Pop Debate What is Good Pop Music?

Sven Regener, a singer, writer and leading figure of German Pop Music
Sven Regener, a singer, writer and leading figure of German Pop Music | Photo ⓒ Charlotte Goltermann

There’s no accounting for taste. At present this is again being abundantly proven by the question about what makes good pop music. Art for the sake of art, or pop for the masses?

The debate is older than the Beatles; even Elvis Presley had to contend with it: what does good pop music sound like? What makes good pop music, what are its criteria of evaluation? If in the 1950s and 60s people still condemned pop in principle as “Hottentot music” (Erich Honecker), or defended it as an art form of the young and the contemporary, in later decades the dispute has been carried on using more finely tuned standards of quality.

Turf wars of pop ideologies

It became a matter of, for example, the extent to which electronic sounds could be virtuosic and whether they met the criteria of rock’n’roll. After all, here it is machines that furnish the “artificial” tones. Can you be a genuine musician and only press buttons or wiggle in front of a laptop like a toy dog on the rear shelf of a car? Or the DJ question of the late eighties: Are they emcees of endless club nights, contemporary shamans, or merely disdainful playback devices for canned sounds? Meanwhile, older DJs, about the age of 40 and older, who keep faith with vinyl, have been loosing poisoned arrows in the direction of their mainly younger colleagues, who drone out pre-mixed standard sets per USB flash drive and removable hard disk while lifting their arms Jesus-like in the air, as does the French mega arena star David Guetta.

The Echo debate

Seen against this backdrop, the current ongoing dispute about the state of (commercially) successful pop music in Germany is a resuscitation of old cultural feuds. Background: in the spring of 2017, the TV comic Jan Böhmermann polemicized against “Echo”, the performance show of the domestic music industry, which, in his opinion, presented only shallow consensus music and bestowed dubious prizes on it as part of a shady gala event. The word “soulless consumer crap” fell in connection with the Echo music award, its artistic criteria and its organizers, not for the first time, but declaimed all the more vehemently on TV and YouTube channels.

“In Max Giesinger and company, German pop music has for years been obsessed with sailing a very big revival of the hit tune under false colours”, lectured Böhmermann on his ZDF special-interest show neo. For purposes of demonstration, he even had chimps “compose” a piece based on a Giesinger song. After this bold gag, he again waxed analytic: “Traipse around feelings, offer comfort, feign depth, reach and earn millions and all the while keep yourself free of politics and easily washable. That’ the sort of music which we knew before only from the post-war period.”

The start of the recent pop debate: Jan Böhmermann's feature on the Echo Award, source: zdf neo / Youtube

A few weeks later Hartwin Masuch, Managing Director of the music publishing division of the Bertelsmann Croup BMG Rights, stated in an interview with the newspaper Die Welt that German casting show careers mainly end in the beery open pubs of the Schinkenstraße in Mallorca. “It’s the big stars, who have shaped a time and a genre, who have staying power”, said the sixty-two-year-old boss of BMG. “This applies to the German New Wave as to Grönemeyer and Westernhagen. They still work today. No one talks any more about their many imitators!” So, on this view, we have to do rather with a crisis in contemporary marketing structures, which especially in the mainstream segment are determined by the laws of television broadcasters, whose young talent shows such as Deutschland sucht den Superstar (DSDS) (Germany Seeks the Superstar) have only a marginal influence on the sustainable development of musical quality.

Market and reality

Apart from these, and often under precarious and self-exploitative conditions, there exists a dazzling independent scene that can dish up everything, from avant-garde experiments to retro pop, which constitutes a highly differentiated music segment: a colourful variety ranging from hit songs to Black Metal. Who wants to determine here what is “good” and what “shallow” or even negligible? Sometimes the criteria get mixed up between economically measurable success and creative achievement even among critics. In the history of pop, there have always been rapid hits that were right and “good” for their time – for instance, the nihilistic Da Da Da by Trio, beeped out by a Casio pocket computer, or various hit tunes of the seventies such as Marianne Rosenberg’s Marleen, dismissed then as “hit parade rubbish” and recognized for their qualities only in retrospect.

The Hamburg-based electro-singer-songwriter Andreas Dorau, who as a teenager already had the naive-mischievous German New Wave hit Fred vom Jupiter (Fred from Jupiter) in 1981, gave the following explanation to the scene organ musikblog.de: “I don’t believe needs can be calculated. Unless you’re called Scooter; they do real Lego music and do it very well, I think. But if I were to do that, I’d find it stupid, and would only be all the more irritated if even it didn’t work. I write music in the first place for myself!” After nearly four decades in the independent scene, he writes self-ironic lines such as “I have a radio face, but my voice isn’t so good”, and at the same time clarifies his relationship to the calculating mainstream. “In this case, I simply had the word ‘radio face’ on a slip of paper, but didn’t know whether it wasn’t too slapstick and I’d be applauded in the wrong quarter, crazy-moderately [malle-mäßig. I get the North German slang, but must confess I’m not at all sure about this translation. What do you think?]. I try generally to write rather genre-free music.” And Sven Regener, writer, screenwriter and singer in the Berlin-based German Blues band Element of Crime, who is seldom at a loss for bon mots about the state of pop music, expresses himself laconically on the literary value of song texts in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung: “They’re not there for reading; they have to be heard!”

Good pop music? The Element Of Crime: Ein Hotdog am Hafen, source: Vertigo TV / Youtube

Good needs bad

A debate about good pop music will therefore end undecided. The nice thing about today’s globalized pop music is that, with every commercial product, it feels like ten others that evade the rules come with it. Everything is a question of perception and of interest in still unknown material. In the end it remains open whether, half a century after Sgt Pepper and forty years after the death of Elvis, pop still harbours enough possibilities of musical combination that young talents can really be independent. Been there, done that? Never mind; other sectors like the fashion industry show that you can live quite well with (and from) that. Besides, there will be new technologies, which will generate new sounds, styles and attitudes. After all, the legendary Technics record player MK 1200 was not invented in the seventies so as to be played backwards or to scratch. Good pop lives from skill, but also from resistance, from surprise and from megalomania. Probably it takes the banal to make pop grow beyond it – and to inspire satire, which plays with the trite to great effect.