Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen and the Problem of Assessing Pop Music

By Ryan McNutt Dec. 4, 2012

Earlier this month, a Salon feature titled “Is Taylor Swift being taken too seriously?” got quite a bit of attention — especially after a number of prominent music critics, led by Sasha Frere-Jones, tore it to shreds on Twitter.

While there’s plenty of strange gender things going on in the article, the weirdest part of it, from my perspective, is Mark Guarino’s treatment of radio-focused pop as a genre. And by “treatment” I mean “near total dismissal.” Just check out some of these choice words:

  • “The indulgence of last decade produced enough pop trash to fill a trailer park in East Peoria” (This is followed by a list of nearly every female pop artist of the 2000s — like I said, strange gender things.)
  • “Today, most of these former lip-syncing product pushers are hovering on either side of age 30 and already long past their expiration date”
  • Red, Swift’s fourth album released three weeks ago, is a beneficiary of our lowered expectations from the [pop music of the] Bush years”
  • “Unlike her predecessors who were subsequently falling off the pop radar, [Swift] didn’t need to make a requisite virgin promise that would ultimately crumble; her appeal emerged more as a confident big sister than strip mall jailbait.”
  • “True, it’s difficult to be cool when still having to produce Disney-tailored slams like the hit ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’”

Guarino’s comments read like the observations of a time traveller from the year 1999, who has arrived in 2012 ready to rail against the pop machine but totally missed the shifts in critical thought that have occurred. It’s like he has no idea that most critics and music geeks like well-made mainstream pop, even when it comes from shallow, not-long-for-this-world pop stars.

There’s a whole slew of reasons as to why this movement, dubbed “poptimism” (a term I hate, by the way), has taken off, but here are just a handful:

  • The return of the single as the primary mode of music commerce
  • The rise of a new generation of compelling Svengali songwriters and producers, allowing critics to offer a deconstructionist take on the latest hits
  • The music industry’s collapse means that there isn’t much of a machine worth raging against anymore
  • The mainstreaming of hip hop and electronica into the pop realm provides stronger reference points for geeky types
  • Pop music is a perfect match with a novelty-driven digital age

Guarino’s rockist perspective — Why can’t Swift be like Joni Mitchell or Carole King?* — still holds sway in certain corners. You sure saw a ton of it last week during the Grey Cup halftime show that featured Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen. Heck, even I’ve been known to lament the lack of great pop albums from time to time. But that’s precisely why so many of us have gone gaga for Red: it’s thoughtful, impassioned, fun and, were it three or four songs shorter, a genuine album-of-the-year contender.

* This would, in fact, be the most boring pop world ever. 

One of my takeaways from this whole discussion is that perhaps those of us who embrace mainstream pop haven’t done a great job offering up a critical framework for how we assess it. In countering the rockist framework, with its treatment of authenticity and authorship as cultural capital, we sometimes simply offer up an appeal to pop’s novelty, its effervescence. But I’m left wondering if we can do a bit better.

I’ve been thinking about this recently as I start putting my year-end lists together and struggle with how to handle Carly Rae Jepsen’s Kiss. While it’s far from perfect — the collaborations with Owl City and Justin Bieber, in particular, are atrocious — for the most part it’s an accomplished, tasteful and damn catchy set of chart-seeking pop hits. It makes use the latest tricks and techniques, but doesn’t lose the artist’s voice and personality in the process.

But I can’t, in good conscience, evaluate it with the same techniques that I approach albums by Swans, or Cloud Nothings, or Fiona Apple, or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It would, by rights, fail miserably by those standards. And yet, how do I explain why it’s among my most-played records of the year?  Why do I keep coming back to it again and again?

I think where we come up short in our pop lexicon is in trying to explain the physicality of pop. It’s the unconscious way that we connect with a pop song that’s troublesome from a rockist point of view: how it makes us move, sway, bounce; how it teases, twists and ultimately connects with a learned system of expectations that we’ve built up over years of listening. When people say that a song is “catchy” or “fun” or “an earworm,” it’s this process that they’re, in effect, describing.

For those of us with a critical disposition, this isn’t easy to assess. We usually approach it through dissection: picking apart a song to identify particular hooks, rhythms and sentiments that make it an effective piece of music. But this gets us to a troublesome endpoint: if pop music is all about physical triggers, how do we as critics explain why some pop songs are “better” than others?

Consider “Gangnam Style,” which just this weekend became the most watched YouTube video of all time. The song’s effectiveness is fairly easy to explain: it leverages the hottest pop tricks of the day (escalating pre-chorus, a non-melodic LMFAO chorus, etc.), adds an easy-to-replicate dance and, in its coup de grâce, is mostly sung in Korean (minor a strategic “hey sexy lady”), giving it a novel exoticism. But is “Gangnam Style” the sort of pop song that we, as critics, should celebrate? Champion? Sing from the rooftops about?

Put another way: is “effective” the same as “good”? And if not, how on earth do we attempt to define “good” pop music when so much of its appeal is in its effectiveness?

One path would be to say, “screw it” and embrace subjectivity and relativism: everyone likes what they like, and that’s that. But as someone who believes that pop criticism needs to fuse subjectivity with objective explanation — and who believes that, like in other genres, our goal as critics should be to define “better” pop music and champion it — I’m interested in finding another way forward.

So here’s my idea: what can we learn from other entertainment forms where artists also succeed by manipulating a learned system of expectations?

Take horror films, for example. What triggers a fear impulse can vary wildly person to person, just like how not everyone has the same reaction to a pop hook. And, just like pop music, successful horror movies are all about timing and rhythm. Sure, there’s a second level of traditional critical discourse that we can apply to a good horror film — How is the acting? The script? The cinematography? — but answering and understanding the core entertainment question of “Is it scary?” seems a lot like our pop conundrum.

Another consideration: live magic. The term “trick” feels like a perfect fit with pop music’s novelty (you’ll note that I’ve used it several times in this piece already). Illusions are about knowing an audience’s expectations and then manipulating them, twisting them to invoke surprise. Even when you know it’s “fake,” there’s a performance factor to a great illusion that’s engaging, captivating, enthralling. And, again, it’s somewhat individual: what impresses you might not impress me.

The lesson that I take from horror and magic, in terms of criticism, is that we can acknowledge their effectiveness while, at the same time, assessing and judging how they go about achieving it. Are their manipulations clever and respectful of the audience, or crass and simplistic? Do their tricks have an emotional weight to support them, or do they appease on a base, physical level only?

Think of it like a spectrum. On the one end, you have the crass creations, which appeal rather vacantly to sensation almost to excess (Saw = Chris Angel = will.i.am). Then on the other, you have deconstructionist, self-aware cleverness that still shows a real love and affection for the genre (Cabin in the Woods = Penn and Teller = Robyn). And then in the middle, you have pop art that breaks little new ground, but is respectful of the form’s history, is performed with some semblance of emotional heft, and remains incredibly effective (The Descent = David Copperfield = Carly Rae Jepsen).

All of these can be entertaining, and we shouldn’t feel bad when even the most shallow, sensationalistic pop song tickles our fancy. (In the 21st century, we should reserve guilty pleasure strictly for situations where there are non-musical reasons for feeling guilty . . . say, for example, enjoying a Chris Brown single.) But just like horror and magic, we can respect and celebrate pop music’s effectiveness while, at the same time, finding ways to explain why some effective pop songs are better than others.

This doesn’t exactly help me answer my Carly Rae Jepsen problem on my year-end list — but it does help me understand why it’s a pretty great pop album.

From McNutt Against the Music. Follow McNutt on Twitter.

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