This piece is a response to Margit Detweiler’s essay about contemporary music, “The New Pop, Pop, Pop Music (And Why I Don’t Like It).” First, let me say that I don’t entirely disagree with Margit. I, too, am underwhelmed by a lot of what I hear on the radio, and my son went through a Psy phase that almost made me lose the will to live. But I’m more optimistic about the current state of music than she is, and even though my ears are old, I’m not ready to cover them just yet.
Full disclosure: I was a Top 40’s kid in the 1970s and 80s. My only exposure to New Wave came from MTV, and the underground and alternative scene was completely alien to me and my suburban boom box. I owned a pair of Madonna-esque fingerless lace gloves, and I spent angst-filled hours listening to Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” on my tape deck. Oh, and my favorite band? Chicago. Yeah.
That all changed when I went to college. I got the musical education of a lifetime from my roommates and the college radio station, and just like that, a music snob was born. But you never forget your first love, and you also never forget the songs on your very first mix tape.
My 13-year old daughter is currently going through her own Top 40 phase, and every once in a while the current pop hits and I are in the room together. And yeah: a lot of it I just don’t get. Too much of it sounds overproduced and soulless. The lyrics are vapid, the music uninspired. A lot of it takes itself way too seriously (sure, Morrissey was depressed, but he was ironically depressed) — and don’t even get me started on auto-tune; I will never get behind that.
When I listen to current pop music, I sometimes see the ghost of my 14-year old self hovering at the edges of my vision. I know — without a doubt — that if I were a kid today, instead of hiding in my room to belt out “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” at the top of my earnest pre-teen lungs, I’d be putting Sia’s “Chandelier” on repeat on my iPod. Do I particularly like “Chandelier?” Not so much. But my 14-year old self, hanging out all ghost-like in the passenger seat of my minivan, tells me that song speaks to her very soul. Being a slightly chubby kid, she’ll also sometimes groove along to Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” and she and her drama club friends have choreographed their own dance to Pharrell’s “Happy.”
Thankfully, there are lots of current songs and artists that both my 14-year old ghost and I are happy to listen to: OK Go, The Ting Tings, Ex Hex, The New Pornographers (even though I’m not all that happy she knows what a pornographer is.) There are, too, some contemporary bands and artists that I love and 14-year old me hates: The National, The Decemberists, The Barr Brothers, The Avett Brothers. She thinks they’re folky and boring, but that’s the way 14-year olds are. Their tastes and preferences — in food, fashion, and, yes, music — are still evolving, and sometimes they’re not ready for the complex and the understated. And, let’s not forget that there was a lot of truly awful music in the 1980s as well. (I may or may not have owned a Tiffany tape, but I’m certainly not feeling nostalgic about that now.)
Mostly, when I have a choice, I listen to music that I actually listened to when I was young. But even though I’m not a huge fan of much of what I hear on the radio these days, I’m fully aware that most of these artists are not singing for me. They’re singing for my own kids — who will one day fondly look back on the music of their youth and complain that kids in the 2040’s don’t know anything about music. And they’ll probably be right.