The Pretensions of Pop

Dan Fox in Guernica:

Popstar-final-minTry describing a few of the most wildly successful pop albums of the twentieth century without mentioning the artist and title. A concept rock album about a fictional Edwardian military band, featuring musical styles borrowed from Indian classical music, vaudeville, and musique concrète, its sleeve design including images of Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Marilyn Monroe, Carl Gustav Jung, Sir Robert Peel, Marlene Dietrich, and Aleister Crowley? That’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bandby The Beatles, one of the biggest selling records of all time. How about a record exploring the perception of time, mental illness, and alterity? Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, which has to date sold around 45 million copies worldwide. Ask any of those 45 million who bought a copy of The Dark Side of the Moon if they thought themselves pretentious for listening to an album described by one of the band members as “an expression of political, philosophical, humanitarian empathy,” and the answer would almost certainly be no. Queuing for the bag check at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, I once overheard a young man complain bitterly to his girlfriend, “I hate modern art. I hate all that Picasso two eyes on the same side of a blue face shit.” “What do you like then?” asked the girlfriend. “I like putting on my headphones, turning out the lights, and listening to Pink Floyd.” Popularity ratifies cultural authenticity; if it’s popular, it surely can’t be pretentious.

Pop music has never asked anyone for permission to be pretentious. It has joyfully complicated the terms of pretension, which is built into pop’s DNA, even when it shouts loudest about its authenticity. Flashback to Brian Eno, who in his 1996 diary, published as A Year with Swollen Appendices, describes how he “decided to turn the word ‘pretentious’ into a compliment.

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