Pop! What is it Good For?

Tunes of glory

From Tin Pan Alley to iTunes, the world of pop music is in constant flux. As a BBC season celebrates this success story, Brian Donaldson whistles along

The end of pop music has been trumpeted loudly from the rooftops throughout its 50-year history. The death of the two Brians, Jones and Epstein, the final splitting of The Beatles and the soulless production line of the SAW Hit Factory are a few of the signposts which marked pop music as heading down the wrong path. But the power of pop is that it continually eats and reproduces itself, dragging out one more glorious tune to save the day. In the new BBC4 season, which accentuates the positive influences of the form, Pop! What is it Good For? insists that the answer is ‘plenty.’

Pop advocate and chronicler of the ups and downs of chart music, Paul Morley opens the season with a typically erudite and passionate defence. ‘I love pop music and pop songs in a way that some people might think unseemly for someone of my age. I’m about as old as the music itself if you work to a history of pop that begins around about 1957.’ In his documentary, he meets up with those he believes have provided the benchmarks, sipping Guinness with Suggs in a London boozer to collaring Sugababes in a BBC corridor prior to their Comic Relief appearance.

And perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, he nominates Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ as the definitive number; a pop tune about pop tunes and the profound (or irritating) effect they can have on both mind and body. ‘I take pop music seriously enough to think that this song with this video answers those questions about pop that a serious fan might be asking when it comes to working out what pop is for,’ notes Morley. ‘Why is it so special and why does it create these surprises, the kind you can trace back to the first time that Elvis Presley curled his lip around a short, smart song that dripped with sex and power and strangeness.’

What many people love about pop music is that very strangeness, when a new sound or different approach jumps out of nowhere and shifts the terrain. The three-part Pop Britannia details this to nostalgic perfection, highlighting the Tin Pan Alley dreamweavers, the Fab Four’s psychedelic soundscapes, the Sex Pistols’ summer-and-a-half of manufactured hate, the 1980s’ dual ability of fading to grey and exploding into gaudy Technicolor, the Britpop shoot-out and on to the new wave of downloadable success stories.

While conductor Charles Hazlewood can’t hold a tune to save himself, he is an adept analyst of the mechanics of music and in How Pop Songs Work, he tinkles the melodies that have shaped our collective pop psyches created by Abba, John Lennon and Wyclef Jean. But perhaps most entertaining of all is Pop on Trial in which northern wag Stuart Maconie invites various trios of judges to nominate and dissect the decade which had the biggest influence and most impact on the pop world. And really, can anyone look beyond the 70s which crammed the wildly diverse forms of prog rock, glam, punk and disco into a relatively short space? Then again, while every decade has its horrible downsides, not even the 80s produced anything quite so criminal as Showaddywaddy and ‘Mull of Kintyre’.

Pop! What is it Good For? season starts on BBC4 with Pop Britannia, Fri 4 Jan, 10pm.

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