Don’t Worry, Be Poppy

If loving Ariana Grande is wrong,
I don’t wanna be right

Last summer, Ariana Grande rolled out of bed in her Boca Raton childhood home, picked up the phone and seemed nothing short of deliriously giddy recounting exactly how her musical aspirations were finally beginning to materialize. “I’ve wanted to be a recording artist my entire life,” the then-20-year-old told me just over a week before the release of her debut album, Yours Truly. The fiery young singer first came to public recognition for her supporting role on Nickelodeon’s musical sitcom Victorious, and later a starring turn in the spinoff, Sam & Cat. But Grande was no actor in pop-star clothing. “To be honest, I never really considered myself to be too much of an actress,” she said. No, this young woman, who drew quick comparisons to Mariah Carey for her massive pipes, vocal range and 90s-era R&B-influenced sound, was always more focused on singing. “My fans jumped on board right away,” she explained.

And with good reason: Grande, whose excellent new album, My Everything, was released last month, is the 21st-century diva we’ve been waiting for — albeit one whose sartorial choices call to mind a more innocent time; think 50s-era sweethearts. Her musical roots are firmly planted in the 90s — see her Babyface-produced 2013 breakout single “The Way” — but she’s embracing hip-hop, dance music and soul in equal measure, as she has demonstrated with her recent smash singles, most notably the sax-inflected “Problem,” the four-on-the-floor club killer “Break Free” and the more suave “Best Mistake,” all released in the lead-up to her new album. Unlike her peers who are overly concerned with image, Grande is grounded, confident, self-aware. “I’m not too comfortable with the whole celebrity thing,” she admitted, “but I think I’m doing well with the music thing. And that’s what makes me happy.”

Ariana Grande reaches out to fans at The White Party in Palm Springs, CA

Grande is simply the most exciting new face in pop music. That she also happens to be one of its most successful doesn’t hurt her case — My Everything rocketed to #1 on the Billboard 200 Chart and “Break Free,” “Problem” and “Bang Bang”—her collaboration with Nicki Minaj and Jessie J—all spent time in the Top 20 of the Hot 100.

And yet Grande is, gulp, a pop singer. And one managed by the child-star Svengali Scooter Braun, of Justin Bieber-discovering fame. How invested should we really be?

Critical logic might instruct: look beyond the surface, stray from the pack, don’t fall victim to the tweeny charm. It’s what intellectual curiosity and a mature musical palate would suggest, right? Be not a poptimist — a lemming who, as writer Saul Austerlitz argued in a much-debated New York Times Magazine op-ed, “demands devotion to pop idols.” Make instead the smart choice to view the genre of pop not through its rainbow-colored lens of giddy, adolescent glee, but rather as the Teflon, corporate-constructed artifice of its design.

Sorry, I can’t help but laugh at such an assessment: that by championing pop music and relaying its merit, one is automatically a poptimist, blinded by the light.

I also laugh because I once agreed with this logic.

There’s little to take away about my fraternity room during my undergraduate years at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign other than it being an advertisement for my hatred of pop music (in addition to excessive marijuana consumption). Oh how I thought I was onto something special! Here I was, living quarters adorned with numerous posters paying homage to rock icons like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia, Thom Yorke, Kurt Cobain, etc. (What original choices!) Their music, I believed at the time, was pure: it had been made with their hands, their mouths.

These were poets, devoid of corporate shilling. Damned I would be to subject myself to the plastic rubbish that was pop music. I wouldn’t allow myself to know it, but yes, there was in fact solid pop music being made at the time: Beyoncé’s B’Day, Alicia Keys’ As I Am, hell, even Danity Kane’s eponymous debut. All I saw on endless repeat in my head was a cadre of fist-pumping bros chugging Jägermeister as Shop Boyz’s “Party Like A Rockstar” thumped in the background. To me, pop music stunk of false pretense.

Not coincidentally, around the time I began to write about music for a living, I finally got out of my own head. I stopped caring about how a love of (or even respect for) pop music is perceived by others.

It’s not that I awoke one day and suddenly realized the joys of pop music. Far from it, actually.

It wasn’t even that one particular album or song came around, knocked me on my ass and signaled a change in outlook. (Though had Beyoncé’s latest self-titled LP arrived during my college years that may have done the trick). No, rather it was a slow progression. I began to see pop music as a means by which all the genres I loved so much—soul, R&B, blues, rock, hip-hop—were coalesced into a well-constructed, albeit occasionally dumbed-down form to be enjoyed by the masses.

Of course, there was (and continues to be) a healthy heap of pop schlock that stunk of formula, utterly devoid of taste. But with each passing week, it seemed I was uncovering more “Miss Independents” and less “Lolli Lolli (Pop That Body)s.” Pop songs offered a rush, a euphoria that other genres simply could not provide on as consistent a basis. It’s as critic Jody Rosen wrote recently: “Pop music is a powerful social force, and it hits listeners in a deep place, where it counts.”

I do believe it’s not a mere coincidence that my turn towards pop music occurred over the past few years. For some time now, the genre has been moving in a very solid direction. Contemporary artists like Grande, Beyoncé, Sia, Sam Smith, even Katy Perry, are more focused than ever on refining their craft, diving deeper into the songwriting and production process, drawing from a love of big voices and sumptuous beats.

Left, 2014's My Everything; Right, 2013's Yours Truly

“If I could… I’d just be in the studio for my whole life,” Grande told me last year. “I would never go to parties, events, and red carpets. Nobody has to know what I look like.”

Sam Smith, whose blend of gospel, soul and pop invites a multi-generational fanbase, likewise told me he wants “to break the boundaries between a pop star and an artist. I just want to showcase what’s real,” he said.

Top-notch pop producers like Dr. Luke and his protégé Cirkut, whom naysayers may view as purveyors of something resembling a pop-song puppy mill, having worked up hits for nearly every major name in the genre — from Katy Perry to Kesha and Britney Spears — are equally focused on precision, dialed in on concocting a exultant sound. “We’re never satisfied,” Luke told me. “Once we have something that we’ve done, we’re constantly trying to switch that up.”

“I always want to come up with something fresh. I don’t ever want to do something that sounds like it came out a couple years ago,” Cirkut said. “That’s very important I think. That’s one of the key factors in having longevity in the industry as a musician or anything really. Just constantly reinventing yourself. You can’t do the same thing and expect the same result. You have to surprise people.

“What makes it pop?” Cirkut continued. “It’s just that universal appeal… great melodies and hooks that stick in your head. Something that’s just larger than life.”

Ariana broadcasts her vocal range, performing on The Today Show in New York City

And then there’s EDM, or electronic dance music, which has of late become a cultural juggernaut and a mainstay in the pop-music sphere. Much of it is undoubtedly vapid, but there are indications that even its biggest stars are willing to take chances in the name of revolutionizing pop. Zedd produced Grande’s wonderful “Break Free”; Calvin Harris teamed with risk-taking musicians like Florence Welch on “Sweet Nothing.” Avicii merged electronic sounds with Americana, soul and rock on last year’s True, an album he viewed as an attempt towards “getting electronic music in a song format.”

“[Avicii] will do stuff that, honestly, I would’ve never thought of,” said Chic bassist and disco legend Nile Rodgers. For his next LP, the Swedish DJ has already teamed up with Billie Joe Armstrong, Bon Jovi, Serj Tankian of System of a Down and Chris Martin.

Like it or not, pop music is evolving. I believe for the better.

OK, so I’m part of the masses now, a lover of pop, spreading the gospel. But am I a poptimist? “Poptimism wants to be in touch with the taste of average music fans,” Austerlitz wrote in the Times, “to speak to the rush that comes from hearing a great single on the radio, or YouTube, and to value it no differently from a song with more ‘serious’ artistic intent.” Yes, I do value pop music on the same plane as any other music. Because what is serious artistic intent in 2014?

Is the sonic manipulation Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood employs on a fiery guitar line any more artistic than, say, Ke$ha adopting a delightfully greasy twang as she uses a muscle car as a grand metaphor for her vagina? No. Both are an expression of sound, of feeling, of the idea that this thought is mine, right now, at this moment. “The most basic responsibility of the music critic,” historian Ted Goia argued in a Daily Beast piece decrying contemporary musical criticism, “is to pay close attention to the sounds,” not the lifestyle that surrounds its conception. And while Goia is in parts correct, to not view music—and particularly the pop genre—as a complete experience, one full of occasional garishness and strong cultural implications, is to miss out on some of its greatest delights.

I don’t believe I am a poptimist.

Nor do I believe many of my fellow music journalists are. Sure, many tend to operate in a social media-driven incubator whereby their peers regularly confirm their opinions. Still, I have a hard time believing any of them feel it’s their duty to pump up the popular. A good piece of music (and criticism) comes in many forms. And when something trendy but oh-so-dreadful connects with an audience — see: Magic!’s “Rude” or MKTO’s “Classic,” both frightful, current hit singles—critics (and opinionated fans) do not lay down their arms.

Yes occasionally a certain pop artist like Beyoncé comes along and unites audiences, tastemakers and critics alike. Austerlitz would say to perpetuate her popularity through critical praise is an example of poptimism at work, building up “the deliriously artificial over the artificially genuine.”

Not long ago I would have likely agreed with his assessment. But then I opened my eyes to the world around me and embraced pop for its all-encompassing offerings.

“I realize that I will never fully understand the millions of bizarre ways that music brings people together,” Rob Sheffield wrote in his excellent Love is a Mix Tape.

I would be lying to say I did either. But I’m glad I let pop into my life.

If not, I may have missed out on some inspiring artists. Ariana Grande comes to mind.

Follow Dan Hyman on Twitter @dshyman.
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