As of today, I have almost 5,000 songs on my computer. In 2000, I went to a show in New York City called Pokemon Live, and after my seven-year-old heart palpitated at the sound of Ash Ketchum’s beautiful onstage voice, I couldn’t resist buying the soundtrack. It was that moment that began my true addiction to music. The next 13 years of my life would be filled with downloading even more songs that I’d organize into sappy break-up playlists, birthday gift mixtapes, and a perfectly polished iTunes library.
My iTunes library is like a digital version of my brain, my innermost thoughts and memories laid out in the form of songs and playlists. There’s something extremely personal about sharing your favorite song with a friend, and there are few things worse than watching your friend’s face turn from open-minded and eager to listen to apathetic and disappointed when the song is played. Does anybody else become strangely insulted when they play music for someone who, half way through, just doesn’t like it? “Wait! The best part is coming!” you say, as time seems to slow down and “the best part” never seems to arrive. At two minutes in, your friend’s pursed lips and narrow eyes do not lie. She hates it.
I’ve seen my share of skeptical eyes and heard my share of “it’s not that bad” when I show people my favorite songs. It has made me wonder, though: Why do I listen to what I listen to? Do I simply like the way a song sounds, or is it something deeper? Our music taste says a lot about where we want to belong socially, and I think we subconsciously alter our sound preference to that which belongs to a certain group of people. I’m not ashamed to admit that one of my favorite genres of music is pop. Sometimes I just want to listen to Taylor Swift to enter a culture of doodled notebook hearts and romantic idealism. Or I want to tap into my inner power girl and listen to Christina Aguilera. Or maybe I want to have some fun, and Carly Rae Jepsen has that covered for me.
Lately, I’ve encountered a musical hierarchy of coolness when I talk about music with my friends. I’m saddened to report that it looks like pop music is near the bottom of this hierarchy. I mean, I once thought that popular songs were cool (Popular? Trendy? Cool? Are these words no longer synonymous?), but the opposite appears to be true. It’s almost like it’s cool not to be able casually to engage in a conversation about pop music. I’ve even heard of people who stop listening to an artist when that artist gets on the radio and thus becomes somewhat mainstream. While pop music is the plankton of the cool music food chain, familiarity with alternative or underground music is giving people an edge of cool that those of us who like mainstream music will simply never achieve. We will forever be dense, brainwashed recipients of the mass media industry.
Well, ouch. To that I say: But pop music is fun! Everyone likes to have fun, and being above fun is not how you do fun. And as a sociology and communications double major who has been trained to look critically at the inner workings of the media, I can recognize that some mainstream music is mass-produced by the same group of producers and writers. However, similar to enjoying a huge brownie that I know has 500 grams of fat and 1,000 calories, I can enjoy a song that may be a bit processed and not have it be a reflection of my ability to think or of my intelligence. And is it cool to deny yourself of a delicious chocolate brownie just because it’s unhealthy? Absolutely not.
Acquainting yourself with pop music connects you to a wider range of people. I love that I can connect to my 12-year-old campers as well as to my college friends when I un-ironically listen to Justin Bieber. I love that I’ll be able to scream the lyrics to Flo-Rida at a party this weekend. Listening to pop music will not remove your status as a competent member of society, and not everything you listen to must prove how deep and analytical you are. In fact, you don’t have to prove anything to anyone when you listen to music. Accepting pop music is really teaching you to care a little bit less about what people think.
Of course, since I’m talking about pushing past your musical boundaries, I’d be a hypocrite if I said I only listen to pop. I dabble in a little bit of everything, from rap to ’90s dance and techno to indie. I love The Beatles as much as I love Fleetwood Mac as much as I love Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z. Music (even those of the “uncool” variety like pop), much like an unhealthy dessert, is an important element of American culture. It’s time we allow ourselves to enjoy the silly beats and the serious lyrics without feeling stupid or guilty. You can jam to “Call Me Maybe” and indulge in the profundity of Fiona Apple. You can get weird to Ke$ha and get indie to Lana del Rey. Enjoying what’s popular or “synthesized” doesn’t mean you have to reject what’s not, and visa versa. And it’s the real cool kids who know that.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.