Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pop In and Outside the Mainstream

Ghost is sometimes referred to as "pop metal."
Despite ranting in the past, I've succumbed to the idea that pop, in any form, is good in small quantities and can work well with metal provided it doesn't become diluted. Not only does the fusion make abrasive music accessible by way of an explosive chorus, but does it also avoid alienating an entire group from potentially walking through the scared gates and becoming full-fledged metal fans. Admittedly, I didn't forge my path into the music world with anything remotely poppy--although what I listened to was certainly melodic--but I certainly won't discourage someone from a hard rock band like Ratt or a hook-laden act like Ghost.

Only in the past two years have I started to appreciate pop for what it is: carefree catchiness fit for background noise at a social gathering, an introduction to music, an addictive high, or a guilty pleasure. Even so, the "genre," however all-encompassing, first and foremost serves purpose as a portal for personal enjoyment. Otherwise, there aren't many reasons to throw something in cassette deck, CD player, or queue up your iTunes--unless, of course, you're set on analyzing a composition for a theory class.

An argument can be made that music created for personal enjoyment falls under the pop label and makes genre insignificant, regardless of instruments or unique stylistic traits. If a loathsome four years of high school taught me anything (Hello, history of electronic music class!), it was that classification of music is effortless and goes as far as two groups: art and pop. As the tag suggests, art music is constructed to further a genre or produce a new sound, often spawning imitators in the process. Many acts shamelessly rip-off or borrow cues in hopes of hopping on the bandwagon and riding the success story, if experimentation brings any fruition at all. Others may add their own twist and continue to release album after album, which is effectively pop natured at best and rarely a stab at composing totally fresh music.

Seemed fitting for the article.
On the other hand, pop viciously fights with the artistic realm, accusing music made for the sake of innovation as a pompous reason for picking up a guitar and belting out a 10-ton power chord. You might ask where metal would be today without the original pioneers; surely Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Motörhead, and others would vehemently agree that their music doesn't fit into either of these silly pigeonholes. Fact of the matter is, what these early bands committed to record so many years ago fell into both categories, whether they realized it or not.

The most common understanding of pop, however, is a simple piece of music that remains accessible in comparison to one with less predictable song structuring and a limited focus on repetition. One defining characteristic of pop is a chorus that echoes itself many, many times while a melody ingrains itself into the human mind. The brain, as complicated and advanced as it is, craves a straightforward and easy to remember melodic contour, which will always be recognizable by familiar, often overused musical attributes. A brief three-to-four minute track offers sanctuary to all these qualities--any longer and the normal music listener's attention span will drop off in favor of the next hit.

Undeterred by fashionable culture, pop comes in countless forms, even outside the mainstream. A misconception of the music is that the style exclusively appears on MTV, top 40 radio, and Billboard's "hot stuff" charts, which couldn't be farther from the truth. Largely a product of metalcore and various metallic elements, Gothenburg's bustling melodic death metal movement would be perceived as total bogus by the general population if it weren't for the soaring, almost boy band-like chorus that helps shift aggression to memorability. Although I am not a fan of most bands because they are distant from "real" melodic death metal, the mash-up has birthed a handful of brilliant artists that truly push boundaries with their mixture of pop and darker forms of music.

Even though mainstream pop acts are different from a Gothenburg band's synthesis of guitar and hooky choruses, the end goal for both is still to appeal to a wider audience. Some artists use contrasting instrumental and vocal-lead sections to fill those needs, while others use a combination of aural and visual elements to lure their fan base in. Despite the advent of the music video that spans nearly every genre, the later (typically bubblegum pop or pop hip-hop) is most likely to make use of attention-grabbers like clothing (or lack thereof), physical attractiveness, material objects, and a highly-stylized visual medium.

The difference may not be as big as I make it out to be because the average person prefers to listen to music without dissecting an artist's discography. Nonetheless, the culture shock between the two is fascinating and reveals the way in which a catchy chorus can be used to ensnare listeners. For instance, Namie Amuro's "Rock Steady" --a modern pop track--builds upon all the trappings characteristic of today's mainstream and even tosses a few surprises into the melting pot (like '70s culture influence) in an effort to stir up interest. Ms. Amuro's video has her switch between a number of outfits and backdrops, pushing the importance of a visual aid and extending the song's appeal past shelf life. At best, this posits superficiality and perceived value past music itself; and instead as a medium for both the ears and eyes. The majority of everyday pop is nothing more than a product that, when inevitably on the verge of fading out of style, vanishes in favor of the next hot hit for all but those with a vested enthusiasm in music. The polished production and simple song structure are more indicators of trendiness and an expiration date.

Notwithstanding the medium, Scar Symmetry's cut presents a much different take on the formula, despite a sugary and infectious chorus. The structure transcends the usual pop structure, scrapping a verse/pre-chorus/chorus/verse/pre-chorus/chorus/bridge/chorus/outro design, but never forgets its roots while occupying the gray area between the mainstream and obscure. Indeed, "The Illusionist" is no slouch in that department, as the band's music has been promoted accordingly, but their efforts to integrate slight musical technicality with simple hooks and melodies pulls in listeners from serious and casual crowds. Aside from loosely combining comparable ideas, Scar Symmetry's video is the polar opposite from Namie's, and the lessened focus on arousing visuals creates the dividing line between and musician.

It may seem like I'm bad-mouthing Namie Amuro and others, but, in reality, I'm quite a big fan of her discography. Her brand of pop appeals to a large group of people--exactly as intended--and the lack of complexity doesn't make it anything less than music. Scar Symmetry might be technically superior and take a few twists here and there, but the band is still very much rooted in pop-isms, albeit with alteration to fit their own needs. My sincere hope is that more people will notice pop's broader scope, deep reach outside the mainstream, and the ways it can be utilized. If not, we'll never be able to escape generic music's established blueprint.



  1. Enjoyed reading this piece -- it touched something I fundamentally agree with: That pop songwriting is an inherent part of a majority of metal music out there and metal fans need not be so squeamish or in denial about it. When we hear catchy hooks and choruses in a metal song, thats tapping into a fundamental essence of the concept of pop music --- its just dressed up with heavier guitars and such.

    The secret shame of metal fans seems to be in admitting to this very real truth, and that how most of the bands/albums/songs we enjoy within metal are built upon this pop framework.

  2. There is no clear and distinct parameters to classify a song as pop music. For the most part, its popularity should translate to records sold and radio air times.
    pop music videos

  3. Not long after MTV's dispatch however sees started to change, as craftsmen that had recordings to play on MTV turned out to be more prevalent than those that didn't. Creating particular music recordings for singles started to wind up distinctly the standard as MTV was picking up a vast gathering of people from the more youthful statistic that were the greatest buyers of records and show tickets.

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