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  • Noyonika Dutta

The Pop Music Paradox

As someone who struggles with anxiety and peer pressure, I find solace in music. Music, for me, is a profound channel for self-expansion and emotional expression. Extending beyond random cravings, it has become an essential need: a potent art form that directly communicates with the human soul, working as a lifeline through highs and lows. 

Listening to music nowadays, particularly 'pop' music, has become rather mundane. The same familiar beats, sounds, and lyrics persist. Regardless of age, the themes of love, heartbreak, and revenge remain constant, never fading into obscurity. Don't get me wrong: love and heartbreak may be universal and essential, but the crux of the matter lies in how contemporary songs heavily instrumentalise and manipulate these themes to maximise views, streams, and revenue. Not only does the overuse fatigue the listener it also leaves no room for artistic expression, calling into question our understanding of what truly defines music as a whole. 

While the genre of pop aims to cater to mainstream tastes and generate revenue, this ambition can sometimes compromise artistic integrity, resulting in the paradox of balancing commercial success with artistic merit — of contending with universality and depth as opposites. If 'music' solely equates to songs about everlasting love and shattered hearts, I'll pass. 

The next generation struggles to connect with the current music scene, often due to the pervasive themes of love and intimacy, often presented in sexist contexts. They are put into play superficially, derogatorily. The landscape of 'pop' music has shifted from celebrating diversity to churning out repetitive, formulaic compositions devoid of depth.

Now, let me explain what I mean when I refer to pop music. The genre of ‘Pop Music’ — for the purposes of this discussion, in the 21st century — is deeply rooted in Western culture asserting its dominance by making its pop artists into a global phenomenon. However, within this celebration lies a paradox: contemporary youth often critique pop music for its perceived superficiality, arguing that it tends to fixate on mainstream themes while perpetuating cultural stereotypes across the globe. Take, for example, the tendency to pigeonhole Indian music into specific genre tropes reminiscent of Bollywood. Here, love ballads and item numbers reinforce stereotypes about romance and gender roles, while the lack of diversity fails to represent India's rich musical traditions adequately. 

Such oversimplification fosters a dismissive attitude, leading a global audience to wrongly assume that all Indian music mirrors the conventions of mainstream Bollywood productions. Similarly, consider the rising genre of K-pop, often subject to misconceptions fueled by sensationalist articles highlighting 'the dark side of K-pop’. Such narratives attempt to vilify the entire industry and its listeners, unfairly lumping an entire country's music scene into a single genre label. Derogatory tags like 'Hyper' or 'Koreaboo' are assigned to those who express an interest in K-pop, overlooking the global appeal of music, as evidenced by the widespread success of hits like Despacito, transcending language barriers effortlessly. (Didn’t see any language barrier there, did you?) 

The perspective reflected by these particular examples underscores a broader issue: fervent pop music enthusiasts often decry cultural stereotyping in the same breath as overlooking the rich diversity in non-English music, especially from Asian cultures.

Setting aside a discussion of stereotypes, it's important to acknowledge that there are songs across genres and cultures celebrating the capacity of music for diversity. However, the cultural dominance of the West, especially the United States, exacerbates and, arguably, feeds off of the marginalisation of non-Western musical genres. Western music, particularly tied to the English language, reigns as the most recognized and consumed genre globally, casting a shadow over the diverse expressions of non-Western music. Despite challenges faced by traditional music due to cultural specificity, themes like love and heartbreak remain universal, bridging cultural divides. Yet, it often seems that songs only gain the limelight if they implement the repetitive articulation of these themes, in the preferred (pedestalized) style of Western pop.

Even as diverse musical artists endeavour to carve out a niche for themselves in the industry, another profound issue looms: gender bias. Sexist and misogynistic songs, the tokenization of women at award shows, and prejudiced attitudes, all underscore the influence of patriarchal norms. In certain genres, especially that of the rather grand categorisation of ‘pop music’, songs often exhibit sexism and misogyny, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and prioritising appearance and appeal over artistic merit. This bias extends to crucial industry roles, where opportunities for women are often limited. Male artists garner large followings regardless of the quality of their music, whereas female artists and their fans often encounter dismissive attitudes. For instance, Billie Eilish's 2019 release of bad guy faced significant criticism, labelling the song as “fail[ing] to evade staleness with its overtly pop vibe”, while songs by male artists, and even the artists themselves, had (and continue to) often escaped scrutiny despite similar content. Similarly, Miley Cyrus's Wrecking Ball received criticism for nudity, whereas songs like Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, which normalises rape culture, are rarely ever discussed.

This is a bias rooted in sexism. Men and their music preferences are usually given an immediate stamp of approval, because if men like it, it has to be significant. On the contrary, female listeners and their preferences are dismissed as frivolous or juvenile. Throughout history, women have played a pivotal role in shaping the direction of music, and even revered artists like Taylor Swift and Adele (although quite different in their singing styles and the thematic pull for their audience) started by having a cult-like female following, which made them some of the most renowned artists of all time. It’s frustrating to see the music industry still being influenced by orthodox beliefs. If we assert that human society and its cultural norms are progressing towards equality, shouldn't the music industry undergo fundamental changes to align with this goal/claim? 

We do, however, encounter moments of joy when themes and artists representing a more diverse range of expressions find recognition, highlighting the need for a broader and more inclusive musical narrative.

The paradox within pop music serves as a poignant reminder of the imperative to tangibly and persistently shatter stereotypes and embrace diversity within the industry. Themes like love and heartbreak are universally relatable, but when they're overused and commercialised in pop music, it can make the genre seem superficial. It demeans them, contributing to an entire culture where to speak (sing) of love is ‘overdone’ or just not worth it anymore. Despite the popular appeal of and engagement with pop music, its success paradoxically encourages artists to conform to certain norms which ultimately stifle diversity and innovation. 

Music, as a universal language, transcends cultural boundaries, challenges norms, inspires change, and fosters unity among people, but the industry responsible for its production and distribution has to make space for this. Change is necessary, not only within the industry but also among us as listeners, to break free from this cycle. I'm not suggesting marching through cities or going on strikes, but rather expanding our musical horizons and supporting artists who resist conforming to generic themes. To prompt the industry to reflect and evolve, by listening to those who have already been trying to.

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