Everything made sense until the Beatles broke up. Rock's audience expanded explosively at precisely the same time the music lost its popular and aesthetic center. The Beatles had demonstrated that what was popular could be art; in their wake, some artists decided to see whether art could be pop. It could, but sometimes (or more often than sometimes) the rock audience didn't do its part and actually buy the stuff. This created the interesting tension that distorts the concept of the word pop to this day.
Try it: Pop, pop, “pop.” POP! As a term, it's certainly one of the most abused innocents of our time. When it's used straightforwardly, there's a hint of condescension; when it's used self-consciously, it's more than a bit pretentious. Silly U2 hopefully called its last album POP, only to see it stiff artistically and commercially. Does pop exist anymore, really? Can it?
Let's try to sort this out. Pop, classically, is short for popular music; in the rock era, its parameters have been slightly attenuated to where it's an umbrella term for simple and unaffected music generally dealing with some sort of heightened upbeat emotion. Early John Lennon material is pop; all of Paul McCartney's is. It's listened to by kids and assiduously produced by an enthusiastic and mischievous industry for further profit. It is sometimes natural and sometimes contrived, but the question of authenticity almost never has anything to do with either the actual quality of the product or the pleasure it gives its audience. Pop in the rock era can be sublime (“I Saw Her Standing There”), bathetic (“You Light Up My Life”), loopy but entrancing (“Last Train to Clarksville”), nonsensical but dynamic (“Stayin' Alive”).
A lot of the features of Beatles pop were present in this new, somewhat different post-Beatles music: hooks galore, a certain lift in the melody, and a certain innocence in the playing or delivery. To me, the common denominator is emotional investment. You have to care about something: a boy. A girl. The boogie. Something. A song could have dark undertones, of course, but there was supposed to be something light in the final product. The genre started perhaps with Alex Chilton's Big Star, blossomed in the great early '70s era of one-hit wonders (“Brandy” by Looking Glass, “Love Grows [Where My Rosemary Goes]” by Edison Lighthouse), and then evolved through all manner of pre-alternative and alternative bands, until it became an uncertain badge: Critics might refer to Paul Westerberg's massive pop smarts (you know, the ones that were going to make him a star), or Matthew Sweet's effortless ability to craft great pop hooks (you know, the ones that were going to make him a star). I call this kind of self-conscious pop “pop.”
And “pop” is what Rhino's new three-disc collection Poptopia! is about. The subset here is power “pop,” and the name is borrowed from L.A.'s annual Poptopia fest. The merely passable liner notes define the music as “tuneful songs that were closer to gems than jams.” Others like to trace the songs' lineage back to the lithe and tough early Who singles — an unacceptably restricting definition (and belied here by roughly half the 50 or so songs on the three CDs), but thematically helpful: Keep things short, energetic, and dizzying.
The first disc, covering the early '70s, track for track may be one of the strongest albums ever assembled by mortals. (In this way, it's comparable to a few of the more cannily put-together K-tel albums from the same period, notably Believe in Music.) The record begins with the Raspberries' insular, swirling, tumescent “Go All the Way”; a few tracks later comes the Dwight Twilley Band's insular, swirling, tumescent “I'm on Fire.” You also get the Flamin Groovies' shuddering “Shake Some Action” — all awash in rattling, emotional cadences, collapses, halts, and sidelong glances; a mysterious song whose production, arrangement, and vocals are of no pop provenance I can imagine. Amazingly, the record's first half also includes Chilton's “September Gurls,” in which a methodically hilarious drum track, a chunky rhythm guitar, and a vocal tone of love-struck wonder combine for a transporting three minutes of emotion. (Chilton is one of the few people alive who can claim to have recorded a song better than anything the Beatles ever did.) To me, these songs are what it's all about — if you're going to make pop music, make it dense, uplifting, and swell. But they also illustrate the accompanying tension: For his trouble, Chilton got a decade or more of destitution and anonymity.
The second half of the album is an adequate intro to late-'70s new wave, including the Records' “Starry Eyes,” Bram Tchaikovsky's “Girl of My Dreams,” and, rather sentimentally, “Too Late” from the Shoes, a Chicago-area “pop” act beloved by a handful of critics and no one else. Back when I was 17, we all thought stuff like this was important, but we were wrong.
The confusions of the '70s get worse on the '80s disc. Marshall Crenshaw's “Whenever You're on My Mind,” from his celebrated-in-some-quarters Field Day, is unquestionably recorded with a spectacular vision; but from its slightly awkward title to the grandiloquent drum sound, you get the feeling that all the parties involved are trying too hard. “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” from the unfairly discounted Smithereens, contains a bottom as heavy as power “pop” gets, and features the genre's most twisted, tragic figure: a guy who has wet dreams about a girl who looks like Bill Wyman. Otherwise, the Romantics' “What I Like About You” is piffle, Phil Seymour's “Baby It's You” is unacceptably l-i-t-e, and the Bangles' “Going Down to Liverpool” is a cover. Only the Hoodoo Gurus' “I Want You Back” has true grit, brandishing as it does the juicy classical-pop trick of creating a bridge leading up to the chorus almost as good as the chorus itself.
And the '90s are downright wan. The third disc begins with Matthew Sweet's lovely “I've Been Waiting,” from Girlfriend — still a conceptually dazzling album, though one whose promise, perhaps inevitably, has been unfulfilled. For the rest, the compilers try to make the case that various other rock subgenres — from Brit shoegazers to Sub Pop bands — toyed with pop, but that banality has little to do with power “pop” per se. “Twisterella,” a swirly bit of noise from Oxford's Ride, is not uninteresting, but there's no personality here. The Gigolo Aunts (“Cope”) are ridiculous, failing miserably in their attempts to swagger. The Rembrandts sound like England Dan and John Ford Coley (not good). With “Jessica Something,” by the Tearaways, the set's L.A. bias is plain. Every town has three or four groups who craft barely diverting stuff like this; the presence of cheese like Candy's “Whatever Happened to Fun …” and the Wondermints' “Proto-Pretty” on the Rhino collection strikes one as hometown favoritism. And god love Redd Kross, but their “Lady in the Front Row” is not power pop, it's just bad rock. Otherwise, the programming's fine, though including the Connells' wistful and pretty “Slackjawed” would have been a nice touch. The set closes with a few samples of “pop” genuflections from the alternativeland, most notably Velocity Girl's funny, fuzzy “I Can't Stop Smiling.” Ho-hum.
Today, the major record labels and the burgeoning commercial alternative radio industry have conspired to create another golden age of one- or two-hit wonders. I wouldn't have a problem with finding Alanis Morissette's “You Oughtta Know” on one of these sets. It's at least as powerful, and about as coherent, as anything the Knack ever recorded. In 10 years, an album with “You Oughtta Know,” the Flaming Lips' “She Don't Use Jelly,” and Hanson's “MMMBop” will be a lot of fun to listen to. But ultimately, the Poptopia! set displays one of the problems that affects '90s rock overall. A lot of the acts display the affectations of too many contemporary rock artists, particularly from the alternative and indie side of town. It's uncool these days to let your feelings out, and letting your feelings out defines pop. The Posies, probably the best of the pre-Nirvana power “pop” bands, truly love Big Star, but their “pop” gets the quotes because it isn't convincing; they're not hostile, but there's a self-conscious smirk under the hooks.
When Big Star recorded, the paradigm of the starving pop genius was virtually unknown; by the 1980s, and particularly in the years leading up to the Nirvana watershed, it was a sour subject that darkened the outlook of a lot of young artists. It's possible that truly great power pop — without the quotes — cannot display the essential ingredient of optimism without the beginnings of innocence. You have to imagine that there's an audience out there, that the distracting emotions you feel are shared. If you don't, by definition you're doing something else: You put on a flannel shirt and moan, or pull a wool hat down over your head and fuck around with turntables.
It's possible no one will ever feel that way again, and power pop will be lost to history. That's OK. If the Beatles were the music's Ozymandias, this stuff — and its corresponding psychic confusion, right up to the present — is the colossal wreck that remains. Those of us who grew up in the '70s, just after the Beatles, soon embraced anti-utopianism, and maybe we believe in it still; the massive denials in the work of Johnny Rotten and Kurt Cobain retain their force and logic and persuasiveness. But we shouldn't forget that there once was something strange and alluring called “pop,” a music that — at its best — existed to capture those moments when, in a heartbeat, the world splits, and something like love hits with a bang. Or a pop.