Ann Powers

Make Peace With Pop: 6 Songs That Prove Pop Gets Along With Everyone

These guys can get along. Why can't we? Kanye West (left) and Justin Vernon in 2010. i i

These guys can get along. Why can't we? Kanye West (left) and Justin Vernon in 2010. Walik Goshorn ./Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Walik Goshorn ./Corbis
These guys can get along. Why can't we? Kanye West (left) and Justin Vernon in 2010.

These guys can get along. Why can't we? Kanye West (left) and Justin Vernon in 2010.

Walik Goshorn ./Corbis

Nobody likes a good squabble better than a critic. Maybe that's why the same disputes keep surfacing, time and again, among those who analyze, enthuse about or obsess about particular corners of culture. In music writing, one such debate revolves around the question of whether pop — commercially dominant music, as distinguished from styles that have smaller audiences, like indie rock or underground hip-hop or jazz — deserves to be taken seriously. Just today that debate has been revived in an essay by the writer Saul Austerlitz declaring that music criticism has been damaged by the recent rise of "poptimism," an approach that, Austerlitz asserted, has glorified pop's banalities, causing critics to become less adventurous, ignoring better music that's not in the mainstream.

Austerlitz's argument immediately ignited defensive responses from writers who do like pop — including me. But after a few breaths, I realized that the biggest problem with this familiar critics' battle is that, for the millionth time, it overlooks how artists themselves treat music. Today, as throughout most of popular music's history, musicians have no time for the divisive thinking that even makes such theoretical sparring matches possible. There are no clean borders separating "indie" from "pop." Musicians tend to be open and interested in each other's work no matter what labels cling to them. Maybe we should all just chill out by grooving to this cover of R&B chart-topper Ciara's "Ride" by Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz — the very band Austerlitz holds up as an example of what stands apart from pop.

Let's put this silly argument aside and instead enjoy a few examples of how artists from every corner of music — picked by members of the NPR Music team, and there are hundreds more we could have listed — have transcended the categorizing tendencies that pull critics down. Poptimists or not, they can help us all remember that connection is what matters the most.

Six Songs That Prove Pop Gets Along With Everyone

  • The Matt Wilson Quartet, "If I Were A Boy"

    YouTube

    The New York-based jazz combo led by acclaimed drummer Wilson gives a loving reading to this 2010 Beyoncé hit, reminding us that jazz, an art form often considered elite, has always made room for some of pop's favorite things.

  • Ghost B.C., 'I'm A Marionette'

    YouTube

    Few musical style are as obsessed with purity as metal, whose denizens believe strongly in the force of well-executed forms. Yet this version of an ABBA song by that ultimate pop group's fellow Swedes Ghost B.C. shows that good bones are good bones, whether they're holding up a doom-metal anthem or a pop "trifle."

  • Ted Leo, 'Since You've Been Gone'

    YouTube

    Indie rock veteran Leo incorporated the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song, "Maps," into Kelly Clarkson's massive ode to self-empowerment, sweetly proving that downtown New York rock and American Idol-style anthems aren't so different after all.

  • A Tribe Called Quest, 'Can I Kick It'

    YouTube

    Nothing breaks down categorical walls with as much panache as a great hip-hop sample. In this immortal example from 1991, conscious hip-hop pioneers A Tribe Called Quest claim the riff from "A Walk on the Wild Side" — the Lou Reed song that helped make punk happen — and find its funkiness.

  • Eric Carmen, 'All By Myself'

    YouTube

    Classical music doesn't hover above pop on its own special cloud; it's served as source material for centuries. Consider this 1975 bubblegum masterpiece by Eric Carmen, its verses grounded in the second movement of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C. Minor.

  • One Direction, 'One Way Or Another (Teenage Kicks)'

    YouTube

    Even boy bands can cross the genre divide: The quintet currently ruling tweens' hearts gave them a power-punk history lesson with this boisterous blend of classics by Blondie and the Undertones.

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