The other day, I received a note from an acquaintance of mine — Joshua Bloom — letting me know that he, along with Gary Levitt and Erica Quitzow, had written a song in the hopes of getting Katy Perry to cover it. I haven't really listened to Perry, but am aware that she had a huge hit with "I Kissed a Girl," that she looks faintly like actress/songstress Zooey Deschanel, and that she's gargantuan — but only in the figurative, non-bodied way.
Listen to the song "Cancel My Subscription."
As sung by Josh Bloom:
As sung by Erica Quitzow:
Even with nothing more than a fleeting awareness of Perry, I was drawn to Bloom's song. It has a chorus that presents love and relationships as analogous to a subscription, something into which we buy. And once we've grown tired of our paramour — that's right! — we cancel the subscription. There is, of course, the other subtext that each person, like a magazine, comes with a set of issues. Lastly, and this might be more of a stretch, but for someone like Perry, who's ostensibly dealing with the press and tabloids, perhaps the song is also a statement about no longer caring what's being said about her. Ta da! Clever and multi-layered, but not too complicated.
I don't know if I would be as generous to "Cancel My Subscription" if Bloom hadn't qualified it as being written for Perry. But should there be different standards for Top 40 songs, for ones that aim for universal popularity and thus risk a concomitant banality? Maybe these different standards for pop songs allow listeners to expand — albeit momentarily — their musical tastes without having the detour permanently mar their record as fans of more "legitimate" genres. By deeming pop music a "guilty pleasure," the enjoyment seems as ephemeral as an after-dinner sorbet. Come to think of it, deviating briefly into Top 40 is more akin to stopping at Taco Bell on the way home from a fancy meal wherein you didn't get enough to eat.
Of course, in some cases, popularity and legitimate quality do collide. Let's forget about the '60s and '70s for a moment, when what was on the airwaves and what was popular seemed — at least to those of us who weren't there — to be one in the same (though this isn't entirely true, as any AM Gold station can attest). Many of us remember the surreal moments, becoming more common now that records aren't really selling at all, when Nirvana, Franz Ferdinand, Modest Mouse and OutKast had some of the biggest songs in the world. When these artists rub elbows on the charts with Miley Cyrus, is it an anomaly, a crack in the system or merely luck?
Another interesting pop phenomenon comes when a band with little or no Top 40 muscle infiltrates the charts. Like The Flaming Lips' "She Don't Use Jelly," or The Smithereens' "A Girl Like You," or The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go," or "Run-Around" by Blues Traveler (sorry, I know you'll have that harmonica riff in your head all day). I'm not sure if these instances say more about the band's music or the time in which they're writing. I suppose what I find most fascinating about these examples is that they forever change a band's legacy. Some will only know the band by its one hit song, who will believe that OutKast begins and ends with "Hey Ya." And the hit itself becomes a line on which fans gather on either side, divvying themselves up into pre- and post-"Longview" Green Day fans and pre- and post-"Float On" Modest Mouse fans, dividing lines meant to distinguish "true fans" from the much-maligned musical tourists.
Perhaps the trappings of popularity and of one-hit-wonderdom are why we give a wider berth to those whose only aim is to exist in that realm. It's why we judge a Top 40 pop song by one set of standards and all other music by a different set. After all, if we admitted to ourselves that the saccharine sounds were as crucial to our lives as the sour, then we'd have to risk coming down from the high.
How do you judge pop songs? And what are your opinions of the hit songs by artists who don't usually churn out Top 40 hits? Are those songs as good as the artists' other tunes? Better? Worse? Or is it all same?