Seize the moment: the appeal of pop music

Everyone knows the old arguments: classical music is written for posterity, pop is ‘here today, gone tomorrow;’ classical music has greater longevity, pop evaporates when the fad passes; classical has more cerebral appeal, pop speaks to the heart but the heart moves on.

Was posterity a consideration when Vivaldi was working at the Ospedale della Pietà, or when Mozart was writing his symphonies in the eighteenth century ? His piano concerti, which he himself played and for which he often improvised suitably dazzling cadenzas: were they written with future fame in mind ? Did Bach envisage his music lasting for hundreds of years when he was recycling instrumental works for the Sunday services each week as Kapellmeister ?

The answer to these is, probably not; Bach was writing as part of his job requirements, a salaried post; Mozart was writing to commision, to keep himself afloat and cope with his gambling. Posterity was less important than the next pay-cheque.

Pop music, as its title suggests, is written to appeal: to be ‘popular.’ It does so – at least, when it’s doing its job successfully – by capturing something of the moment, hooking into the zeitgeist and turning something of the prevailing moment into music. Pop music, like fashion, has phases, and its music appears in response to them, fading when the phase passes and is replaced by something else perhaps equally as short-lived, but nonetheless vibrant.

It’s perhaps unfair, though, to hold this against pop music, to use it as a criticism, or to cite it as a reason for its inferiority compared with classical music. Pop music’s strength lies, like that of jazz, in its very ability to re-invent itself to respond to the surrounding cultural climate, to shed its skin one moment and clothe itself in the Emperor’s New Fashion for a few brief but dazzling moments.

The mammoth strivings of Mahler, locked in his little lakeside hut in Steinbach, to write his epic symphonies are all well and worthy, but it can be just as difficult to write a successful pop song. As the poet Simon Armitage points out in a a slightly different context in All Points North, writing is a solitary task; and Stravinsky said there was nothing more daunting than sitting down in front of a blank piece of paper. Like writing poetry, writing music is a difficult task – whether it’s classical or pop. Whether you are Cathy Dennis writing for pop princess Kylie Minogue or George Benjamin, it’s a challenge whichever sphere in which you’re composing. There’s room for both.

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