On one of the balmy Blacksburg Sundays that have become surprisingly commonplace this semester, two friends and I set off for a lazy afternoon at the New River.
Before long, the backseat drivers had made a dent in the cooler and manly braggadocio was in full swing. My friend’s Crown Vic echoed with war stories from the frontlines of romance, tales of outrageous downtown behavior and discussions of consumer technology — all providing me with a wonderful opportunity to practice the “nod and smile” conversation technique.
Perhaps it wasn’t the most macho cast on this side of “The Expendables,” but the sedan was still bursting with enough testosterone to fail a Major League Baseball steroid test.
Only one touch was missing: the soundtrack to our brodacious journey. My friend received yet another chance to boast about his stereo setup as he connected my iPhone to the car’s Bluetooth player, and then it was time for some manly tunes to kick off our guy’s day out.
“Any suggestions?” I asked my brothers in arms. A few seconds passed.
“Call Me Maybe!” we all exclaimed in unison, without a trace of irony. I put on Carly Rae Jepsen’s deliriously catchy hit, and before you could say “Canadian pop domination,” we were gleefully taking part in — what I can only judge from the curious looks we received — the strangest karaoke session of all time.
Afterward, we saw a return to the standard classic rock playlist, but no moment felt more honest than that first one. We picked a song because it would be the most fun to listen to at that time, regardless of genre or loss of man points — not that I would’ve felt ashamed anyway.
I’m a sucker for a good pop song and “Call Me Maybe” is a great one, so bouncy and fun that you ignore the inanity of lines like “before you came into my life I missed you so bad.” It’s a shining example of top-40 nonsense done right, and the latest of many to hit my bubblegum sweet spot.
My love affair with pop singles goes all the way back to kindergarten days, when my class used to dance around to “Two Princes” by the one-hit-wonder Spin Doctors. I proclaimed them to be my favorite band — a foreshadowing of some very questionable musical preferences later in life — and wished every song could be as fun.
A lot has changed since those days. The Spin Doctors faded away like nearly every ‘90s band with the inexplicable exception of Train, the musical equivalent of a Nicholas Sparks book. Those carefree five-year-olds are now 20-something members of a real world with sadly little appreciation of spontaneous dance parties.
My music tastes have evolved as well. Childhood Radio Disney years transitioned into a rebel-without-a-cause stint in the adolescent rage of nu metal, with further dalliances in Slim Shady-worshiping rap and heart-on-sleeve emo before finally settling down with a diverse, oddly folk-heavy mix of every genre under the sun.
What hasn’t changed is my love for those three-to-four minutes of pure ear candy. A good pop song is like a roller coaster: a thrill ride that tosses you right into the action, zips you along a highly structured track, and then returns to the station before you have time to think. The experience doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny — the excitement is built on the illusion of danger — but the ride is so dedicated to its get-in, get-out mission that you never take the time to notice.
This efficiency in entertaining is where the best top-40 songs excel. Pop is the Cheetos of genres: empty calories with no nutritious value. Almost without exception, lyrics consist of banal greeting card/hate mail sentiments about love. You’re likely to find richer analysis of the human condition on a YouTube comments page.
And that’s perfectly okay. No one’s expecting Rihanna to delve into Dostoevsky. We’re just happy hearing her booming, beautifully studio produced voice tell us that she’ll be our “umber-ella” during tough times. I don’t need Nicki Minaj to make any damn sense or Usher to make anything besides the same song over and over again to know both radio stalwarts will be a blast to drive around to this summer.
Pop is about simple pleasures like Kelly Clarkson’s howls of freedom in “Since U Been Gone.” It’s about the sensation that comes from still knowing all the words to a Backstreet Boys song, or watching an entire party stop and sing “Your Love” by The Outfield.
I’ll always have The Replacements, Tribe Called Quest and Josh Ritter to impress girls with my sophisticated taste. Bubblegum pop is for those moments when you just want to shut off your brain and dance problems away.
So here’s to you, disposable pop music like Carly Rae Jepsen, Black Eyed Peas, and just about the entire musical output of the ‘80s. Your charms may be lost to snide hipsters and “Pitchfork” reviewers, but the common folk will always appreciate an exuberant three-minute respite from the burdens of life.
Let’s raise a toast to top-40 piffle. May its fluffy goodness always fill dance floors with sensual gyration and our hearts with gooey, substance-free comfort.