By way of setting the scene, I should probably mention the turkey burgers. I was out to dinner at a local place called Barleys with my friends Al and Colleen. When we ordered dinner, by some miracle of taste convergence (or maybe just social psychology), we each independently decided to order the turkey burger. The three of us did share a lot of common tastes, so, as often happens when we get together, each of us was talking about the music we’d been listening to recently. I predictably started blathering about the new Superchunk record,1 which I had become obsessed with in the preceding weeks. But during that conversation, Al said something that turned out to be as important as it was surprising. He told me he’d been listening to the new Kesha album.
Now, as a lot of people I half-drunkenly ranted at in college would be able to tell you, I spent many years being a pretty textbook indie music snob. At the time, I thought this snobbery was the result of painstakingly cultivating objectively good taste in authentic indie music. What that boils down to is that I was a dick to people about their fondness for Britney Spears and as a matter of course lambasted peoples’ “guilty pleasures.”2
Eventually I started thinking about why I’d developed this snobbery, and, incrementally, I realized that snobbery was less about objectively good music and more about performance and social positioning. I wanted to be a guy who knew good music, so I acted like the things that my friends and I liked were good music, period, and if you disagreed, you weren’t the kind of person I wanted to be around. When I realized this about my snobbish posturing, it made it easier to talk about taste and culture without being an asshole.
Easier, but certainly not impossible. There was still a Kesha-shaped alcove in my cultural appreciation apparatus. As Kesha rose to popularity over the years, despite all of my hard thinking about taste and authenticity in music, I’d developed a miniature knee jerk hatred of her.
So. Back to Barleys, where Al had just invoked Kesha’s name in a pretty surprising context: sandwiched between the Dirty Projectors and the Talking Heads. The conversation had taken a turn. I put down my turkey burger.
What my friends had to say at first about their recent foray into pop music actually fit pretty neatly into my existing schema for cultural criticism: they first extolled the kinds of technical innovation and formal experiments happening in pop music production, an easy avenue into appreciation for someone like me. Another such avenue: one prominent pop producer used to make weird lo-fi electronica under a different name, another used to be part of a 90s alternative duo, etc.3 This way of thinking was not shocking. This kind of 6 degrees of indie credibility game is endemic to the way I usually think about authenticity in music. Art I might otherwise snobbishly consider unworthy basically borrows authenticity from the cultural experiences I’m already behind, the ones I have deemed authentic and worthy.
But. There was something else going on. The whole conversation also had hints of something that I couldn’t quantify until later, something more rooted in the experience of listening to a song and less in the thinking about it. That other unquantifiable thing is what I’m here to write about.
Here’s the thing about the Demi Lovato song above: it’s fun as hell to listen to. I tried writing this post once without the song playing, and it was not easy. Something is happening inside of the song that is really hard to recapture when it’s not playing. It’s happening in the intersection between my head and the song, in the music-hearing part of my brain where the song lands.
So here’s a mostly unnecessary breakdown of the sounds and bits that make up this song, produced by theSUSPEX.4 It’s got a lot of those clean synths you hear everywhere in modern pop music that are blended with, and sometimes indistinguishable from, strings (see also Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me,” and utterly mercilessly throughout David Guetta’s recent hits, to name only three of the hundreds). And the bass is almost exclusively slightly distorted synths. But what’s so cool about the way the song uses these electropop elements is that they’re all pretty distinct from each other and spread out across the stereo channels. I’ve talked before about creating space in music, and there’s a lot of space in the big, big chorus. And the bridge is just as big and brash.
My favorite aspect of this song, though, is the bright acoustic guitar that’s right on top of those staccato bass synths in the pre-chorus hook. This kind of acoustic guitar sound is part of the mix for a lot of pop music (for some artists more than others). But it’s really bright and high in the mix here and prettily double-tracked on both stereo sides. The synthesized bass, the pounding kick, and the acoustic guitar all add up to this marching thing that makes you surge every time it punches in (Coldplay also makes frequent use of this trick). When the last repetition of the pre-chorus hook rolls around, it’s bare-bones acoustic guitar at first, and it grows, but it’s got this little drop right before the final chorus. In a perfect pop moment, the chorus explodes in, and Lovato skips the arpeggio of the chorus hook and jumps right to the soaring top note. The result is a total gut-punch.
The star of the song is obviously Lovato’s voice and that killer melody that she totally owns. It arches up and down the way a great vocal hook should. And it’s so damn catchy. The song’s also very lyrically sincere, not hiding behind anything explicitly brainy or critical. Lovato is simply saying that a real love, an honest, heartfelt love, could just be too much and very well might kill her. That already sounds like exactly what I want from a pop song.
The resulting piece of music is just a blast of pop songcraft that triggers all of the right places in my brain. It’s simple and catchy, and it’s also a little weird and a little surprising. In short, it’s a cause for celebration for poptimism.
Pauline Kael seemed to get the closest to actually infusing in her criticism the role that the bodily, emotional experience that art can be. She once said that the experience of seeing a good film “has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: how we came to love them and feel they were ours — not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours.” And Nitsuh Abebe has obviously written very clearly and convincingly about this kind of experience with art.5 There’s no need to venerate this feeling, no need to exotify the “teen girl” pop art experience: we all have it, yet cultural criticism at large seems to be missing the tools to talk about it.
And that’s what’s so important about this particular pop experience. People that think of themselves as critical cultural consumers will, without even meaning to, develop criteria for determining if a thing is good or bad. I myself have done this. These criteria tend to be brain-based, textual, cultural, historical. But even those criteria are just a way of trying to describe post-hoc the pleasure that a piece of art invokes. Sometimes it’s the challenge, the grappling with something that enhances its pleasure. Sometimes the pleasure comes solely from the emotional triggers of a redemptive story or well-timed musical crescendo. The point is, it’s all the same thing. A positive experience from a piece of art is simply a pleasure, no matter how detached and brainy the description of it might be.
The danger, at least for me, is that there’s a temptation to think of the brainier and more detached and more analytical pleasures as being more valuable pleasures. I, for some reason, have always had an inherent distrust of those pleasures that I feel without the cooperation of my analytical self, those pleasures that I can’t explain using my traditional cultural criticism tools (it is obviously very likely that this is encoded culturally in gender, but I’ll leave that to the people I know who are better at that kind of thinking, like, for instance, Nitsuh Abebe, and all of the people he mentions in that article). In the past, I’ve gone as far as thinking these pleasures were not actual pleasures, were mere tricks played on me by music producers.
Obviously these kinds of pleasures can still be talked about critically, but the language for doing so is drastically different than the language that I would use to describe something like experimental jazz or math rock. The (again possibly gendered) mainstream critical kit bag doesn’t come equipped with the tools to talk about this. But it should! How easily something enters my brain and sticks there is just a much of a thing to praise as any musical technical achievement, maybe more so! We don’t think about how hard a pop song has to work to still feel easy, all the while hiding all of that work. It’s at least as hard as making a good turkey burger.
That leaves me with two ways of getting at the pleasure a piece of pop art has to offer: one is analytical, and one is bodily and automatic. If a pop song manages to go straight to the pop-appreciating automatic part of my brain while easily sidestepping my hypercritical distrust of simple pleasures, it’s an unqualified success.
That’s this song. This crazy good song.6
1 Keen-eyed observers might realize that, in fact, the new Superchunk record is basically a pop record, and my blathering about it already contained the seeds of my undoing re: Kesha.
2 I love this phrase. It’s just a way for people experiencing the kind of pleasure in pop music I’m trying to describe here to minimize it and still maintain their “critical” position. Now, when people use this term, I try to remind them that no one should feel guilty for deriving pleasure from art of any kind. Instead, they should think about why they enjoy the thing and also why they feel guilty enjoying it.
3 These examples are half-truths that are half-remembered from that conversation. But there are many examples of this kind of thing in modern pop music, as you’ll see when we talk about this track’s producers. Another of my favorite examples: the guy responsible for Geggy Tah’s “Whoever You Are” also co-wrote and produced P!nk’s “Blow Me One Last Kiss.”
5 Seriously, Abebe’s piece is so important and says a lot of what I’m trying to say here, only more clearly. AND it tackles some aspects of this whole thing that I can’t even begin to get at. Go read it. It’s one of my favorite things I have EVER read about criticism.
6 This article would previously have been published under the banner of the ill-conceived “Unexpected Pleasures” series. I still believe pretty seriously that pleasures in culture can be found anywhere, but the “unexpected” part of the name, in retrospect, seems to be implying that the piece of art I’m talking about should have been bad, or that the art is good despite something about itself. That’s not what I’m trying to convey, so I’m not including that tagline in these posts anymore.