State of Mind: The Nature of Music in Pop Culture

Everyone give a warm welcome to James Rodd, our newest contributor. This is his first piece, on what he believes drives pop music and culture. It is also our first staff op-ed article, falling under the series State of Mind. Enjoy, and feel free to comment in agreement or disagreement.

All my life I have heard people, whether it be the media or someone else, say that popular culture is cyclic and repetitive. Basically this means, things that were once “in” and fashionable will come back full circle at some point and be “in” and fashionable once again.

I don’t agree with this at all. In fact, I sincerely hope it is a fallacy because I am not looking forward to seeing my pre-middle aged ass in spandex or leather pants again, reliving my metal head days ca. 1987 – 1995.

Here’s how I see it: pop-culture is an amorphous shape.

It is constantly changing to fit the inclinations of the present. So instead of bell bottoms being “in” in their exact form from the 70’s, they will be changed to fit the times, if they do in fact come back to the forefront of pop culture again.

That’s why it’s called pop-culture.

I personally feel this is most evident in today’s music. The most popular successful acts today do not necessarily correlate to any one genre. Presently, according to Billboard Magazine, Madonna has the number 1 selling album overall. Is this a surprise to anyone? It shouldn’t be. She has always been a consistent seller.

But the big question is: why is she such a success? I attribute it to her ability to reinvent herself.

In her career she has produced a number of stalwart hits; she has fused genres such as Latino and Contemporary, Rock and Rap, Pop and Swing. Not to mention her flair for reinventing the Madonna persona in general. We have seen S&M, virginal newbie, religious connotations, etc.

I argue that her success is in her innate ability to mix genres that will guarantee her a broader appeal. I commend her on that and I’m not even a fan of hers. In fact, without thinking I can probably name three songs from her catalog and maybe even sing along or at least hum them.

That’s a powerful effect.

The reality is she is not the only artist to do this and not the most prevalent example of it. Let’s take bands like Gnarls Barkley and Linkin Park. Gnarls Barkley fuses a little bit of everything. You can hear Motown, R&B, some rock n’ roll, even a little hip hop in their more popular songs. Then you have Linkin Park, a young band who has boldly combined straight up Rap/Hip Hop with Rock or Metal.

How do you define these bands?

Do they fit any one genre?

Personally, I have always hated our constant need to label anyone and anything. But I guess it does make it easier to buy CD’s, clothes and accouterments if you know what section you need to go to. Nowadays classifying these bands into genres is becoming harder and harder…and I think we are the better for it.

The reality is that, by definition Madonna, Def Leppard, Portishead, and Tim McGraw are all pop artists.

Why? Because all four of them currently have an album in the Billboard top 10. They are what is popular and current. Aurally, they may seem distinct, but the reality is each of them is as successful as they are because they have caught the attention of the masses. This is pop culture. That’s pop music, contemporary music, Top 40, whatever you want to call it. All four of these artists, who would probably never even consider the similarities between each other, are similar because they are mixing genres, resulting in the popular success they are each currently experiencing.

As further evidence of the success of this amalgamation, you have established bands that enjoyed significant success after breaking genre lines. Let’s take Aerosmith, arguably one of the best Rock bands of the 70’s.

Can you listen to Toys in the Attic and Permanent Vacation and say that they are the same band?

Not in my opinion. They grew as all bands should and some do better than others. I think the cathartic point for Aerosmith was the crossover success of the “Walk this Way” remake with Run DMC.

For another example, look no farther than Anthrax and Public Enemy. Public Enemy, without a doubt one of the founding fathers of Hip Hop, enjoyed first cult success and then mainstream success as one of the best Rap groups ever. Anthrax was of the harder edged metal or thrash genre, and were successful within their niche but not in the mainstream. The two get together and redo “Bring the Noise,” fusing metal and hip hop on a grand scale. The new version becomes a mainstream hit enjoying copious radio play and MTV video rotation.

What do you call this bastard child of Rap and Metal? I have no idea…but it works. Ed: My immediate response was rap-metal, but then that brings too many other, less-than-favorable connotations.

I think the success of these bands, especially in collaboration, has directly influenced current successful bands and acts such as Linkin Park, Jay Z, Gnarls Barkley, U2, and Tim McGraw. These bands have learned that catering to a niche can bring you some success, but breaking out of the genre and giving more people what they want to hear is way more profitable.

Die hard fans may think the pairing of certain music like Rock and Country may be a sign of the impending Apocalypse. To them I say, “Don’t over think it, just listen to it.” That’s why you have Sammy Hagar touring with the likes of Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban and getting good reviews and selling out stadiums.

I will always love music in all its forms, and I deeply respect the bands that evolve and continue to experiment and test themselves. Its time to do away with the genres of yore and either update or trash them entirely. In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “Things, they are a changing…”

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3 Responses to “State of Mind: The Nature of Music in Pop Culture”

  1. DP says:

    Not that you even care, but Hip-Hop was more than a decade old when Public Enemy burst on the scene with their album ‘Yo! Bum Rush The Show’.

    They may have been the first Hip-Hop act you encountered but trust me that Hip-Hop hasd been founded already before it came to your ears

  2. Dan Thomsett says:

    PE founding fathers of hip-hop?? You dumbass! If you’re gonna write about something, i suggest you research your subject matter first! Hip-hop existed 14 years before PE arrived on the scene. Undoubtedly one of the most influential groups ever.

  3. James Rodd says:

    This article was about “pop culture”. PE may have been on the scene already for ages and Hip Hop may have originated long before PE, but the article was about Popular Culture, which by definition is determined by opinion and what is popular. It is perception based. You can not discount the popularity and effect of Public Enemy as a pop culture icon.

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