaging, but there is no reason why it should be. Both have their value, and the question of where one ends and the other begins is perennially open to dispute; Duke Ellington once remarked that you need both the street and the conservatoire. In any case, it does a great disservice to the artistry and talent of pop singers when their work is treated as though it is something that it is not. If high culture is, as Matthew Arnold puts it, “the best that has been thought and written in the world”, it is no pejorative appraisal to exclude forms of expression that are so rooted in the fashions and popular tastes of a specific moment. When Stephen King describes his work as “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from McDonald’s”, he is recognising that his novels will be unfairly judged if the reader approaches them expecting Tolstoy.
Sometimes the impact of pop music feels accidental; Sia’s affected slurring of consonants—fashionable for a while among singers of the mid-2010s—works extremely well in her breakthrough hit “Chandelier” where the drowsy quality of the delivery seems perfectly suited to a song about the destructive effects of alcoholism. It’s a good example of how pop can be a powerful way to address serious themes. Pop can likewise be an interesting conduit for political messaging, although its often formulaic and dispensable style means that there is always the danger of inadvertently creating the impression of irony. One of the more successful efforts at political pop came in the form of “Enola Gay” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, an anti-war hit from 1980 whose lyrics question the morality of the bombing of Hiroshima. With its hummable melody and synth-based stylings the song could so easily have seemed tasteless, but somehow it succeeds. The same cannot be said for Boney M.’s 1977 hit “Belfast”, which proved once and for all that the Northern Irish troubles are not best represented through the medium of synchronised disco.
However, for me, the best pop acts are those which are unafraid to veer into realms of the experimental at the risk of depleting their commercial viability. Obvious examples include Prince, Radiohead and the Flaming Lips, although there is something especially appealing about those acts who are able to smuggle the unconventional or the cerebral into an ostensibly mainstream sound. Take the Pet Shop Boys’ 2013 song “Love is a Bourgeois Construct”, which on the face of it sounds like the kind of polished electronic hit that made them famous. But take a moment to consider the lyrics. The song’s narrator has clearly been reading Fragments d’un discours amoureux (1977) by Roland Barthes, or something of its ilk, and sees the deconstruction of idealised human emotion as a type of comfort after his lover has left: “When you walked out you did me a favour/you made me see reality/that love is a bourgeois construct/it’s a blatant fallacy”. In the closing lines we hear the narrator entirely undermine his own belief system: “Love is a bourgeois construct/so I’m giving up on the bourgeoisie/until you come back to me”. The song is a meditation on the weakness of the postmodern perspective when faced with the reality of human experience, but the conceit is essentially humorous and self-aware. There is, after all, an undeniable archness about basing a Hi-NRG floor-filler around a sample from a Restoration opera by Henry Purcell.
Tori Amos is another example of an artist who laces even her more commercial material with subversive and challenging elements. She is a talented pianist who released her album Night of Hunters (2011) through the classical music label Deutsche Grammophon. The work is a song cycle of variations on themes by a wide range of composers including Bach, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Chopin. But even her more radio-friendly offerings take the listener in unexpected directions and can be remarkably confessional. “Spark” is a sinister and powerful song in which Amos frankly addresses her miscarriage. “Cornflake Girl” is concerned with the theme of betrayal among women as exemplified by the practice of female genital mutilation, inspired by Alice Walker’s novel Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992). Occasionally Amos’s lyrics veer into the confrontational, with sudden unexpected spikes that prick the attentive listener: “I don’t believe you’re leaving ’cause me and Charles Manson like the same ice-cream” (“Tear in Your Hand”); “I shaved every place where you’ve been, boy” (“Blood Roses”); “I want to kill this waitress . . . but I believe in peace, bitch” (“The Waitress”). Like the Prodigy’s Liam Howlett, Amos is a classically trained pianist who turned her talents to pop. This is the grounding that accounts for the depth and complexity of her work.
Most pop musicians quite obviously aim towards commercial success, but there is no reason why this endeavour should entirely preclude the possibility of artistic sophistication. The struggle between the conflicting appetites of the Muses and Mammon is perhaps best embodied by the well-documented creative disputes of Paul McCartney and John Lennon in the later years of their writing partnership. Of all the Beatles’ albums, Abbey Road (1969) seems the most obvious instance of two misaligned artistic sensibilities pulling a single project in different directions. Lennon’s songs are easily identifiable by virtue of their experimental quality; he was quick to dismiss some of McCartney’s compositions—most notably “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”—as “granny music”. I have even read that Lennon had suggested that his songs should have been on one side of the record and McCartney’s on the other, which would have accentuated this sense of divergent paths. This would have meant, of course, that Ringo Starr’s “Octopus’s Garden” might not have made the final cut, which is a tragedy barely worth contemplating.
Maybe Scruton was right, and my admiration for pop music is simply an unfortunate symptom of my untrained ear. But it seems to me that one of the hallmarks of a healthy civilisation is when its popular artists aspire to be better than they need to be, to borrow from the “best that has been thought and written”. In this I am not thinking specifically of when “high culture” achieves popular appeal (one thinks immediately of the “groundlings” of the Globe Theatre in 16th-century London, who could pay a penny to stand in the pit and enjoy the earliest productions of what was to become the most significant writing in the English language) but rather when mainstream singers, writers and comedians transcend the expectations of their chosen genre. To even concede the existence of “high culture” may be to accept its fundamental elitism, but good pop music reminds us that its benefits are not solely limited to the connoisseurs.