By Brian Foster
Pop is a four letter word, as John Lydon once said. At least, I think it was John Lydon who said that. For argument’s sake, let’s say that John Lydon once said “pop is a four letter word”. And he was not wrong when he said that (if he did in fact say it). The word pop is the root of the word popular and when young music fans start to cultivate their taste in music, the best way to differentiate themselves from other people is to steer clear of the mainstream. That’s why for two and a half months in 1996, my favourite band was Radioblaster (it doesn’t matter who). Pop music was a genre of music, that for a long time, I would not publicly give myself over to.
In her 2012 article “Anatomy of A Tear Jerker”, Michaleleen Doucleff discussed how specific pop songs are designed to illicit very specific reactions from their listeners. Doucleff spoke about a musical device called “appoggiatura.” Doucleff describes appoggiatura as “a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound”. This dissonant sound creates a tension in the listener. When the song returns to the original melody, however, the listener feels a sense of relief. The song she examined was Adele’s 2012 hit “Someone Like You”. In short, Adele is putting us through the emotional ringer and she knows it. In the same article, Robert Zatorre from McGill University reported that “emotionally intense music releases dopamine in the pleasure and reward centres of the brain, similar to the effects of food, sex and drugs. This makes us feel good and motivates us to repeat the behaviour”. It has to make us feel uneasy while simultaneously making us feel safe. Whether it is the ever heightening chorus of “Living On A Prayer” or the verge of tears only to brought back from the brink construction of “Someone Like You”, pop music needs to take you higher but it cannot leave you hanging out to dry. That’s why it is so popular; it plays on all of the emotional sweet spots that make us come back for more. I for one do not like to be manipulated, so I have struggled greatly with pop music.
Then something weird and wonderful happened: Justin Bieber released one of the best songs of 2015. No, seriously. Justin Bieber released one of the best songs of 2015.
“What Do You Mean?” is the breezy and flutey antithesis to the heaviness of the music I listened to in my late twenties and early thirties. The me of 2010, the same guy who swore The National’s High Violet was the be all and end all, would have smacked around the me of today for even thinking that a Justin Bieber song was catchy let alone one of the best songs of the year. In retrospect, I think the 2010 me could have used a beatdown and a little dangle out of a window from the lapels of my suit vest. Justin Bieber released a pop song, in 2015, that borrows more from the laid back Yacht Rock/AOR hits of the late seventies and early eighties than any contemporary genres of music. The Biebs owes more to the chilled out vibes of Christopher Cross than he does to the sensitive hubris of Drake.
What makes “What Do You Mean?” such a pop masterstroke lies more in its effortless swagger than anything else. Good pop music should always sound like it happened on the spot. In reality, truly effective pop music is quite the opposite. It is very scientific and affected. In short, it is toiled over ad nauseum.
Two of the biggest hits of the year, Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” and Drake’s “Hotline Bling” are not big, emotional songs, and they do not share the redemptive and swooping grandiosity of Adele’s “Someone Like You” (or her 2015 hit “Hello” which is basically an updated version of “Someone Like You”).
“Hotline Bling” and “What Do You Mean?” are extremely unapologetic. The perspective from which the songs were written are from men who are broken but unrepentant. Drake had the means to leave the city when his relationship fell apart, while Bieber offers an ultimatum to his “fence sitter” of a lover. If she cannot make her mind up, then he is onto greener pastures. It’s almost as if he cares little about the outcome, he only wants to know if she is in or if is she out. The years I spent gazing at my shoes being a Bedroom Kid necessitated a musical breath of fresh air. A sea change to the lover hangover, if you will.
The music of 2015 felt like a hangover in reverse. The Weeknd’s ode to cocaine, “Can’t Feel My Face” is not worried about what will happen tomorrow because good pop music is visceral. It only cares about now. As a result, Abel Tesfaye wrote a song as catchy and addictive as the substances he sings about. Drugs may be his muse but it is ear candy not nose candy that will make him forever young. This I know. Miguel’s “Beautiful Exit” from this year’s excellent Wildheart speaks of dying young. Live life in the fast lane, speed through red lights and leave a beautiful corpse. Now, as a husband and father, I cannot live my life like Miguel and Tesfaye, but I can meet up with them for coffee with them before they embark on their face-numbing odysseys.
Popular music is cyclical. I think it was John Lydon who once said “Popular music is cyclical.” I dunno. For argument’s sake, let’s say that John Lydon said it. What this means is that listeners’ tastes are also cyclical and the very nature of a circle requires it to come back to the beginning where it all started. There is a part of me that wants to hear the music that made me feel the way I felt when I was younger, so much younger than today. But with age comes experience, with experiences comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes pretence. But 2015 was the year where I felt comfortable enough in my own skin to shed that pretence and dance like no one’s watching to Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” (a song where 95% of the words are indecipherable). This is important because in 2015, words didn’t matter. Tomorrow didn’t matter. All that mattered was that moment when the beat kicked in, the melody shot high into the stratosphere, and even though we did not know how it was going to end, we were safe in the knowledge that we would live another day to do it all over again.