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Whatever happened to mainstream pop?

With iPods, satellite radio, popular music getting more specialized
/ Source: contributor

Heard the new Gavin DeGraw single yet? Fall Out Boy? How about the Pussycat Dolls?

At the moment, these emerging artists are the proud owners of some of the country’s most popular songs. If you don’t recognize any of those names, don’t beat yourself up for being hopelessly out of touch. Chances are your neighbor doesn’t know them, either.

And if you’re familiar with one, it’s a solid bet you haven’t stumbled on the others. They inhabit three distinct universes — pop sincerity, pop-punk and pop confection, in that order.

True, each of those worlds collide at the mall. But then they quickly go their separate ways: One ducks into Hot Topic, while the others make beelines for Express or Abercrombie & Fitch.

Like every other corner of the marketplace — from cable TV to breakfast cereals — the pop music planet has imploded into countless little fragments filling countless little niches. With dizzying technological advances and ever more narrowly conceived channels of distribution, consumers are learning the fine art of discrimination. 

For better or worse, it spells the erosion of our shared culture.

From the advent of radio, the whole country heard the same songs. 

Whether it was “Chattanooga Choo Choo” or “Love Train,” most listeners recognized most of the hits of the day. But radio, driven by demographics and advertising, grew increasingly compartmentalized. 

Top 40 all but obsoleteThe Top 40 became all but obsolete as a programming format of its own, preserved only as an unappetizing smorgasbord hosted by Ryan Seacrest, lumping together booty-shaking Jell-o, redneck meat and potatoes and power-ballad lard.

Now, suddenly, old-fashioned radio itself is threatened with extinction. From the ubiquitous MP3 players to the surging medium of satellite radio, the listener is building a virtual fortress according to his or her own tastes — all emo with a secret penchant for Billy Joel, say, or Selena, reggaeton and Nancy Sinatra.

Who do we think we are? Increasingly, the answer to that question is coded in our playlists. I have the soundtrack to my life, and you have yours. What’s that? Can’t hear you — I’m cranking “Get Off My Cloud.”

If Mariah Carey sings her smash single “We Belong Together” on next month’s Grammy Awards telecast, or Kanye West performs “Gold Digger,” plenty of viewers will be hearing those very successful songs for the first time. By contrast, it’s hard to imagine an American who hadn’t heard “Bette Davis Eyes” by the time that pervasive ditty won 1981’s Song of the Year.

Undoubtedly, there will always be crossover hits — those select songs, be they maddeningly inescapable novelties or honest-to- goodness instant classics, that get fixed in the collective consciousness. A few years back, for instance, every rapper seemed to be professing his love for Coldplay. But in the age of bottomless individual choice, that kind of convergence will happen more and more infrequently.

Looking for cross-over hit? Do a commercialThat’s why bands bent on world domination, like Green Day and U2, agree to do commercials, perform on New Year’s Eve and lobby for NFL halftime shows. For them, having another hit song is really just preaching to a few million of the converted. Immortality, or the illusion of it, means foisting yourself by any means necessary onto the other six billion or so.

So should we lament the passing of the pop mainstream? Should we all sing a chorus of “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye” to the outdated era of lowest-common-denominator entertainment? If there’s any way to sidestep the next “Rhinestone Cowboy” or “Who Let the Dogs Out,” wouldn’t that be a small victory for cultural refinement?

Or would it? As it stands, far too many of us find it far too easy to dismiss entire genres of music out of hand — all hip hop, for instance, or all country music. No style of music is inherently bad; it just takes some effort to sort the good examples from the, ah, less good.

With our aptly named iPods, we’re coccooning ourselves from the world around us. Those of us who don’t think we care for hip hop, or country, or dancehall or neoglam or futuristic cheerleader pop, can tune it out more effectively than ever before. Sadly, we’re already frightfully good at ignoring each other as it is.

James Sullivan lives in Massachusetts and is a regular contributor to