Just like the smell of horse shit will always make me think of Penn in the spring, some songs are inextricably tied to our memory banks. Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In the Wind" forces me to imagine my mother sweeping and singing off-key. Jewel's "You Were Meant For Me" reminds me of the boy who sang it to me over the phone and then broke my heart. This is not a newsflash. Everyone knows and understands that sensory perception and memory go hand in hand. We all learned that in psychology class. What's important is not that our senses help us remember things, but that pop music is actually much more significant than we've all been led to believe.
The word "pop" suggests that something is, at the very least, accessibile enough to be popular. In fact, some of the most loved music in the world is pop music, i.e. Elvis, the Beach Boys, Radiohead, U2, Dylan and now we can even add unlikely candidates, Modest Mouse.
In some way -- and I know this because I wrote a 15-page paper on it -- the way we experience pop music today is a direct result of Beatlemania. Besides being one of the most recognizable names in the history of music, the Beatles reached levels that until that point were unheard of. They were moderately controversial. They were catchy. They were a rock band, and an unstoppably marketable rock band at that. They still seem to be the band no one can dislike -- the model for all pop bands to come.
Many will argue that when the Beatles existed, music mattered. They may even say that music mattered for years after that, that when they were kids the Velvet Underground really stood for something, and that U2 really defined a generation. Those same people will tell you that music today doesn't mean anything, it's just noise for noise's sake.
I once heard a comedian joke that when we are old, old people will be listening to rap, which is odd and true. Something tells me that at some point in the future I will be saying "When I was a kid, music was important. Eminem really stood for something." Today's pop music will be considered essential listening for upcoming generations. Usher will be the new Michael Jackson, Green Day will be the new Sex Pistols and Ben Folds will be the new Randy Newman. And when massive amounts of people relate to the same thing, that has to give some indication to what's significant to the masses, even if it means the masses want to drink crunk juice and have lots and lots of sex.
What does it all add up to? Pop music exists to entertain and to suck up our dollars, but regardless, it defines us as a society and as individuals in a way we may not be made aware of for many years -- no matter what the music nerds say.
I'm just as much a victim as anyone else. I think "Caught Up" is a good song. I like "Vertigo" despite strong efforts to hate it and if I'm at a party and "Toxic" comes on, I know the words.
I do have to admit, I've told many people that I could never be with a guy who didn't care about the music he listens to, and any attractive guy who tells me his favorite band is Evanescence or Sum 41 is immediately disqualified from further conversation. I care about music probably much more than I should.
But the point is, this doesn't make me special. There is not one individual human in the world that isn't struck with nostalgia at the opening notes of some song. That's where the beauty lies, because even the smallest music fan is affected in some way. So, no matter how sickening the music business is, and how much crap it produces, I'm still all for it. The next time I hear someone talking about the Garden State soundtrack I won't cringe, because I'll know that even if they didn't know the band before the movie, listening to the Shins now reminds them of summers in New York City like it does me. And that makes me happy.