I guess I have a confession to make: I LOVE POP MUSIC. Although I devote most of my free time to finding quality independent bands, my 25 most-played songs reflect my obsession: Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry cozy up to Lou Reed, Ramones, Elliott Smith, and Ariel Pink. Rihanna carries as much weight on my ~self-confidenze~ playlist as Patti Smith does. But this shouldn’t really be a confession. I mean, first of all, if you know me personally, this won’t come as a surprise. And “confession” implies a secret, something I should feel guilty about. That doesn’t seem right. Revealing myself as a lover of catchy, popular music doesn’t affect anyone else (except my roommates, who get to enjoy good-morning loops of “Call Me Maybe” when I’m feeling stoked before class). I know someone who has similar listening habits, so I decided to ask her opinion on mainstream music, and why we feel like it’s not a cardinal sin to enjoy the songwriting of both Bob Dylan and Taylor Swift. —Dylan
DYLAN: Tavi, why are cool kids so afraid to love pop? I ask you, the coolest person I know—who also cries in public if “Sparks Fly” comes on.
TAVI: WELL THANKS, DYL-PICKLE. I think you’re cool! Because you like pop music. Or rather, because you just like what you like. My guess: alterna-cool kids (cough, me in middle school) are afraid of liking Rihanna or Demi Lovato or Bruno Mars because pop music is popular music. Popularity is often equated with being boring or simple. And it’s always easy to make yourself seem special if you decide that this thing everyone else likes just doesn’t speak to you.
Recently I realized that popularity can also mean something is just fun and catchy, and that’s fine. Not everything has to make you think. So much of the music I like aims to conjure emotions that are complicated and heavy, which is challenging and fascinating and great. But sometimes I just want to be happy! Sometimes I just want to dance! And I don’t want to go for a run and break down in the middle of it because Fiona Apple just got real about her trust issues! Liking something almost everyone else does can make you feel a part of something. It’s not that I’m trying to fit in, I just got sick of rolling my eyes at “Burnin’ Up” every time I heard it in the grocery store, because, like, why did I even ever care to begin with? Why did I ever think a harmless Disney boy-band was worth my energy? Is my boycotting of them really going to change the cultural landscape and get everyone to throw away their Kindles and pick up a goddamn tangible book with paper instead? ’Cause I think it’s easy to give pop music greater CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE than it actually has. There are a lot of terrible things about the world, but the Jonas Brothers do not symbolize EVERY PROBLEM WITH CAPITALISM, or what have you.
DYLAN: That’s a whole other conversation: selling out. If you’re successful and making money, you have officially surrendered your artistic authenticity. A lot of pop stars have teams of producers and writers manufacturing songs for mass consumption—but at least you’re aware of that. Take it with a grain of salt. It’s like drinking soda or eating ice cream: a common, instantly gratifying experience. You know that what you’re consuming is overly processed, but it’s still sweet and fun and everyone indulges in it. You can’t believe that an exclusive diet of soda and ice cream is really good for you—your teeth will rot from the sugar. I’m not encouraging a narrow or close-minded cultural scope. What I am about is acknowledging that pop is just another element of our culture, and it’s often enjoyable, so just let yourself enjoy it! Are you ever any happier when you deny yourself the ice cream? Nothing is pure, authenticity is subjective, and being successful isn’t a sin. To me, thinking pop music is “shallow” is an inadequate dismissal. Um, yeah, that’s great, because not everything in my life has to reach into the soul to uncover secret truths of the human condition. SOMETIMES I JUST WANNA T.G.I.F.
TAVI: Yeah, I don’t need Lana Del Rey to have a humble background. I don’t need One Direction to be a bunch o’ scrappy street pals like the cast of Oliver! Liking pop music doesn’t mean not supporting independent artists; by choosing one, you are not denouncing the other. It was actually when I’d been working on Rookie Yearbook One for more than 24 hours without sleeping—my personal record—that I decided to get back into Taylor Swift, whom I hadn’t really listened to since middle school. And it wasn’t just my delirium that made me fall back in love with her music! I also felt a pang of desire to be part of that culture of friendship bracelets, and making the shape of a heart with your hands, and taking silly high school drama really seriously. And I had a newfound appreciation for the fact that she takes that shit really seriously, and wins Grammys for it, and gets fancy, dude-rock critics to take it seriously, too. Months later, I still listen to her music regularly because I just like it.
Some people argue that she’s just exploiting teen girl thoughtz, but from what I’ve read, I strongly believe she believes in everything she says and does, and it just happens to be really marketable. And she realizes that, and she is a smart businessperson. She’s the CEO of her own management company. Behind every pop star are tons of business and marketing-related decisions; I much prefer knowing that those decisions are primarily hers. AND I LIKE LISTENING TO MUSIC THAT MAKES ME FEEL UNIFIED WITH GIRLS ABOUT TO BE ACCEPTED INTO THE JEWISH COMMUNITY AS WOMEN. I WANT TO KNOW THE SONGS AT EVERY BAT MITZVAH. WHY DID I, AT THE AGE OF 12, DECIDE TO BE SOME SUPER BITTER ALTERNA CAT LADY?
DYLAN: Tavi, I relate so much to this anecdote. Enjoying pop music is a way to relate to a broader array of people. It gives me common ground with 11-year-olds and sorority girls alike, which is important in my quest to stay HIP with the YOUTH OF TODAY. An example: I was at a college party recently with a bunch of my art school friends. We wouldn’t have had fun at that party if we weren’t down to jam to some Ciara, even though we’re all pretty “serious” music fans. Had we been 2 cool 4 art school, we would have been bored, which is dumb, because why would you go to a party if not to have fun? This is my overall message here: BEING TOO COOL FOR FUN DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE. You’re doing fun wrong.
People are so protective of their pop-cultural identities, and I think when we’re teenagers—I can speak from my HIGH PLACE of adulthood, because I turned 20 a few weeks ago—we’re especially sensitive about defining our world by the music we listen to. It’s part of your identity, which is fragile and forming!! You can’t like something that disrupts the person you are trying to become. I was afraid that if I wanted others to recognize me as the underground kid in high school, I had to shut out everything mainstream, which left me feeling out of touch when I didn’t know the songs that were played at my junior prom, or when I couldn’t join in the hyper hysteria at my all-girls school after our teachers did a parody of “Party in the U.S.A.” So, essentially, my acceptance of pop music was also a lesson in learning how not to give a shit.
TAVI: Yeah, and when you’re forming that new identity, you want to shed everything you liked before. Beyoncé and Fergie and show tunes were basically what I listened to in elementary school, and then came middle school, and Across the Universe came out, and I was like OH SHIT, GOTTA PLAY IT COOL. Tell me, Dylan, when did you realize you loved pop music? Or rather, when did you decide to be more upfront about it instead of dismissing it as a guilty pleasure?
DYLAN: I’d say that I ditched the “guilty pleasure” disclaimer right before I went to college. I realized that, during a summer of SUPER EXCELLENT PARTY TIME, I couldn’t get jazzed to go out unless I listened to at least 30 minutes of the local pop station. Even if I was going to a punk show in a basement, I couldn’t summon the proper party vibes without a few minutes of Rihanna. My friends would make fun of me, but they eventually accepted it, because that’s what good friends do. I rely on pop music to achieve a particular feeling of enthusiasm and even silliness. It’s not an ironic love, which is stupid, and also, what does that even mean? It’s not like I’m snickering in the corner when I loop “Call Me Maybe” in the morning. I loop “Call Me Maybe” because it’s the jam. Obviously.
TAVI: Dude, I think we played “Call Me Maybe” and “Boyfriend” more than any other songs on the Rookie Road Trip. It was an amazing, emotional experience to listen to the Paris, Texas soundtrack while driving through the desert. But it was also an amazing, emotional experience to be with people I love, screaming the lyrics to a song that made us happy. And pop music can be just as emotional as any indie artist. I mean, ADELE, YOU GUYS.
I used to be so disappointed that our generation doesn’t have a distinct counterculture the way previous ones did—hippies and beatniks and grunge and all that. And in a way, the very first conception of a Rookie-type project came from wanting this. But it’s occurred to me since that these countercultures create their own limitations as well, and that’s when alterna-cool kids get scared of admitting to liking “Call Me Maybe.” Also, I much prefer what we have going on now—people just seem to like what they like! It’s not US vs. THEM, it’s not squares vs. drapes. There’s not a singular counterculture, there are just a bunch of subcultures, and the internet offers enough resources that you can basically find out about whatever you’re into. Plus, a lot of things I like also happen to be popular, and this doesn’t take away from what they mean to me, or the artist’s intent, or whatever. The Beach Boys are popular!
DYLAN: Sigh, I know. Our generation doesn’t have a defining subculture. But I’ve found a couple smaller ones I love, little pockets of awesome music and art that’s being made outside the mainstream. There’s this tiny garage rock scene over here, this underground hip-hop vibe over there, this basement DIY show somewhere else—and there’s some really fun crap on HOTT JAMZ FM, too. Being in tune with what’s going on with the masses is kind of a thrill—I got to be stoked when Miley revealed her haircut on Twitter, and ran out to see Part of Me in 3D once it hit theaters. This is what my culture has to offer me, you know? Not everything has to be so complicated.
TAVI: Why you hafta go and make things so complicated? FOR REAL. So Dylan, how shall we wrap this up? BE YOURSELF? LIKE WHAT YOU LIKE? THAT’S WHAT MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL?
DYLAN: The coolest people I know are the ones who couldn’t care less about their personal cultural boundaries and just enjoy life and do whatever they want. They’re not too cool for anything, they’re cool enough for everything. That’s a much more exciting way to be. ♦