In 1964, Bob Dylan famously belted out “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. True back then, it bears repeating today; both the United States and music industry are at a crossroads, and nothing exemplifies that more than looking at the current state of Top 40 music. Popular music, or ‘pop’, is going through some of its biggest changes in years, with the Billboard charts more varied than possibly ever before. Some of the most well known songs in the country today range from lighter fare like Carly Rae Jepsen’s sugar-sweet “Call Me Maybe” to the handcrafted sound of Gotye’s ”Somebody I Used To Know”, a kind of track that for the most part has been missing in action. Meanwhile, artists like Adele and Justin Bieber share rarified air as being two current musical sensations despite having surprisingly little in common.
Sophie Stern, a songwriter who has written tracks for the likes of Britney Spears and is signed to super-producer Dr. Luke’s Prescription Songs, thinks that pop is “getting extreme in both directions. It’s definitely an interesting time seeing these directions exist so prominently at once,” she explains. Luke, who is credited with being at the forefront of modern pop music (he’s produced a multitude of tracks from Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” to Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been”), has a roster of writers, including Stern, dedicated to help create the next big pop hit. With over 20 number one singles and counting, it seems to be working.
But if a Dr. Luke song is pop and a Gotye song is pop, then what makes pop ‘pop’?
“I think it’s defined differently by everybody; it depends where you are in the world and who you surround yourself with,” explained David “Campa” Singer-Vine, who, along with Niles “Cyrano” Hollowell-Dhar, makes up The Cataracs, the multi-talented artistic team who are perhaps best known for masterminding last year’s “Like a G6,” one of biggest smashes of the past few years. “I think with a good pop song,” explains Hollowell-Dhar, “you walk away with a few elements that you’re able to understand and wrap your head around after one or two listens.”
Matt Squire, another superstar producer who started out producing pop-punk in the early 2000s, and is currently working with artists as varied as One Direction and Ke$ha, has a similar take: “What I like about pop is that there are no rules. I think there has to be something singable and something unique about it as well.”
Looking at the charts, one has to wonder when things started to morph to allow for artists like Ke$ha and Adele to share national prominence and fame. Hollowell-Dhar attributes this change to Lady Gaga, who released her debut album, The Fame, in 2008: “Here you have a woman who is not traditionally attractive, and is just a musical fucking beast. She does things like switch to the relative minor on a verse, then goes to a major on a chorus; it’s operatic pop music. In the beginning she was giving a big ‘fuck you’ to formulaic pop. People like Britney Spears didn’t know what to do. Artists were like, ‘Am I supposed to be edgy now?’ It led to someone like Adele who gives you hope; she shows you that good music is unbeatable.” Stern credits a shift in influence from songwriters to producers (such as Gaga’s go-to man RedOne): “Songs used to be more songwriter-based, but I think it’s way more about the producer now. Tracks are so heavy on production, and that’s what really matters today on the radio. Before it was about the full form of the song, with lyrics being more important.” Singer-Vine adds: “Some people forget Adele did something Amy Winehouse, one of the last great musicians, did, which was to get the producer Mark Ronson, who doesn’t even live in the same world as our whole American pop bubble.” The Cataracs themselves are the force behind newbie pop princess Dev (“In the Dark”).
Another major element that has crept into the Top 40 as of late is an influence of European Dance Music (EDM). Just taking a cursory listen to 2000-era tracks by Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears compared to today, one could see their transformation from bubblegum pop to something that could have originated in a club in Spain. “I think ultimately we are always seeking new sounds. EDM culture has introduced our ears to a wide array of them, so I find it exciting” explains Squire. Hollowell-Dhar, however, isn’t sure if pop is becoming more or less bubblegum as he sings the catchy chorus to Lopez’s 2011 hit “On the Floor”: “Dance music now is cool, and as an artist you gotta know what’s cool. Lopez has a strong presence, and at least when she puts out something like that she’s still her. For some artists, the crossover does not work.”
With a changing Top 40, what should the music industry (and listening public) expect for the future? “In two years, I honestly have no idea what pop will sound like,” says Stern. “People are hungry for real, soulful, heartfelt music seeing how much Adele has sold. When we grew up it was Fiona Apple and Sarah McLaughlin and all those power singers with a message; so we could see more of that.”
Notes Squire: “There are a bunch of new acts cropping up that have great sounds. Pop is beginning to embrace indie culture more and more; I think we’re gonna see hooks with a little more grit to them, and be a little less processed sounding. Calvin Harris’ “Feels So Close” was such a cool indicator; it’s computerized, organic, and a hybrid of styles. I kind of see production as fashion design: What does the singer look good in? Is red in season? What will look good in the fall? You try for that kind of thought process.”
The Cataracs, who are preparing for the July release of their new EP “Gordo Taqueria”, share the same sentiment. “What we’re running out of these days are personalities that can sit on a record and make it their own,” says Hollowell-Dhar, alluding to a perceived lack of originality in pop. “Pop songs are simple,” he observes, “but whatever goes into them is complicated. If it’s not simple then it’s not concise, and you didn’t do your job. It’s like answering a question; I could give the most sophisticated, brainy answer but if I don’t leave you with some kind of definition then we get nothing out of it. However, if I can leave you with something impactful, then it’s a simple assertion. Pop songs are an assertion, and should be a simple statement. The good stuff usually comes out quickly.”
But according to Singer-Vine, there’s no cause for panic. The ‘good stuff’ is forthcoming, and music, as he says,”is alive and kicking.”