In Defense of Pop Music

A few days ago, my friend Jason Parker, trumpeter, bandleader, educator and KPLU blogger, wrote a post entitled “Why Jazz Fans Shouldn’t Be So Quick to Dismiss Pop Music.”  Jason is a member of a Facebook group “Jam of the Week” and wrote his post in response to negative comments that some “jazz snobs” had made about pop music. Jason makes a lot of good points. He questions the logic behind cutting oneself off from an entire genre of music. He also gives examples of jazz musicians– such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane– who have recorded their own interpretations of popular songs. Jason thinks we should be open-minded about what we listen to.

I agree with Jason.

A blanket dismissal of a genre as wide as pop seems shortsighted. For one, with a lot of artists, the lines can get a little blurry as to what is pop and what is something else. Many musicians and bands that might be labeled as “pop” actually play more nuanced music that doesn’t fit squarely into any one category (Steely Dan comes to mind). Secondly, if you disregard pop music entirely, you’re writing off some pretty influential artists such as Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and countless others. What a shame for your ears! Judging from some of the comments to Jason’s post, some people’s disdain is more focused on contemporary pop. I confess that at times I’ve viewed a lot of current pop more as manufactured celebrity than real music. However, I find that as I get older, my sensibilities aren’t as rigid. Even recently, I’ve joined the masses in my adoration of Pharrell Williams and his delightfully infectious “Happy.” It’s catchy. It’s upbeat. It makes me feel good. Isn’t that enough? Clap along!

If I may make an analogy, let’s think for a moment about food. I’m a vegetarian. On most days, I prefer a diet that is plant-based, clean and healthy– think fresh salads and steamed vegetables. But sometimes, I enjoy the hearty simplicity of a bean burrito or the cheesy and greasy goodness of a slice of pizza. Still other times, all I want to do is faceplant into a large bowl of ice cream. It all depends on my moods and desires in any given moment. The same is true for music. Now and then, I’m in the mood to sink into the weird brilliance of Hiromi. If I’m wistful, however, only Carmen McRae or Joni Mitchell will do. If I’m having a shitty day, nothing sets it right like Richie Aldente. And if I want to burn on the dance floor, I may pump it up with some hip-hop or reggaeton from a variety of artists. The point is that I avail myself to a whole spectrum of options. If I don’t dig it, I don’t listen to it. But I find that when I’m open, I like a whole lot more music than I dislike. Why would any of us want to limit ourselves?

I grew up listening to lots of different kinds of music– folk, rock, punk, metal, pop, etc. My favorites were Todd Rundgren, the Ramones, The Who, David Bowie, Hall & Oates and the aforementioned artists Mr. Wonder and Ms. Mitchell. I didn’t really discover jazz until I was in college and feel like I’m still catching up on my listening, both of the greats and also more contemporary artists. At times over the years, I have been guilty of musical snobbery towards some genres and musicians. But as I said earlier, I’ve eased up considerably and have become much more open. Parenting has definitely had an impact here. When my son Enzo was in middle school, they (preferred gender pronoun) played a lot of Lady Gaga in the morning carpool. Initially, I was dismissive. But over time, I remembered that music is a great channel for communication between a parent and an adolescent. As I learned with my oldest son Emmett, sometimes music can bridge a gap when nothing else can. It also occurred to me that if I was open to the music that Enzo was into, then Enzo might be more open to some of the music that I wanted to hip them to. It was a simple but profound shift in thinking. Interestingly, I found out that Lady Gaga has some pretty good jazz chops and that she likes to spend her downtime at the neighborhood dive bar, playing piano and singing Cole Porter tunes.

A few years ago, I wrote a feature on Seattle pianist Tim Kennedy for Earshot Jazz. One of the most memorable parts of the interview was when I asked Tim what advice he would give young musicians. His response was “drop the hate.” He went on to explain that developing musicians should put aside judgment and attitude and be open to music from all kinds of genres. He said that all music is connected, that all influences have value and that ultimately, “it’s all good.”

Dudley Manlove Quintet

Dudley Manlove Quintet

The other night, I had the pleasure of seeing the Dudley Manlove Quintet, “the world’s best wedding and special events band.”  These guys are the masters of pop music and have a stunningly huge repertoire that expands multiple decades and includes everything from ABBA and Tom Petty to Marvin Gaye and Billy Idol. (Check it out here.) They’re great musicians and super fun, slightly goofy performers. I danced my ass off and had a ball. But what really struck me that night was the crowd. At several points during the show, I took in all the people around me. They were dancing like crazy, singing along to every lyric and blissfully happy. It was impossible to feel anything but joy with that band in that moment.  And it was all pop music.

Jason Parker has made a simple case for being open to all genres of music. I second Jason’s message. Although his post is directed at jazz fans, I think the sentiments can apply to all of us. At the end of the day, pretense is exhausting and it has the potential to cut us off from things that might actually make us really happy. Even if we truly don’t enjoy one genre or another, we can refrain from disparaging people who do. Music shouldn’t divide us. It should connect us.

“….every genre has something to offer those with open ears and open minds.”

– Jason Parker