Snap, Crackle, And The Ideology Of Pop #5

by Josh Jewell

Take a minute and think about the locations named in pop songs. So far in this column I have, perhaps somewhat reductively, portrayed pop’s conception of space as limited to the LA club. In fact, the charts are full of references to different places: Jay Z and Alicia Keys’s Empire State of Mind is a hymn to New York, Drake’s records are full of references to Toronto, Japan’s Honshu Island appears in Clean Bandit’s lyrics, back in 2004 INERNAL sung about a tour of European clubs in From Paris to Berlin, and further back in 1992 Right Said Fred boasted they were too sexy even for Milan. The vicarious world tour that these records take us on has led some to praise pop for having an indiscriminate global outlook. Pop represents a deracinated, cosmopolitan ethic, which embraces all people from all places and defines itself against xenophobic nationalism. So two gold stars for pop, then? Well, not exactly.

What most music consumers will take as the current number one single is the song that appears at the top of Spotify’s problematically named Global Top 50, which ranks songs by the number of times they are played, anywhere in the world. Another chart offered by Spotify is the UK Top 50, which is virtually indistinguishable from the Global Top 50. This suggests that the UK listenership dominates Spotify’s ‘Global’ demographic. A little research reveals that almost all of Spotify’s customers live in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The notion of a Global Top 50, then, becomes increasingly meaningless. What emerges instead might be more accurately named the Anglosphere Top 50 (I once made this suggestion to the Spotify Marketing Department but they never replied to my fax).

So the supposedly cosmopolitan brand of pop music that we have today is made largely by British and American artists, and marketed largely to British and American audiences. Like so many other global commodities, pop styles itself as universally attainable, and therefore radically democratic. Whether you live in Hollywood, Harare, Havana, or Hong Kong, you listen to the same version of Starboy or One Dance for the same price – you are bound to everyone else in the world who is performing the same act, and you are no better or worse than them. In a sense, the consumption of commodities which level the global community in this way have replaced prayer and religion.

But whilst pop may be universally attainable, it is not remotely universally communicative. As I discussed last time, pop is a viciously class-discriminatory ideology. When this ideology goes global, its glorification of consumer culture will be lost in translation, even if its English language isn’t. The lyrics of The Weeknd have less than nothing to say to most people from Delhi, Durban, or even Detroit. The worldly singers of pop who tell us that they have walked the streets of Paris, Tokyo, and Rio are hailed by some as forging a global community, but are in fact just wealthy Brits or Americans enfranchised to jet around the world, then sing of their travels to their overwhelmingly British and American listeners.

In this way, the ‘global’ commodity of pop has made the same promises as the ‘global’ economics of neoliberalism, the collapse of which we are living through today. At their most ambitious, pop and neoliberalism both offer utopian worldviews wherein even the poorest citizens of the poorest nations are spoken to and provided with opportunities hitherto unknown. The political and cultural moment through which we are living is evidence that these worldviews are childish fantasy. It’s about time that both neoliberalism and pop were exposed for what they really are – rich white people talking about Tommy Hilfiger and Coca Cola, while a starving mass watches on, incredulous.