Pop music means two things. For the first, it’s what’s popular, what’s capturing the imagination (or at least the attention) of fans, mostly kids, at any given time. But in the alternative and critical world the term has also, more and more, been used to describe music that does little but vacantly reference a smorgasbord of blithe verities: a certain pleasant style of vocal harmony, a certain soar or lift in the melody, and a certain freedom or looseness in the construction, all descended from Buddy Holly and all embodied in a Stones-Sly-Otis-Beatles utopian apogee in the 60s. In the second sense the word–call it “pop”–is invariably used, ironically enough, to describe music that really isn’t popular. Its primary practitioners are alternative pop pretenders who recall past pop glories as just part of the complex melange of cultural constructs they build their music on. They’re people who occasionally sell some records and are sometimes loved by connoisseurs and fans but generally exist on the fringe of public consciousness.

None of this new: the pop revival movement began with the rise of new wave (punk with “pop” smarts), which of course came only a few years after real pop’s last heyday, this the mid-70s farrago of hard rock singles, soul nirvanas courtesy of Al Green, and, ultimately, the disco invasion. But after 15 years, when does a revival become nostalgic? And what about the shift in the meaning of pop in the interim? Consider Matthew Sweet’s Altered Beast, Paul Westerberg’s 14 Songs, and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. Westerberg and Dre are both solo artists looking for record sales after throwing over their uncompromising bands (the Replacements and N.W.A., respectively), and as a consequence search for meaning in their experiences amid the star-making machinery. Westerberg and Sweet both brandish alternative credentials: they’re manipulators of both “pop” and pop-cool; critics’ artists, they ooze self-consciousness with every song. And Sweet and Dre, unlike Westerberg put a premium on production and pop smarts: they both understand that to sell records these days you’ve got to twirl the knobs and make the sound sing; no Replacements-y rock roughhousing for them. Three artists: Who’s pop? Who’s not?

Girlfriend, Matthew Sweet’s strange sleeper of 1991, was produced astonishingly, crafting Abbey Road-worthy epiphanies over the guitar bronco busting of Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd; his new Beast is a worthy successor that stalks success amid the tropical production jungles of Richard Dashut. With his Hollyesque, effortless melodies, Sweet conjures up “pop” moments at will: “Time Capsule” has a silky chorus that sounds like he went hunting for ivory on Tusk (which Dashut helped produce), and on “What Do You Know?” he redeems some resentful lyrics with another beauteous melody and sumptuous surroundings. His only problem is that he has absolutely nothing to say.

Westerberg is a more complicated case. His pop potential is prodigious but it’s at times overshadowed by the complexity of his self-consciousness. Once rockers wanted to be as big as Elvis: Westerberg wonders if such desires make sense anymore. They don’t, but that way madness lies. His new 14 Songs (the title says hello to Randy Newman’s 12 Songs) is a bid for post-Replacements critical credibility and the commercial validation that eluded the band. I don’t hear him getting either on the record: it’s carefully crafted, highly intelligent, and adequately produced, but it lacks openness and joy. Instead, his essays on social idiosyncrasies (“Mannequin Shop,” on plastic surgery) and tortuous love tales sound mannered and too writerly. Aside from “World Class Fad” (his latest stardom story) he never rocks convincingly; instead, he sounds defensive, and until he jettisons that baggage he’ll remain a rock artist who never really got pop(ular).

Which brings us to Dre. If you want to talk pop credentials, consider that he’s part of the biggest set of solo efforts since the breakup of the Beatles. But he sets himself apart from Cube, Eazy-E, and MC Ren by holding two current top-15 singles and, for now, the unwavering attention of MTV. “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” and “___ wit Dre Day” are each based on languid, 70s-sounding grooves and Dre’s sociopathic lyrical concerns, which basically revolve around his contention that people he doesn’t like can suck his dick or, lacking that, his gun barrel. Only weenies talk like that, of course, but on the “Dre Day” video, when he roughs up Eazy-E, Bushwick Bill, and 2 Live Crew’s Luke, he’s just putting a twist on an old pop mythos. The dry beats and archaic synth riffs pungently recall the bleak aridity of inner-city LA: Dre wouldn’t go near the water, but this is the new Southern California surf music, all about cars and girls and blowing the other guy’s doors off. Dre’s unquestionably a fuckhead, but all in all I’d as soon listen to him as Sweet or Westerberg: music like this–dry, unnerving, irresistible–is the stuff that pop dreams are now made of, whether we like it or not. In the old days, schmaltz, grit, and soul coexisted peacefully. There’s a new utopia, of sorts, today, built by people like Dre, who, reaching into the past for inspiration, fashion a new pop dystopia and produce hit after hit. In this context the reachings of a Westerberg or a Sweet seem doubly nostalgic. Pop has never been more different.