We've all heard it before: it's not cool to like pop music. Let's take a look at the Spotify USA Top 50 as of now (because in my opinion, this is a much more accurate representation of what people are listening to than the Billboard or iTunes charts): the top 15 songs are all rap or hip–hop, with one quasi–pop track thrown in at #6 ("Mine" by Bazzi), which will likely soon be driven out by the juggernaut of a record that is Black Panther: The Album. The first true pop song clocks in at #22, "Never Be the Same" by Camila Cabello.
Turn on the radio and dial it to Q102, or 96.5 AMP Radio, or any other top 40 station that you can think of. You'll likely hear "The Shape of You" by Ed Sheeran or that "once I was seven years old" song that I'm convinced no one actually likes (I mean, come on, it's just so bad). Most people don't even bother doing this anymore; they plug in their AUX cords or pair their phones to their cars with Bluetooth to play whatever they want to listen to because "the radio sucks"—and they're right, the radio does suck, because radio stations get kickbacks from record labels to play whatever music they're pushing at the moment. This is called payola: paying a DJ or radio station to play your music, regardless of whether or not your music is good enough to deserve to be played.
So what's the problem with pop? Is it too formulaic? Is it perennially late to the trends that are actually popular in music? These are some of the complaints I've leveled against pop music in the past. What's worth noting here, though, is that there's a difference between the category of pop music and the category of top 40. Top 40 is formulaic, and once it gets its hooks in a good pop musician, it runs the risk of shaking out their originality and creativity. Take Katy Perry as an example. One of the Boys and Teenage Dream (her first and second releases) were both very, very solid pop albums, and Perry's original image was fresh, fun, and new. Unfortunately, as Perry cemented her stardom, the quality of her music fell, and now we're left with songs like "Chained to the Rhythm" and "Bon Appétit." I encourage you to listen to the deep cuts of One of the Boys (though you do have to look past some problematic elements); there's a range of sounds and melodies, engaging lyrics, and Perry's voice cuts through—though her newer music may be weaker, her voice has always been strong. Just look at the honesty and humor behind lines like "So over the summer something changed / I started reading Seventeen and shaving my legs / And I studied Lolita religiously / And I walked right into school and caught you staring at me." You'd be hard pressed to find a teenage girl who hasn't gone through some iteration of this. (We're not even going to touch Taylor Swift, because that's a whole separate article.)
The beauty of pop music lies in just how versatile it is—after all, "pop" is short for popular. If it's catchy and it's got a beat, you've got a pop song. Pop can be simple and punchy, but pop can also be complex and challenging. Take "Vroom Vroom" by Charli XCX. It takes a very specific taste in music to listen to it the first time and say "this slaps." But give it time, and like a good pop song, it worms its way into your brain and nestles there, prompting endless repeats. Similarly, take a song like "Genesis" by Grimes. It's hard to discern any specific lyrics, and the melody rolls over a vast field of mellow electronic beats and soft piano, spilling into each other and colliding in aurally pleasant ways—yet it does the same thing as "Vroom Vroom" in that it gets stuck in your head and refuses to leave.
Pop also crosses over with other genres all the time, especially R&B. Kehlani dominates this area, as her songs perfectly blend the two. Her most recent album, SweetSexySavage, which features singles like "CRZY" and "Distraction," is a perfect example of this. Her songs generally showcase elements of both, albeit in different areas; in "Distraction", the verses are much more on the side of R&B, but the choruses are pure pop. But perhaps her poppiest current release is "Honey," the sweet (I'm so sorry, I had to.) ballad to her lady love (Kehlani is also queer! We stan!). You'll find yourself singing "I like my girls just like I like my honey / Sweet, a little selfish / I like my women like I like my money / Green, a little jealous" all week long. Her voice is like velvet, enveloping the soft bones of the strummed guitar notes.
Pop can be imperfect. When Lorde released "Green Light" last summer, it got very mixed reviews—half of the critics thought she was selling her unique sound out to sell records and half thought it was just plain weird. And they're right, it is really, really weird. But it's also just so good. Who changes keys in the pre–chorus of a pop song? It refutes all the rules of the radio. It refutes traditional pop arrangements and timing. Again, the pre–chorus is really where "Green Light" breaks the mold, the anticipation in the bass of the verse completely dropping out to bare piano. Though the chorus is solidly in the key of A major, the verses and pre–choruses oscillate between D major and F# minor, and Lorde navigates it expertly with her poetic lyrics and the visceral heart–wrenching that weaves its way through every track on Melodrama.
Pop can be slow and deliberate—it can be artistic and thoughtful—but it can also be crazy, feverishly fast, balls–to–the–wall. I mean, we all remember "I Love It" (feat. Charli XCX) by Icona Pop (hopefully we don't all remember the episode of Girls that skyrocketed it to fame, though). Love it or hate it, the song is infectious, practically daring you to get up on your feet and dance, or thrash your head, or kick and punch your arms and legs. Nothing ignites a party better than a pop song—I'm so sick of the standard Migos and mumble rap repertoire I hear at every party I go to. The fact that songs like "I Love It," "Honey," and "Green Light" belong to the same genre speak to its versatility: pop is whatever you want it to be—and that's why I love pop.