Ah, pop music. One way of defining that all-straddling term pop music is to find out what its opposite is. Unpop music? In its very name, pop contains its nature: that of being available and popular to everyone. And it’s quite likely because of its licentiousness and extra-willingness to please everyone that critics — the ones wearing the monocles and writing tomes for music magazines as well as some of us desperately trying to stand out from the herd — look down on pop. Funny thing is, it doesn’t matter.
It certainly doesn’t make sense that while in the 1970s you were likely to seriously get street-cred by gasping each time someone was listening to Mama Mia on the radio, now you appreciate that Abba CD for its “genuine genius for melody”. It also doesn’t make sense that the same Madonna that you loved to dis in the 1980s you know think is the ultimate performer, forever changing her style on her way to iconhood.
So what is pop? It certainly has little bearing to anything completely ‘music’ about it. Or does it? Consider the pop-philosophical question: if being No. 1 on the pop charts means being the best (-selling) pop song, being No. 2 must make it less good, no? And yet, unless you have very long sideburns and have a framed picture of Lady Di above your cottage piano, surely you must consider Strawberry Fields Forever (No. 2 on the March 1967 UK charts) a nicer song than Engelbert Humperdinck’s Release Me (No. 1 on the March 1967 UK charts).
A better way of approaching the ‘pop’ genre is to try and find its musical essence — if it has one. When one says that Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit has a great pop hookline, what one means is that it’s ‘catchy!’ So while early Beatles albums are ‘pop’, as we proceed through Revolver to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, we hear something increasingly sophisticated and nuanced and complex. In a way, the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony — ‘duh da da da duh’ — ponderous as it is, is simple and, well, pop. It, of course, proceeds to more ‘classical’ terrain.
So the lowest common denominator tag attached to, say, Britney Spears’ Toxic. But then again, Toxic is not a simple song. It’s in the key of C minor, written in common time, moves at 144 beats per minute with the singer’s vocal range spanning nearly two octaves (from G3 to F5). Hmm, who knows. Maybe two decades from now, we’ll give Britney the same respect that we now give Duran Duran.
Made in india
In India, the real pop music has always been filmi music (of which much more another day). A whopping 93-95 per cent of record sales in India attest to that uncontested fact. But there have been the few crossovers. Biddu Appaiah a.k.a. Biddu originally a member of the Bangalore band, the Trojans, found success once he moved to England and produced two pop hits for the singer Tina Charles in 1976 — I Love To Love (But My Baby Loves To Dance) and then, more spectacularly, Dance Little Lady Dance. The rest, as they say, is Qurbani. While the Feroze Khan movie had its hit, Aap jaisa koi, a 15-year- old Pakistani pop star was born in Nazia Hasan. The first non-filmi Hindi pop album, Disco Deewane, followed in 1981 to massive subcontinental success.
Indian pop has its bits and bobs and fans scattered in time and space with the likes of Usha Uthup, Sharon Prabhakar, Peenaz Masani and later Alisha Chinai — discovered by Godfather of Desi Pop Bappi Lahiri — having their time under the sun. By the time Colonial Cousins (Hariharan and Leslie Lewis) and Shaan and Lucky Ali came into the picture, the term Indi-pop had been firmed up to accommodate this ‘upmarket’, non-filmi sub-genre of pop music. But pop, as anyone can see, remains an ‘international’ and filmi phenoenon in India.
The shimmering divide
The divide between pop and rock — no doubt, debated by every generation that goes to college — has become more subtle. The Beatles, for instance, may have started out as a pop phenom but grew a tad embarrassed of their lack of musical gravitas and moved to being a rock band. The sound of Robbie Williams, though, is not going to be incredibly different from that of his original ‘boy’ band, Take That, whose comeback album, Beautiful World, is actually startingly mature and, well, non-poppy. You do the maths.