If you happen to have perused any of the entries to PearShaped’s A View From The Top column, you’re probably already familiar with what pop music is. If you’re a casual listener of almost any radio station, you’re probably already familiar with what pop music is. If you’re a human being who lives on planet earth and has a working knowledge of the outside world, you’re probably already familiar with what pop music is. What you may not be so familiar with, however, is pop music of a more avant-garde calibre. The kind that many people would assume to be a total contradiction – experimental pop music.
In all fairness, a quick mental appraisal of all the pop music you’ve ever heard would likely lead you to the conclusion that it isn’t experimental at all – that, for all its charms, it’s the least boundary-pushing style of music there is. To some extent, you’d be right. Pop music is far from directly experimental. It doesn’t feature improvisation or unusual instrumentation, retains a highly formulaic structure, often goes for the most obvious melody, and is inextricably linked with aspirations of commercial success. Even so, experimentation is central to pop’s lifeblood.
Time and time again, the style has shown itself to have the capacity for extensive experimentation. Though it may not indulge in avant-garde approaches a great deal, it must experiment in order to thrive. When a genre becomes known for its accessibility and simplicity, it very quickly stagnates without a grander attitude of innovation and renewal. It may be less than perceptible within individual albums or back catalogues, but every now and then, the game is certainly changed. From The Beach Boys and The Beatles through to David Bowie, Kate Bush and Bjork, new ground is always being broken, popularised and worn down.
I’ve always been somewhat baffled by the role chance has to play in determining music’s status. The likes of Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin and N.W.A. have effectively cemented their place in history through their influence on others. They’re highly influential, and therefore great. Yet there are other artists who might’ve been equally revered, if it weren’t for the fact that nobody followed in their footsteps. Why should music be considered differently, simply according to whether its successors choose to build on the ground it broke or not? Whether it starts a musical revolution or never sells a single copy, the content and quality remains the same. To that end, here’s to the not-so-popular end of pop’s spectrum.
Young Fathers – White Men Are Black Men Too
Musical reinventions are pretty impressive, but perhaps it’s even more accomplished when a group jumps from one radically out-there style to the next. For fans of Young Fathers, the group’s switch from abrasive, frenetic hip-hop to minimalist, noisy pop music shouldn’t have been too hard to digest. Full of fractured melodies and dissected song structures, Young Fathers manage to put forth nearly everything wonderful about pop music whilst challenging the majority of its core features.
FKA Twigs – LP1
FKA Twigs is one of the most ground-breaking musicians to emerge in recent years, and one of the only ones I have genuinely witnessed critics fail to label. I could go into how utterly off-the-wall her works are, but there’s simply too much to talk about. Perhaps what’s most noteworthy about LP1, for the purposes of this article, is that the album was nominated for the Mercury Prize and a Grammy Award. The pop element of FKA Twigs’ music is definitely alive and kicking.
Cat’s Eyes – Treasure House
A classically trained soprano. Orchestral instrumentation. Timbres of surf rock, punk, neo-psychedelia and ambient music. Practically everything about Cat’s Eyes is unconventional. They’ve played at The Vatican and inside Buckingham Palace, the latter of which they blagged their way into, and their recently released sophomore record feels simultaneously vintage and futuristic. Doesn’t that sound like good pop music?
Anohni – Hopelessness
Drone Bomb Me. Execution. Crisis. Anohni’s songs seem pretty bleak for pop – not exactly Call Me Maybe. The content of Hopelessness, both lyrical and musical, is just as despondent. You may be tempted to impugn the idea that this is pop music, but upon listening, I think you’d have difficulty calling it anything else. Try to find this particular kind of power elsewhere.
Frank Ocean – Blonde
I couldn’t very well write this article without giving this one a mention. It’s too soon to tell exactly what sort of quality Blonde is, let alone whether it tops the oddball soul curveball Ocean threw back in 2012. But all you need to do is take a look at the liner notes and credits to guess what kind of record it is, and it seems like Blonde could be one that completely walks the line between commercial appeal and experimentation.