I HAVE A favorite song. I'm listening to pop radio, for the first time since I was 13, in order to hear it. I've decided not to buy the album it's on. I don't want to hear it whenever I choose. I want it to startle me like an unexpected gift on a radio turned low, when the car's stopped at an intersection, or I'm washing dinner dishes, so that I never really know the song's opening lines. I want it always new like that. Because freshness is part of the bliss of hearing it: freshness and familiarity knotted tight--the first sun-warmed backyard blackberry.
"Can you tell me? No, you can't if you don't know." These are some of the few lyrics I can make out (most are less words than giddy gasps). And: "It's a secret no one knows." The singer repeats that line and means it, especially the second time. The song is frothing over with the secret--it can't hold it in. Yet the singer's right; no one knows. The secret is: having a secret. The song makes me feel I am exploding with mysteries. Or, maybe I should say, it reminds me of the mysteries swelling inside me, like wet, rainbow-skinned bubbles. My chest fills with them, listening to the song; and I laugh out loud, because I can feel them tickling into my throat.
For many years, I've believed that pop music--particularly popular pop music (for now we have unpopular, or "alternative" pop music)--simply remakes more adventurous, spikey music without the spikes. I've thought of pop as a cheap knockoff that pulls down the value of the good stuff. I still think that young girls obsessed with Alanis Morissette would be better off (or at least better served) obsessed with Helium, Ani DiFranco, even Liz Phair. There's just more there there.
But perhaps no one looks to pop music for complex content (don't say "duh"--I'm trying to understand here). Maybe people love it precisely for the lack of content. I don't mean that pop music is dumb, necessarily--just so pared down and simple that there's lots of air between its parts. So a song provides an outline of a feeling, a sketch of a flavor, and the listener has room to fill in the spaces with her own vivid, rushing response. Maybe pop songs kick-start dreams, secrets: Against rock's more comprehensive demands ("You WILL be moved in THIS way!"), maybe all pop wants to be is a spark.
Every generation views the hit songs of its youth as indelible, sharply drawn, potent as the smells of the lake you might've been sitting by as the radio played. It's also safe to say that most generations don't view the hit songs of succeeding generations with any such appreciation. Hippies and revolutionaries snorted over my beloved Raspberries, Hot Chocolate, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive singles; I have since shook my head over Wham!, Def Leppard, and now Jewel. They sound so slack to my adult ears--formless and formulaic at the same time. The difference is in me, I think, not the songs. I am not putting out.
Musically conservative, pop reassures: You've heard something like it before. But I'm starting to think it's not fair to label pop merely smug or nostalgic.
Successful pop songs discover a new arrangement for the usual furniture; like graceful hosts, they somehow placate and provoke at once, making the guests feel comfortable so that they will open up a little bit. And what comes up then is the listener's secret, because pop can't explain. "Can you tell me?" cries the singer; the song doesn't know its own secrets. It waits for yours. The listener finally enchants herself with the mysteries the song has coaxed from her.
A couple weeks ago, I stood next to the Lee's Liquor stage as the Hang Ups performed. The Hang Ups play "indie" pop, which means that: a) they are not popular in the Meredith Brooks sense, and b) their songs almost offer too much detail, too much content. Mostly they walk that line with sweet carelessness, matching sparkling guitar and handclaps with melodies so promising you lean into them. "I get the feeling something has died," they suggest, in jaunty harmony, "I get the feeling it's coming alive." And then they just sigh for hours, it seems, and that's all I need to feel emotions rise and fall in me like garden flowers. Just a long sigh. And maybe a sha-la-la. And an mmmbop.
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