OK, Boombox: Let’s Talk About Pop Music

Recently, I listened to a remastered Casey Kasem Top 40 countdown from 1986. The music that Casey played reconnected me to my youth, and put a smile on my face. You might not recognize the bands: Mike + the Mechanics, The Hooters, The Thompson Twins, and The Dream Academy.

But this music meant something to me.

I have heard people lamenting the death of good music these days; people who think music stopped being “good,” coincidentally, during their young adulthood. They, and we, remember the bands and songs that stick around. The ones that still get radio airplay on classic hits stations. The ones in soundtrack compilations. 

They have decided that there is a glorious time in the past during which all hit music was wonderful, and no good music has been recorded, depending on their age, since David Lee Roth left Van Halen, or since Kurt Cobain died, or since The Beatles broke up. They also make ridiculous comments, such as the artist Lizzo “can’t sing.”

Of course, this isn’t true. 

We’ve always had stellar music and not-as-stellar music right alongside one another. Just listen to any old Top 40 countdown on 105.7 KOKZ; the station plays American Top 40 countdowns from the 1970s on Saturday mornings, and from the 1980s on Sundays mornings.

For every Billy Joel or Madonna or Eagles or Prince song, you’ll hear dozens of novelty songs and one hit wonders that were once popular enough to get record store sales, radio airplay, and hit the top 40, and have since faded back into obscurity.

Pop Music, a purple boom box

When I was in college at the University of Iowa, I took a class called Radio, Records, and Popular Music. The idea was put forth that music was only “pure” if it formed from the ground up. A group of musicians get together at school, practice in their garage, claw their way from playing Holiday Inn lounges to finally hitting the big time when they get a record contract. Bands that were put together by impresarios, such as N- Sync (Lou Pearlman),  One Direction (Simon Cowell), or The Monkees (Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider) didn’t count. Their music wasn’t “pure.”  Did they even play instruments? But is the music pure based on how the band was put together, or is it pure based on how it makes the listener feel?

You’re really going to tell me that “Last Train to Clarksville” or “What Makes You Beautiful” or “Bye Bye Bye” don’t count as much as a song by, for instance, Aerosmith?

vintage radios playing pop music

The kids these days. My kids. Your kids. They’re making connections with today’s music, just the same as you did with Carly Simon or Nirvana or the Backstreet Boys.

Lizzo could be their Madonna (hello, 1980s kids) or their Mariah Carey (hello, 1990s kids) or their Lady Gaga (hello, 2000s kids).

They’re going to remember slow dancing to “Old Town Road.” Or . . . fast dancing. Line dancing?

They might get their broken heart mended by Lewis Capaldi

They might fall in love to Senorita.

They might cry with Demi Lovato.

They are also listening to music I’ve never heard, because these days musicians can reach an audience with nothing but a dream and a YouTube channel. 

An artist can win Grammy after Grammy with an album that she and her brother created in his bedroom (that’s Billie Eilish), or with no record contract at all, like Macklemore.

You don’t have to like all the new music, of course. You don’t have to like any of it, for that matter. But don’t dismiss it.  Music has always been great, it has always been bad, and of course Lizzo can sing

Turn the radio up, for that sweet sound….

What is your favorite pop music to listen to with your kids?

Sharon Falduto is a Central Iowa native who came to University of Iowa in 1991 and essentially never left the area. She is involved in local community theater, notably as one of the co-founders of Iowa City's Dreamwell Theatre. She has also directed children's plays with the Young Footliters group. Sharon works in with English Language Learners in a support position at Kirkwood Community College.. She lives in Coralville with her husband, Matt, and three daughters Rachel, Samantha, and Piper.


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