To the editors:
What a weird little essay on “pop” music Bill Wyman served us with in Hitsville this week [June 25]. Was Bill trying to enlighten us with his new and improved definition of the form, or just do three quick album reviews and try to impress us with his wit by forcing a thread of continuity where one doesn’t exist?
First of all, “pop” really only means one thing. Top 40 radio saturated million selling hits, performed by artists who are interchangeable and ultimately disposable. From cute kid groups (Jacksons, Osmonds, New Kids, Kris Kross) to sultry divas (Nancy Sinatra, Pat Benatar, Madonna, Whitney Houston) to hunky heartthrobs (Elvis, Rod Stewart, George Michael, Vanilla Ice), the names change but the song remains the same: slickly produced verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus. Monster hooks and monster sales, fame and fortune, until the next big thing comes along.
Rock crits have been misusing the “pop” label for years now to describe artists who may be “melodic” or “hook oriented,” but are not really pop. As much as one may love the songs of the Pixies or the Buzzcocks, in the real world the label of “pop” does not really apply to these bands. Critical hype of an artist whose fan base and record sales do not justify the attention remains critical hype.
As for Matthew Sweet, Paul Westerberg, and Dr. Dre, none of these guys qualify as pop. The only one whose sales might justify the tag is Dr. Dre; however, the phenomenon that he is a part of has little to do with pop. Rap has found a huge and replenishable market in the same area traditionally held by heavy metal: adolescent males. Black Sabbath and Rush sold millions of records with no “star-making machinery,” radio play, or hip rock crits dubbing them “the new pop.” In the same way, acts like Public Enemy, N.W.A., and 2 Live Crew connected with the hormone fueled teenage masses. MTV has been supplying the demand for rap (as it did early on with metal), but it certainly didn’t create it. As for Sweet, I guess you could call painstakingly emulating 60s music in typical white-bread fashion an attempt to aspire to “pop,” but despite respectable sales on his last album, I doubt he has enough widespread appeal to get there. And rock crit darling Westerberg will never pull it off because he can’t sing, isn’t good-looking, and hasn’t written a good song since the mid-80s, even by indie rock standards.
So, if you want to wax philosophical about “alternative” music, go for it, but try not to confuse it with pop.
Bill Wyman replies:
I thank Gerber for taking the time to write, but I think his definition of pop is far too narrow, excluding, as it does, Buddy Holly, the Beatles and Beach Boys, the Eagles, KC & the Sunshine Band, Culture Club, and the Sugarhill Gang, as well as Dr. Dre. We agree about Sweet and Westerberg: they aren’t really pop artists. (Though it seems likely that the latter’s pop instincts will take him large at some point.) My point was that while we obsessed about what were essentially pop flavorings from alternativeland, the real stuff changed right under our noses.
As for Dre, Gerber’s being too harsh. The rap-as-metal theory has lots of holes: true heavy metal remains largely subcultural, while rap has invaded the singles charts and pop culture generally. No purpose is served by defining away artists that don’t fit your preconceptions of what pop should be: pop is what makes kids happy, and right now, like it or not, Dre’s providing the punch.