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Pop Doesn’t Suck, You’re Just Listening to the Wrong Stuff

Y’know what I’m sick of hearing from guitarists? “Man, pop music sucks—it’s not like the good ol’ days.”

Y’know what I’m sick of hearing from guitarists? “Man, pop music sucks—it’s not like the good ol’ days.”

I know it’s not a majority of us (thankfully), but it’s enough to make you want to periodically shriek.

The selective rememberers who say crap like this inevitably lament mythical bygone years when pop bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys—the ones that were “real” musicians—apparently played 24/7 on every radio station. If they’re not too young to have been there, they either conveniently forget or have lost too many brain cells to remember that Engelbert Humperdinck, Tiny Tim, the Association, Captain & Tennille, and Rupert Holmes—the lovely gent who gave us “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”—raked in plenty of royalty checks during the supposedly amazing ’60s and ’70s, too.

To save a little face and show how open-minded they are, these same musical bigots/flat-earthers might be so bold as to admit they (now) like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” or maybe “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield. (“At least those tunes had a little guitar in ’em, y’know what I’m sayin’?” ’Cause if they didn’t, that wouldn’t be manly … or something.) If they’re slightly more up-to-date, they might even cop to being able to listen to, say, a little Pink—but there again, is it really just because she has a badass guitarist by the name of Justin Derrico?

Let’s just admit it: It’s not about pop or any “good ol’ days”—there always has been and always will be the same basic ratio of detritus to genius (with a middling majority) in human-produced audio compositions. So if you’re one of those who feels compelled to slam everything past a certain date, everything that comes out of the mouths, brains, and bodies of those who don’t look like your particular musical heroes, or everything that doesn’t live up to your canonized definitions of radass guitar tone and thundering drums, just summon the intestinal fortitude to say, “I can’t stand drum machines.” Or “I only listen to guitar tones that bear the blessed all-tube ‘brown sound.’” Or “Any tune in my ears has gotta have at least one wailing minor-pentatonic solo.”

Otherwise, just start listening to stuff that’s outside your comfort zone. Yeah, it’s going to take some effort and some getting used to, but there is so much cool music out there. A lot of it is going to be stuff you just stumble upon, maybe while you’re at the grocery store or enduring a commercial on YouTube. (Helpful hint: Get a smartphone app like Shazam that can listen to the tunes, tell you who they’re by, and even help you purchase them.) Or maybe your significant other shares your iTunes account and puts something on there that starts playing unexpectedly when you’ve got it on random play—and then, boom, you’re caught unawares and hooked.

Edd Gibson uses his Fender Mustang to weave deliciously twangy lines between the multifaceted synth parts and irresistible dance grooves of Friendly Fires’ “Lovesick” in this YouTube-hosted clip of a gig at the 2009 Reading Festival.

This last scenario happened to me as I was typing this screed. Months ago, my wife downloaded an album by a British trio called Friendly Fires, and their tune “Lovesick” came on for the first time that I can recall as we were about to send this issue to press. It’s chock-full of synth pads, funky clavinet, Nintendo-style 8-bit blips, hand claps, fantastic singing, and an eminently danceable groove from (gasp!) some evil electronic contraption. Intertwined with it all are ingenious, taut-toned guitar parts—twangy lower-register riffs, glissando licks sliding up the neck, tick-tock-ing palm mutes, and rattlesnake-like atmospherics—that add a delectable organic touch to the pop glitz. The lines are so good I immediately googled the band to see who the guitarist is (it’s Edd Gibson).

But this example almost undermines my argument—because guess what? A song doesn’t have to have guitar to kick your ass. Check out something by the Presets, Shiny Toy Guns, Ladytron, DeVotchka, or a bazillion others to see what I mean. You don’t have to give up anything you love—you can still idolize Zakk Wylde or Satriani or SRV. Just add to it. Let the glorious variety of innumerable different consciousnesses and sensibilities—including unabashed pop freaks—enrich your being … and your own music.

Shawn Hammond