This Is Pop?
Pondering the Beatles' Legacy
Continental? Everybody knows the Beatles blow the Stones out of the water, right?"
"What?!?!?" roared Nagel from the other room. In seconds he exploded from his office, an appalled look perverting his normally pleasant, hound dog face. "What're you talking about? The Stones rock. They're the greatest rock & roll band of all time!!" A nerve had obviously been struck as he began to froth at the mouth. "The Beatles? The Beatles had dolls and all that crap. I never saw any Stones lunch boxes, did you?"
With sitcom timing, the ever-dashing Charlie Sexton strode in. Dropping a heavy paw on Sexton's shoulder, Nagel beamed with paternal pride and asked who he thought was the greatest band of all time. Without missing a beat, Sexton grinned knowingly and answered, "Well, the Stones, of course, Wayne. Who else is there?"
And so it happened, my bubble was burst, my eyes opened, my cherry popped. I'd always known the Top-40, suburban brats I grew up with were just uninformed, the rednecks were just hopeless, and the goth/death rock urchins, well, they were just misdirected. Austin, my naïve sapling mind believed, would be a musician's playground, a Mecca for the musically aware. There I'd find like-minded souls who'd understand, kindred spirits who'd think Brian Wilson hung the moon, Paul McCartney painted the night sky, and Andy Partridge arranged the stars.
Instead, I soon discovered I'd signed a five-year lease in fucking Bedrock. Austin, I quickly learned, is a Stones' Shangri-la, a decidedly pop-free zone. And before you start writing your nasty letter, please don't misinterpret - I don't mean to engage in some senseless Beatles vs. Stones debate, nor am I even attacking the Stones as a band or a concept or whatever the hell they are at this point, and yes, I have heard plenty of those early "poppy" Stones songs. But let's not kid ourselves - you and I both know that's not what they're about. My assertion is simple and unfettered: Austin is, in its heart of hearts, symbolically and metaphorically, a Stones town - a town that flirts with all sorts of musical genres, but always crawls back into bed with those same damn 12 bars at the end of the night.
As long as it suffers from this condition, the city will never embrace the tiny but glorious pop scene that scurries about in the shadows of the gargantuan riff-beast that stomps and bellows its "Fire" and "Spanish Castle Magic." But it's not just the blues-boors or even the roots-retards that are the problem (and don't get me started on these singer-songwriter clowns who've been spinning yarns around the same melody since those glorious Cosmic Cowboy days of yore). It's the 50,000-strong college populace - one of the largest in the country, mind you - that I blame for not coming to the rescue. Shouldn't we have a thriving college scene that reflects the pop that was borne of college radio (and then promptly shoved onto alternative and now mainstream radio)? The bleating herds trip over themselves to buy records from Matthew Sweet, Green Day, the Offspring, or Nirvana, yet they studiously avoid live shows from Cotton Mather, Magneto USA, Stretford or Spoon. Shouldn't the Wannabes be hosting some outdoor Festival de la Hunter? Surely with thousands of supercool coeds crawling all over Auditorium Shores, the tykes could get laid. Shouldn't the Electric Lounge and the Blue Flamingo and the Hole in the Wall be the places the kiddies congregate to hear music? Pack those clubs to the hilt, gang, and, I swear to gawd, you'll feel just like you're in Singles or some John Hughes movie.
"Most people of college age don't appreciate the value of pop anymore," says Stretford's lead singer Carl Normal. "R.E.M.'s a pop band and they're huge, which is kind of cool because they're one of the few bands that supposedly have some integrity that sing songs at the same time. It was the same with Nirvana. But the rest of the bands are very much rock & roll-based, heavy metal-based, and noise-based. Pop is not hip any more."
Wait, R.E.M. is a pop band? Nirvana, too? Perhaps the predicament of pop is its bad reputation. Locally, at least, some bands surprisingly embrace it, while others that are unquestionably pop blanche at the title. "I think we have to define pop," agrees pop fan Tony Scalzo of Magneto USA. "Sure, it originally meant `popular' music, but by now I think it's evolved to mean song-oriented stuff. A lot of people get the impression that pop means that it's all happy and kind of wimpy. And that's just bullshit."
If we dispel some misconceptions about the term, maybe we can convince the masses that it's not a frivolous thing, but, in fact, the only thing. They probably already love it and don't even realize it. And perhaps some of those budding songwriters out there can stop fighting melody, harmony, structure, and add some life to the canon - a canon that goes something like this:
Pop is not wimpy. Scalzo backs this up in his usual inimitable style: "The Sex Pistols, to me, were a pop band. They had hooks." Stretford's Normal, a Manchester punk kid from way back who only recently started getting into the Beatles, calmly disagrees that the Pistols were a pop band, but recognizes the blurred lines between punk and pop and the like. "Obviously I'm a snob about my pop. I like it, for the most part, hard-edged."
Pop is not "girl" music. Quoth Mick Jagger: "There's always going to be good-looking guys with great haircuts who are going to appeal to girls. That's just what pop music's about." Well, screw you, Mick. That's where boys get this complex that their pop music has to r-r-r-ock. For all their love of oohhs and ahhs and la-la-las, it's amusing to see these boys' machismo rear its ugly, spongy-tipped head when accused of liking girlie music. It's not like coming to terms with balding or admitting you have a small dick, guys - be pop and be proud. The only people who make fun of a pop song are the ones who can't write them themselves.
Pop is not easy. One simple-minded local critic said that Cotton Mather had only mastered three chords, when, in fact, one of their bridges alone involves more chords than that. If you don't like it, that's fine, but if you just don't understand it, kindly fuck off. Yes, there's too much schlock out there being fobbed off as "pop" music, and, yes, paint-by-the-numbers songwriting doesn't move anybody. I believe most songwriters have at least one spark of genius in them (hence one-hit wonders), but if it were truly effortless, so much useless music wouldn't be clogging my frequencies. Furthermore, I'd like to hear to my face that "Heroes and Villains" is facile.
Pop is not credible. Of course there's crap. I suppose that Better than Ezra song technically qualifies as a pop song, as does that Sponge fiasco, or that Tripping Daisy mishap. And I know you're ashamed and angry because you've caught yourself spontaneously erupting into one of those inane choruses in your car. But, you know, if you're truly that much of a snob, you probably wouldn't know a good song if Elvis Costello sat on your face and serenaded you. Incidentally, I've had any number of "cool" songwriters admit to liking the errant song by Boyz II Men, Billy Joel, TLC, and Live, so that eliminates the good song equals credible artist equation.
What pop is, at its core, then, is melody-driven song composition - not riff or rhythm or lyric-driven, but melody. "I think that's the fundamental difference between someone who plays rock music and someone who plays pop music," intones Normal in his luvly British lilt, "because I invariably come up with a melody first and try to structure music around it."
And let's not forget the habiliments. Robert Harrison of Cotton Mather points out perhaps the key element of the pop song: "If you can write a bridge that exceeds the song, then you've got a masterpiece." When a guitar solo is unavoidable, its role is usually quite limited (again, not a popular notion 'round these parts). Spouts Scalzo, "Let's look at the Beatles of the Nineties, Nirvana. When Kurt Cobain played his guitar solos they were always appropriate to the song, and they were always based on the melody, usually the melody of the verse."
Hence, we are forced to get back to where we once belonged: The Beatles' paragon is simply the definitive song structure - the folks at the Brill Building had the same gift, as did Gershwin before them, and Mozart before him. Says Normal, "I say more power to American bands who try to emulate British pop. And I think the Beatles created the modern definition of pop." But that's enough talk of terminology. Categories, labels, and movements just cleave and confound; I still can't discern the difference between melodic punk, new wave, power pop, British pop, pub rock, et al., and I'm not so sure I care. It's all just waves in the same boundless pop ocean.
And so verily, I say unto all you rootless tortured lambs who feel ostracized in this "Live Music Capital of the World," salvation is just around the corner, my friends. Under the glowing Electric crimson neon, seek out the Stretfords, the Magnetos, the Cotton Mathers, the Javelin Boots, the Wannabes, the Laughing Dogs, the Sidehackers, the Gomezes, the Spoons, or even the Sincolas. Pop songs are infiltrating playlists all over the dial - be patient, our time is drawing near.
Should my humble words not provide you the solace you seek, then, remember, in the immortal words of Gordon Sumner: "The meek shall inherit the Earth." n