Popping the Question: What is this ‘commercial pop’?

I often like to go into Borders and read through the latest issue of Music Week – I can’t afford to buy it and it only takes ten minutes to read, so there wouldn’t be much point. It’s a very interesting read, though, as you get lots of behind-the-scenes info about the current trends in music. However, there is one thing I need to complain about. In Music Week there are loads of charts from various different chart companies, such as the Official Top 40, a dance chart, an independent labels chart, and so on, and there’s one chart for a genre they call ‘commercial pop’. I always find this interesting to read, because considering you could not find much more of a pop fan than me, I still always see several acts I have never even heard of before in this chart.

I really have no idea what criteria they have for it, because surely there are enough ‘commercial pop’ artists to fill a top 30 without need to resort to Raen (above) or Kevin Jon, even if we just include poppy-sounding acts like September, Rihanna or Gabriella Cilmi. At first when I found this chart I was excited at the prospect of new pop music I’d never heard of, but then I looked up these acts and was horrified by how dated and embarrassing they are. Raen are an Australian girlband, and not too bad but certainly not anywhere near the standards of Girls Aloud or even The Saturdays. Kevin Jon, however, is one of the worst new acts I’ve seen in ages.

The thing that bothers me is that, if whoever compiled this chart stopped for just a moment to consider the meaning of ‘commercial’, there’d probably be less Kevin Jon and more Dizzee Rascal. How can some artists be labelled as having profit as their main goal, while others are not? Did someone go around each act releasing a single this month and ask them whether they’re in it for the money or not? I highly doubt it! As a supporter of pop music (by which I mean music that sounds stereotypically ‘poppy’), I find it insulting that pop artists are believed, at least by the compiler of this chart, to have universally commercial motives which are not shared by artists in other genres.

I think this idea that pop music is bad because it has a commercial aim is really unfair, but it is also confusing, because the influential people who infect the public with these opinions are generally representing very powerful companies themselves. Journalists, for example – if they think it is wrong for a musician to want success, then surely they should lead by example, and give up their jobs at major magazines and papers in favour of writing fanzines and blogs. No, no, we musn’t make money from our talents – that would just be immoral! And yes, there are huge record companies who want to push out new acts like a factory line, but in most cases such attempts to please the public wind up with Girl Thing (above) or Freefaller, not the Spice Girls or Busted.

The belief that pop music is worthless unless it is hugely successful and making money is one of the most unpleasant things about the music industry right now. When a new pop act starts out, they have one chance, two at best, to release a single and capture the nation. Take for example The Saturdays, only signed because of Girls Aloud’s success, and releasing their debut single this week: if it doesn’t go top ten, will they get another chance, or will they be dropped? And if they are dropped, of course they will split up, because what is the point of making pop music if it’s not going to make money? Compare this to Adele, the Kaiser Chiefs, Kate Nash, or even someone really uncool like James Blunt. All of those acts released a song or two before the one which made them famous, and after that went back and re-released those first songs. It is recognised in these cases that the public sometimes don’t catch on to something good immediately, and that doesn’t mean there’s no point in persisting, but with pop acts this is rarely the case.

The thing is, I may be making a pointless argument here, because the kind of music I’m talking about is dying out, thanks to those past-it party-poopers who have very successfully persuaded the public that it is worthless. In the past few years an interesting thing has occured. You may remember in the early to mid 00s, Radio 1 was at it’s most up-it’s-own-arse. They really only played serious music, and anything which even hinted at the existence of fun or positivity in the world was kept well away. Then, one bank holiday, they had a special day where listeners could text in and request any song they wanted, anything at all. And did we hear Coldplay? Did we hear The Editors? No, but I distinctly remember them playing *N Sync and Hanson! At last, the station could not avoid taking note, and from that day on gradual changes were made.

Nowadays, there is no shortage of songs to sing along to on Radio 1, and that is an undeniable triumph because how can I complain, as a pop fan, about the UK’s top youth station supporting Robyn and September? In 2004, listening to Don’t Stop The Music and We Can Do It, I never would have dreamed it. What interests me is that, although only a lucky few pop songs are allowed onto the Radio 1 playlist, they are always loved by the listeners. This gives Radio 1 incredible power, because they get to decide which pop songs are allowed to be popular, and which are not. Terry Wogan may have more listeners at breakfast time, but it’s still Chris Moyles, who doesn’t even seem to like music, who has the magic key to success for new pop acts.

This all means that while Alphabeat, who play their own instruments, and acts like September and Estelle, who can be categorised as dance or r’n’b instead of meaningless, artificial pop music, get their place on the playlist, The Saturdays haven’t a hope in hell of joining them. Even if they revealed that they can all play instruments, they’d still not be taken seriously – when did you last see an all-girl instrument-playing band on Radio 1? They’ve no hope at all! And yet, the phenomenom of High School Musical, the wonderful popularity of Same Difference on last year’s X Factor, and the fact that most Alphabeat fans couldn’t care less about whether they write their own songs or not, all prove that there is a place for good old fashioned pop music in the current music industry. Maybe HSM’s success, which seems to increase by the second, will allow for its comeback. I don’t want to get my hopes up quite yet, but I’m not giving up hope either – only a depressive bore who listens to indie/rock music would do that!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *