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The Political Economy of Pop


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
August 8, 2005

When I was in high school in New Jersey, anything "underground" was in. I got my start in journalism writing for my high school's underground newspaper and I listened almost exclusively to underground radio. The only radio that I listened to that was not underground was about as aboveground as you get—WOR 710 on the AM dial. I did not listen to "Rambling with Grambling; instead with a transistor radio under my pillow, I absorbed Jean Shepherd, whose lack of discernable format was a pioneering effort in what was to become known as freeform radio.

The Jersey 'burbs were, and still are, home to many small colleges with small radio stations. One of those stations was WFMU, and while it is no longer affiliated with a college and it is in no sense small, it has not lost its edge. It is arguably the best freeform radio station in the world and it acknowledges its debt to Jean Shepherd with occasional rebroadcasts of his classic radio shows. While many of WFMU's shows sound like the sort of thing that me and my friends would have hacked together on an open-reel tape deck back in the Sixties, that makes sense considering that one of us, another Shep fan, served two stints as WFMU's station manager.

WFMU is one of a small group of radio stations that merits a slot in my Winamp radio station playlist. My adult reintroduction to the stations began a few years while I was driving down the Garden State Parkway and came across their Antique Phonograph Music Program, which plays truly acoustic recordings on wax cylinders and such like including novelty tunes that my father used to sing to me.

Then, several Fridays ago, it happened. I actually managed to get all my work for the week done by Friday evening and so I fired up Winamp for entertainment. This time WFMU wasn't playing music from my parent's youth, it was playing music from my own youth. And it wasn't playing the usual exotic public radio stuff, it was playing bright music, pop music, music with a hook that would lodge inside one's brain for days. I had discovered "Pseu's Thing With a Hook." Life has not been the same since.

"Pop music" was starting out as being short for "popular music," but it seems to have mutated into something else entirely, not that anyone agrees about what is or isn't pop. In fact, catchy music of the popular style, some call it the "pop idiom," seems much less popular than it used to be.

Like any other art form, pop music has numerous subgenres. At the high end is "power pop," much of which gets lumped in with alternative rock music, making it almost socially acceptable. At the low end is bubblegum—catchy, but mindless, pop music. And there is lots in between, like synthpop, which made it big in the Eighties when Roland and related synthesizers first became affordable and people thought drum machines sounded cool.

Catchy music itself, regardless of genre, is not a new thing. The typical Bach fugue is certainly catchy. The rise of opera was a key event in the popularization of music and Mozart was right there in the thick of things as popmeister prodigy. And you don't get much catchier than that immortal ringtone, the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth.

Respectability in the critical pop world comes from influencing others. The most influential pop band is The Beatles, a group that could be said to have transcended pop. (On the other hand, Paul McCartney, alone or with Wings, is very much pop, while Yoko Ono is not.) On the other extreme, the artist known as the "King of Pop" appears to have influenced virtually no one in the music world, though his main producer, Quincy Jones, has. 

Cole Porter, The Everly Brothers, The Beach Boys (Brian Wilson), The Velvet Underground (Lou Reed), Big Star (Alex Chilton), and The Byrds are recognized as being among the biggest pop influences. (I am sure I left someone really important out here, so please forgive me, though I do consider any group from The Ramones to the present to be too new to rate as a serious influence quite yet.)

The biggest problem that pop faces is that it is perceived as uncool. Indeed, uncool in the extreme. WFMU seems outright apologetic about airing Pseu's show and assures listeners that it is only a summer thing. (It is now in its second summer.) Pseu's most venial sin is that some of her playlist actually overlaps with the stuff they play on mainstream Clear Channel and Viacom radio. That is the sort of thing that can get you fired at an underground radio station. She played "Sentimental Lady" by Fleetwood Mac as an obvious ipecac substitute for anyone under thirty years old foolish enough to tune into her show. Only she knows why she plays John Mayer and Keane now that they've hit the big time. If she wants to go contemporary, "Popular" from Wicked (The Broadway Musical) works much better on so many levels.

The big thing that happened to pop is that somewhere along the way it discovered irony, which is particularly effective in love songs. I do not remember The Beatles singing any ironic love songs—they didn't have to. The Raspberries, Eric Carmen's group that has recently been resurrected by pop aficionados, made their name by creating blatantly racy pop love songs. Although The Raspberries were ahead of their time, a few years later Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me," would become the ultimate narcissistic pop love song. (Cheap Trick holds a special place in the pop world because it sang musically sophisticated and subversive songs and yet became extraordinarily popular as a top arena rock band of the late Seventies. Their way-clever hit "Surrender" is widely considered the best power-pop song of all time.) The present-day kings of subversive power pop, Fountains of Wayne, hit it big with "Stacy's Mom," a song that I am not about to explain here.

The revelation that comes from listening to Pseu's show is the enormous amount of high-quality pop music that the record industry has completely ignored. For each Fountains of Wayne that gets a major contract and becomes popular enough to subsist, there are hundreds of more-than-adequate pop bands toiling away at indie labels or worse. This is where political economy comes in. At the same time that the major labels and radio networks have homogenized and dulled-out mainstream music, the costs of recording, producing, and distributing music have plunged. If you've got $3,000 (less than the price of a high-end Mac) and work fast enough to do an album in two days, you can even get the legendary Steve Albini and his Chicago studio to record and mix your album. (Steve claims not to be a producer, so that part is up to you.) A less professional product that still sound acceptable can be produced for a lot less. As for distribution, that's why they have the Internet.

The problem with the Internet, of course, is that there is a lot of stuff out there and most of it is bad. Record labels and commercial radio stations are supposedly there to sort things out, but they seem to have forget how to. (There actually is software that you can feed digitized music to and it will give a salability rating like the one that Dick Clark had teenagers give to records back on American Bandstand.) College radio served this function for pop music in the Eighties, that's where groups like R.E.M., The Replacements, and many others started out, but at some point in the Nineties, pop seems have fallen out of favor with college stations.

The strange thing is the pop music could still be quite commercially viable because of the enormous numbers of baby boomers out there. I know that many of us, like my fellow New York Staters Bill and Hillary, are content to listen to old Fleetwood Mac tunes, but others would like to hear something new from time to time (and not just remastered Beatles records). There are even some Gen-Xers who like this stuff.

Pseu's WFMU show is a great introduction to what's coming out today as well as some welcome or unwelcome blasts from the past. (Archives and playlists for all of Pseu's past shows are available at While the older shows are only available in lo-fi mono, they still sound better than the best AM station did in the Sixties.) I was unaware, for example, that back in 1979 Queen had a song "Don't Stop Me Now," (from the August 6, 2004 show) which some quick research shows bombed when it was released. Apparently, a cult has formed around this song and it is even competes for play with their "We Will Rock You" at some (unspecified) sporting events. The hook from that song—the title words—have been stuck in my head for the past two days, so you are warned.

Two particularly good pop songs that I have discovered courtesy of Pseu are "Amazing Glow" by the Pernice Brothers and Dan Bryk's "She Doesn't Mean a Thing to Me Tonight." Both of these songs are from indie labels and although I don't listen to mainstream FM stations much, I listen enough to know that these are not being played. "Amazing Glow" (from the June 24, 2005 show) is a great, mellow summer pop song traditional-style love song that was recently released. "She Doesn't Mean a Thing to Me Tonight" (from the August 6, 2004 show) came out in 1995 and sounds like Jonathan Richman in a parallel universe where girls would go out with him. (Jonathan Richman was omitted for my influences list because he is arguably a bad influence who must share the blame for Ween and other whiny pop groups.)

What really makes Pseu's show work is that at least a semblance of thought and effort is put into selecting the songs and compiling them into playlists. If there is any downside to the show, it is Pseu's self-admitted babbling between sets, which I do not particularly mind because I grew up knowing people like Pseu. Still, she's a major improvement over the standard radio droid announcer or our local public radio omnipresent guru Alan Chartock, whose vocal stylings owe a lot to Jonathan Richman.

To wrap things up, it is worth noting that WFMU remains one of a handful of truly public and noncommercial radio stations. Unlike the typical NPR affiliate, it does not make promotional announcements, most of which sound like commercials to me. And, with the notable exception of "This American Life" (whose Ira Glass also acknowledges his debt to Jean Shepherd), there is little on NPR that one could call freeform. Pseu claims not to get any money for her show and I suspect that is standard practice at the station. WFMU may face challenges from every direction, including geosynchronous orbit, but it is a proven survivor that does what others cannot or will not do.

Next up: While certain documentary makers may do anything to be popular, Errol Morris, whose First Person series just came out on a 3-DVD set, has more than popularity on his mind.

Copyright 2005 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to