GOOD
Articles

Ben Hales on Music

Ben Hales on Pop Music.


I am tremendously old, I admit it. Too old, you might think, to work in my chosen field, pop music, the quintessential young person's game. I was 33 in February, yet this March saw the release of a brand-new album of pop music by Aqualung, which I co-produced and for which I wrote some songs. How is this possible? Did I use a fake ID to get past the Pop Police? Did I gnaw through the pop-wire with the last of my decrepit teeth1? No, I rode in quite legitimately on a cloud of pop passion that lives on inside me, as buoyant and glittery today as when it was born, 25 years ago, the moment I put the needle down on my mom's copy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.Now, of course, everybody recognizes that Sgt. Pepper's is a seminal album. It may even be the genesis of the Serious Pop Album as I understand it (Some like to say In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra was really the first, and they have a point, but by the time he made it, he was no longer a proper pop artist). But I'm starting to wonder if, in the way my parents' generation lived through an anomalous period of peace and prosperity, my generation will have been the only one for whom Serious Pop Albums have any meaning.Since that period in the mid-'60s when the Beatles and the Beach Boys pushed each other to put more good songs on their records, musicians began to spend increasing amounts of time and money making their albums into artistic statements; soon, like all long-format art forms, Serious Pop Albums became the standard measure of cultural significance, bulldozing the frivolous "single" and bloating up into ponderous arena-sized behemoths.That was the time when pop hit puberty, read some bad books, had some bad sex, and called itself rock. Bands started commissioning paintings of verdant bongtopias for their album covers rather than using a cheesy picture of themselves wearing nice jackets. Luckily, many artists remained unconcerned about this development and carried on regardless making Proper Pop Albums (or Un-Serious Albums: hamfisted collections of singles, fillers, and contractual obligations designed to extort money from young people) from the Partridge Family to Prince, from New Order to New Kids, from Bread to Britney.The classic Proper Pop Album shouldn't have more than three songs on it you want to listen to, as with Hunting High and Low by A-ha, and a Timeless Classic should really only have one, as with Nightflight to Venus by Boney M. You know an artist is truly pop because you only have one of his or her records, and it's the Greatest Hits.This is why pop will have the last laugh, because music distribution is reverting to its pre-rock, short-form heyday. There's no triple gatefold on iTunes, man. It's just hit after hit after hit. Who has time to wade through "Quicksand" off Hunky Dory, or "Saturn" off Songs in the Key of Life when you can skip straight from "Life on Mars" to "I Wish"? And given the choice, who would want to?On the other hand, what kind of fool would devote painstaking weeks and months to create an hour-long selection of music he knows no one will listen to more than once? Isn't it just rock-style self-indulgence to demand it of the audience? Why not just release the best bits and save everyone a bit of time?My brother, the artist known as Aqualung, likes to say that you read all the chapters in a novel, and watch all the scenes in a movie; but that doesn't really address the heart of the matter. Songs are rarely only children. They tend to be spawned in little groups, clustered close together in a corner of your mind or moment in your life. There are songwriting seasons, and each years' litter will bear its own brand. I think an artist knows when an album has begun and when it has ended. And fair enough, as the listener, you might never want to listen to Track 5, but without Track 5 there would never have been Track 3, which goes straight to the top of your playlist.The album as a physical artifact is undoubtedly going to disappear. In two years' time when the river quickens, the berries hang heavy from the boughs, and Aqualung is in songwriting heat again, we probably won't be putting our songs onto shiny discs anymore, but you can bet there will still be a long-form thought process behind the songs you finally hear.Pop music is for you. You should be able to choose to hear nothing but the songs you love. You don't owe the artists anything. Enjoy yourself. But if you young folks are interested in the whole story, and all the human drama of hope, success, love, failure, tragedy, triumph, and disaster behind the songs you love, you'll have to listen to the album.
Trending Stories