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Why Formulaic Pop Music Isn't So Bad

Updated on April 23, 2017

A Canadian pop rock group Marianas Trench released a song Pop 101, which satirizes the formulaic nature of modern pop music. Pop 101 is a collection of parts of hit songs thrown together to form a new song. Basically they're saying a lot of pop music is the result of following trends rather than true artistic creation. A type of song becomes big and everyone imitates that style it until the masses get tired and demand something new.

The problem is this is typical of all genres of music. Revolver by the Beatles is one of the albums said to have influenced the rise of psychedelic rock. The grunge rock explosion of the 90's was said to be inspired by Nirvana's Nevermind. New genres also tend to arise out of existing ones. Funk was inspired by the blues and soul music that was popular in the 60's and 70's. This is actually how music evolves. Artists take what others have done and add to it. Pop 101 fails as a parody in this area simply because that's the nature of music and always has been. Where it does get things right is in the line "Hurry up and get to the chorus." It's not uncommon for people to know the catchy chorus in a pop song without ever paying attention to the verses. They may have little idea what the song is even about. They just care about the catchy hook, the beat and cool effects.

Marianas Trench - Pop 101

Pop music is usually criticized and dismissed because it's built on a formula. Pop songs have catchy hooks and similar chord progressions. They have a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus or similar structure. Pop will typically avoid lyrical complexity or obscure references. The meaning is usually straight-forward and easy to understand. However this doesn't automatically mean pop music is bad.

Spectrum Pulse - In defense of the genre pop

"So what is pop music? Typically, musicologists boil it down to a few key traits: a focus on established craft over art, an appeal to the mainstream public, an emphasis on technology rather than live performance, and a focus on existing and established trends and chord progressions. In other words, to put it in the worst possible terms, it's processed, over-produced unoriginal studio-driven power-chord heavy product designed to sell to the sheep of the mainstream public. Yep, those are some harsh words to level against acts as varied as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Justin Timberlake - and I think you'd all agree that many if not all of the acts I just mentioned might deserve an exception."
-- Spectrum Pulse, special comment: 'pop 101' (in defense of the genre: pop)

Many songs by the Beatles, Phil Collins, Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac, the Bee Gees, Prince, Paul Simon, Carole King, Ben Folds, Adele, etc. fall under the category of pop. Songs that could have been dismissed as throwaway pop when they came out like Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and Footloose have become classics. Spectrum Pulse goes on to make the case pop as a genre shouldn't be entirely dismissed because there's good and bad pop. And even music made within a formula can be excellent.

Set Fire to the Rain by Adele, Human by Christina Perri and Boom Clap by Charli XCX are all modern pop songs but sound very different

One major criticism of pop is that it's manufactured music specifically designed to sell to the masses. Critics of pop think if only people listened to "better" music, they would realize how mediocre pop music is. If the masses weren't willing to accept the music spoon fed to them by the major record labels and mass media giants like Clear Channel, artists would have no choice but to make "better" music.

I both disagree and agree. I disagree because just taking myself as an example, I listen to lots of different types of music. I listen to Beethoven, Aaron Copland, Bob Dylan, Lydia Loveless, Kate Bush, Talking Heads, Chastity Brown, The War on Drugs, and Robert Ellis. But I also love some pop and dance music. I can appreciate pop music despite also enjoying what many would consider "better" music. In fact, many people who enjoy genres like jazz, classical, blues, classic rock, metal and soul listen to pop music as well. Not everyone who buys pop music listens solely to pop music. But that's an assumption often made by those who dismiss the pop genre by questioning the taste and intelligence of the millions of people who enjoy it.

However, I agree that many people are unable to appreciate songs that stray from a strict pop formula. But it's wrong to say they would change their opinions if they listened to "better" music. Even when exposed to "better" music, they don't always appreciate it.

This isn't anything new though. If you look back at Billboard #1 songs in the 1960s and 1970s, you'll see a lot of upbeat and catchy songs made it to the top of the charts even then. The masses have always loved music that's simple, catchy and upbeat.

Pop music gets a lot of grief when it comes to the issue of talent. Many pop singers are written off (sometimes unfairly) as talentless. Singers perceived to be talented may be criticized for not using their talents to make better music. Since pop music is manufactured at times the people purveying it don't always need musical talent. Pitbull and more recently Iggy Azalea are examples.

Pitbull can't sing, rap or write good lyrics but he's had a huge career using the production, singing and songwriting skills of others to get hits. I do think Pitbull's a talented performer. He knows how to entertain a crowd. But most of his success has come from using other people's talents. I do love a couple of his songs and I'm torn between admiring his business savvy and being annoyed that someone without real talent can have a big career when many genuinely talented artists toil away in relative obscurity.

Iggy Azalea may have tried to be a singer first

Iggy Azalea claims she became a rapper because she loved the genre. She said she became a rap fan when she was 11 years old after hearing Tupac Shakur's Baby Don't Cry. She moved from Australia to the US as a teen to pursue her career. However, a snippet of an unreleased song and video calls her claim into question. She may have tried to be a singer first. Based on the snippet, it sounds like she can't sing even with all kinds of studio trickery attempting to cover it up. Due to her lack of vocal talent, she had to resort to rapping instead. At least that's the charge being thrown at her. Unlike authentic rappers who choose the genre out of genuine love, her critics claim she chose it because it was her only ticket to stardom. These comments from the ATRL pop music forum are examples:

"she strikes me as someone who just wanted to be a famous celebrity, and play dress-ups like a pop star, and film music videos and have fans, completely void of any natural talent. And I know her fans will say "ok singing didn't come naturally to her" (because she wasn't blessed with a good voice) "but she worked really hard to become a rapper." But that's not what rap is. It's not like "ok I can't sing but I can speak so I'll just rap.""

"LMFAO she makes Paris hilton sound like Aretha. If you can't sing...rap. I guess."

By bringing on features who can sing or featuring on tracks by people who can sing, Iggy may carve out a successful career for herself just like Pitbull has. Matt Jost from said about her album:

""The New Classic" has been accused of being an interchangeable product of mainstream pop music. Iggy Azalea isn't a trailblazer, that's for sure, but that also means you can only blame her for taking a path others have long turned into a highway...Of course this is music that is chiefly sincere about its prospects of success, without particular care for integrity or authenticity...There's simply not enough substance and individuality for me to call this a good rap album. But at the intersection of rap and pop it doesn't embarrass either side and I will freely admit that I absolutely enjoyed a good number of tracks here."

In other words, it's nothing new, the lyrics aren't always great and it's not even authentic but he still likes a some of the songs.

The Beatles - Penny Lane

Lydia Loveless - They Don't Know

Paul Doucette - The City (Is Bound to Do Us In)

So while it's true some pop is manufactured and some pop stars aren't very talented and some are even making music they really don't want to make this is no reason to reject pop as a whole genre. Like in every other genre there's good and bad. There are people with varying levels of talent, which is true in all genres. And just because it's pop doesn't mean it's manufactured.

Many artists do enjoy making pop music. The Beatles made both pop and rock music. Many of their songs were catchy with easy-to-understand lyrics. Tegan and Sara transitioned from alt rock to pop on their album Heartthrob with mostly positive reactions from critics and fans. Paul Doucette of Matchbox Twenty made a pop album called Milk the Bee as a side project that was never aimed at the mainstream. Indie country/rock singer Lydia Loveless closed out her album Somewhere Else with a cover of the pop song They Don't Know by Kirsty MacColl because she's a fan of pop music and she thought it would be a cheerful end to an album she said went "downhill emotionally."

While pop music is based on a formula, there's a lot that can be done with that formula. Pop music can be made using acoustic guitars, pianos, banjoes, electric guitars, keyboards, saxophones, and strings. Or it can be made using computers. It can pull influences from rock, folk, country, R&B, and hip hop. It can run the spectrum from serious to lighthearted. It's a very diverse genre. Even if you think Blurred Lines or Gangnam Style are terrible they shouldn't be used to dismiss a genre that's also brought us Penny Lane, Monday Morning, When Doves Cry, Wouldn't It Be Good, Beat It, Wind Beneath My Wings, and many other great songs.


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    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 

      2 years ago from Illinois

      My main problem with pop music is that it's often vulgar in subject matter and the way it's presented, appealing to people's sexual appetites rather than being artistic in the sense that it refers to a higher philosophical truth that's personal to the individual artist. But then again, something can be appealing to the senses and also personal and artistic, and something can be popular without being cheap, tacky porn for the masses. What I also hate are when singers try to sound "deep" with their music when their lyrics are actually shallow and vapid.


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