Modernism in art is sometimes described as the moment when the artists and painters break away from the general population. To this day, people debate whether or not abstract art is art at all. The artists have no such debate. The same can be said of literature: during the modernist movement, writers like T.S. Elliot wrote poems so complicated that no-one but a literary critic and a scholar of latin and greek could understand them. Charles dickens wrote before this period . He is both highly respected and was widely popular. Today, the literature that is respected by critics is almost never the literature accepted by the masses.
But what about music? Have we passed over into the realm where good music and popular music are in opposition? Think about the period of music from the 30s to the 60s. The great jazz artists of the 30s, Glenn Miller,Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, they were all chart toppers in their day. We still celebrate the contributions of those artists. It’s true right up to the 60s. Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, The Beatles, The Doors, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, all musical heroes in their respective Genres. It seems that record sales line up with our impressions of musical skill at least until the 60s.
What about the 80s? Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, Rick James, A Flock of Seagulls, do we consider these artist great musical geniuses? I’ve heard people talk about Michael Jackson and Prince in these terms but usually people qualify their statements somehow to fit inside the pop genre. There are 80s artists who are truly celebrated as musical geniuses: people like the Clash, Elvis Costello, and New Order. These are artists that had limited popular success in their own time and have enjoyed critical success ever since.
What about today? Pink, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, and Pitbull top the charts. Do you think these artists will be considered musical geniuses for generations to come? Somehow I doubt it. Somehow I suspect the musicians who will be remembered as great artists are selling a lot less records than these people. To make sense of this, we have to identify the difference between pop music and everything else.
For me it’s an easy definition: pop music is music designed to be popular. It’s the McDonalds of music, the starbucks of music, the Stephenie Meyer of music, the ikea of music, the Bose audio of music, the Chevrolet Malibu of music. It’s a product designed to appeal to the maximum number of consumers. There’s nothing wrong with this mindset but it’s not art. Art is by definition not an economic endeavor, it’s created to be celebrated for its beauty or emotional power. Therefore if you think music is art, popular music is bad music. If you think music is a consumer product, popular music is the best music.
This paradigm was on display a couple years ago at the Grammys when Arcade Fire beat Justin Bieber in the “Album of the Year” category. We who follow alternative music know that Arcade Fire are one of the most established and celebrated bands in the world today. To compare them to Justin Bieberat all is embarrassing, yet the Beliebers were outraged that these nobodies were recognized. Esperanza Spalding was also scorned her win over Bieber though she obviously has more talent than Bieber, Kanye West, and Jay-Z combined. Just because beauty is subjective doesn’t mean more popular things are more beautiful. Taste is subjective also. That doesn’t mean burgers are better than caviar or bud light is better than single malt scotch.
Of course the reason this concept rubs so many people the wrong way is because it sets up the idea of a sort of musical intelligentsia who knows what’s good and what’s bad. This isn’t necessary. The difference again is intent. If you listen to music for enjoyment, pop music may be what you enjoy and thus is the best music for you. If you listen to music to find the best artistry, the most creativity, and the freshest ideas, pop music will definitely let you down.
I really believe that quality and popularity have become polarized in the music world today. Only in the world of alternative music do I see musical artists recognized for the quality of their work, and only on occasion. Rufus Wainwright can point out that Lady Gaga can’t write worth crap and it’s hard to disagree even though she sells way way more albums than he does. It’s just the world we live in. Just like you wouldn’t take a vote to find out which painting in the museum is the best or most influential, nor would you accept a vote on what architect is the most brilliant, album sales and general popularity no longer indicate who’s got the musical talent. Only delving into great albums, studying them, and appreciating the musicianship will tell you that.
What do you think? Is popularity or record sales a measure of musical artistry? Or is pop music a mass produced product and the real musical artists are in the shadows?