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Pop For Skeptics #3: Have Pop Stars Killed the Rock Star?

That rock snobs see pop as bland and boring is one of the most mind-boggling mysteries of our time. Sure, the stereotype has some basis; historically, pop music has played it safe. It’s been the kind of entertainment that could babysit little kids while their parents watched Basic Instinct in the next room. Pop is known as the wholesome, family-friendly alternative to rock music, which has always enjoyed a tawdry reputation. Where pop exalted true love, rock exalted bed-hopping; where pop encouraged moderation, rock reveled in excess. It’s a holy binary that has existed since rock’s birth in the ’50s.

But in the past decade, it seems rock and pop have reversed roles. We could attribute the shift to the number of pop star aspirants, which has multiplied astronomically — thanks to reality TV, the death throes of the major labels, etc. A lot more people are competing for the attention of the same audience, and when traditional pop tropes failed to get attention, shock and awe have done the trick.

Think about how rock ‘n’ roll late-career Britney Spears has been: after she stunned the world in 2007 by shaving her head, getting a tattoo, and attacking a car with an umbrella, all eyes were on her. Her handlers, savvy as they were, continued marketing her as a pop star all the same, but we noticed not everything was the same: Her later material was engineered to promote the narrative of her life post-mental breakdown, with albums titled Blackout and Circus. Although she isn’t singularly responsible for pop’s embrace of the risqué, she and her team concocted a recipe that sold so well that the emergence of Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Nicki Minaj, and other performers who use shock and awe as a disruptive business model was simply inevitable.

While this was happening, rock was settling into complacency. Legacy acts like U2, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and The Rolling Stones found that their major marketing cachet was with fans who had been with them since their heyday, and so they kept making music that sounded no different than what they were peddling decades earlier — because it would sell. Meanwhile, indie-rock upstarts were following a different path, but one that was equally sedate — their aesthetic was austere and their music was acoustic mumblecore, with occasional orchestral accents. Rock had found a reliable market and kept making music that appealed to those fans — and those fans only.

As a result of both these developments, it’s pop stars who we expect to challenge and thrill us, not rockers. Now, when we tune in to any music awards telecast, we look forward to what a pop star like Lady Gaga might do but expect nothing more than T-shirt-and-jeans bellowing when Foo Fighters take the stage. This is the state of the pop-rock dichotomy in 2012: One genre is spritely and fun; the other is lifeless and monotonous. It isn’t that pop has sucked the life from rock — it’s that pop is finally realizing its greater potential to truly challenge us.

Pop music is basically a mirror held up to humanity, in all our various colors and backgrounds and genders and sexual orientations. It’s a reflection of what we feel and how we synthesize information. It’s a referendum on what everybody’s going through. Rock, by contrast, takes into account the sensitivities of a much smaller and less diverse portion of the population — traditionally, white, heterosexual men. Although it has the power to shake up this group’s sensibilities, lately it’s chosen simply to reinforce them. Meanwhile, as the mainstream music industry started fighting for its life, the astronomical number of aspiring pop stars was enough to force that genre to become one big battle for who could shock us the most, thereby earning our brief but undivided attention. At the same time, as taste barriers are breaking down and music is increasingly globalized, pop and rock are increasingly competing for the same audience — and pop already has shaved-head Britney and all her acolytes pushing it forward.

Notably, pop takes risks in three particular ways: It wears its heart on its sleeve, and frequently that means serving vulnerable sad-ballads that are so raw they leave you a crying mess. It’s also willing to unapologetically revel in excess and error, the way rock once did, through trashy dance-floor stompers. But maybe the the most surprising risk that pop has taken in recent years is embracing a goth sensibility, once native to rock. The result is a sort of apocalypto-pop — music that abandons pop’s typical happy-go-lucky nature in favor of exploring darker territory.

Emotional rawness

One of rock’s biggest missed opportunities is the searing ballad. In the late ’90s, the world fell in love with Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” and a raft of similar-sounding epic, desperate, romantic ballads — all offered up by rock singers. They were not terrible, but at the same time, they didn’t feel vulnerable or honest enough. It’s here that pop takes risks with a type of song that is usually a safe bet. Pop ballads don’t shy from being theatrical and overwrought, and this is truest now, when we can be sitting in a crowded subway train when Adele’s “Someone Like You” comes on our iPod and suddenly we’re sobbing hysterically. This is catharsis.

Almost 15 years since “Iris,” there really hasn’t been much rock music — independent or major-label — that has made me feel the way Paloma Faith has with “Picking Up the Pieces.”

A sweeping ballad underpinned with well-paced dance beats, it appeals to the same emotions as Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Although it may not break open any sonic frontiers, factor in the fashion and art direction, and the complete audiovisual experience of “Picking Up the Pieces” is deliciously overwhelming. It’s at once gaudy and primal, invoking feeling while remaining left-field enough to avoid Adele comparisons. That need to be original is exactly what pushes it into risky territory.

The ability to invoke the frustration and heartbreak of unrequited love is one of pop’s signatures — it’s a trait that rock only presents with a patina of aggressive machismo. What’s detestable about that aggression is that it’s even phonier than any of the flourishes that come with pop; it’s contrived and transparent. Unrequited love songs are all about whining, but with grandeur that elevates it above the posturing of countless sound-alike emo acts. This is why we love Faith’s candor in “Pieces,” and it’s why I think back to one of last year’s well-kept secrets — Monarchy and Britt Love’s “You Don’t Want to Dance With Me” — so often. Its version of longing makes us uncomfortable, the tone verging on needy and clingy, which is what makes it so stellar.

Even Calvin Harris — well-known now for the bombast he loaned Rihanna on “We Found Love” — is capable of this kind of earnestness. All it takes is him singing the lines, “I feel so close to you right now / It’s a force field / I wear my heart upon my sleeve, like a big deal / Your love pours down on me, surrounds me like a waterfall / And there’s no stopping us right now / I feel so close to you right now,” and we find ourselves swooning. We find ourselves needing to get fanned. Harris isn’t even that great of a vocalist, but what he lacks in one craft, he more than compensates with another: His melodies and beats manage to construct that same sense of longing and neediness that the aforementioned performers do. He does with “Feels So Close” what Madonna has been trying to do since Ray of Light in 1998 — make dance music emotional. There haven’t been any great rock ballads in a long, great while, but pop has continued chugging away, offering up portraits of desire that make us wince but recognize.

Reveling in excess

Ballads aside, the last thing I want to do is pigeonhole pop as a club for sad sacks (leave that to rock, too). In fact, an intriguing sea change is happening with pop songs in the vein of Ke$ha’s “Sleazy.” Narratives about staying out too late, abusing drugs and alcohol, and acting irresponsibly are being co-opted from rock by pop, with delightful results. Like Paris Hilton’s “Drunk Text”:

When I was a kid, it was rock that explored the kinds of “dangerous themes” that “Drunk Text” does — Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” for example, is a classic of rock ‘n’ roll excess. But that band’s contemporary counterparts entirely lack that kind of risky decadence.

Another song that puts the mopey mumblecore rock of today to shame is the J.C. Chasez-from-NSYNC-penned “FML x2,” performed by Kristina Maria. It’s very much in the same vein as “Drunk Text”: It’s about drinking well beyond your limit, making a bunch of terrible life decisions, and managing to have a lot of fun along the way.

It’s basically a rock song disguised as a pop song. But maybe it’s the most symbolic of the shift that’s happened, in which pop is now blazing the trail for rock: a boy-band alum is now penning music for a Canadian pop tart that befits a rock group. Neither “Drunk Text” or “FML x2″ are spectacular, but they are proof that unless rock mans up — so to speak — it’s going to become a province occupied by nostalgia acts more interested in striking old poses than in messy self-expression.

Getting dark

While we might have predicted rock would lose its lovelorn ballads and Dionysian anthems to pop, we assumed that they’d be able to keep their edgiest asset in check: bleak music made to foretell dystopia. There was an entire black-clad movement in the late ’90s, with everyone from Marilyn Manson to Korn deriving material from the doomsday aesthetic. But cooler heads prevailed in rock and, alas, even that avenue of risk now falls outside of the genre’s parameters. And pop, in its haste to pursue every method of shock and awe, has appropriated it. We’ll call this new style apocalypto-pop.

One rock band that rose to fame on the back of crunchy, end-of-the-world styling was Garbage. But soon, they’d end up getting pushed out to pop. Perhaps it was because they flirted with the genre on the electronic music-infused Version 2.0 and then settled into a long-term relationship with it on beautifulgarbage. This is probably for the best, because it gave them incredible longevity. It also gave them the footing to mount a comeback with recent single “Blood For Poppies”:

“Blood For Poppies” finds Garbage channeling a trifecta of goth, glamor, and camp — in a way that would probably appeal more to Lady Gaga’s fans than Bon Iver’s. It has touches of vintage Garbage, maybe even a vague nod to riot grrrl, but it’s all steeped in a pop context that unites style and substance.

But as far as Garbage pushes it (see what I did there?), I feel that even they’re playing it a little safe with “Poppies,” and in trying to define “apocalypto-pop,” Norweigian pop singer Samsaya’s current single “Breaking Bad” seems an even better example. It is a beast of a pop song. It’s dark, cold, and jittery. It embodies the kind of unprettiness we want rock to document. It unnerves.

This word, “unnerves,” is important. When you get down to it, that’s what’s separating pop from rock: the former has more power to make us feel unnerved these days — whether through tropes of unrequited love, Dionysian shenanigans, or a willingness to embrace darkness. Rock, on the other hand, is stupidly easy these days. It’s now being made to order, with very little experimentation and room for failure. There’s a Cinderella story in fun.’s incredible ascent from struggling band to breakthrough superstars, but there’s also a tale of a rock band that didn’t want to take risks and instead commissioned a hipster-friendly collaboration and a dance-floor-friendly remix. They couldn’t bring authentic verve to the music on their own merits and needed to outsource it.

Perhaps it isn’t entirely the fault of the rock music industry that what is popular in that genre is ear-stabbingly dull. Perhaps pop’s enduring success will give rock the impetus it needs to become weird again. Or, hey, perhaps the industry will realize what the rest of the world has: If a band like Train is saving rock, then maybe rock deserves to perish.

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