All That…Pop Is Not…

“Plato was one of the first and most influential thinkers to address the problem of tyranny…He believed that democratic forms of government create a licentious and undisciplined populace who are easy prey for smooth-talking politicians skilled in the art of pandering to their desires… such politicians entice the masses with unhealthy promises rather than nourishing the public good.” Source:

Keep it simple, shall we, and define pop and pop culture as whatever gets the biggest audience and makes the most money.   Lists, rankings, measurable data on consumption of something will define not only pop, but how pop sumptin’ is – right now!  If you can measure the consumption behaviors, active and passive including watching, listening, etc, the higher the amount of consumption behavior, the more pop(ular), by definition.  Money generally follows consumption behaviors, since usually consumption requires some kind of permission and cost – except for music, or pretty much any other product by a creator, on the web, but that’s another essay.

Let’s remember that you can “pay” not only money but time and attention.  Actually, time is the only finite and instantly decaying resource. Time is the opposite of fungible.  There is always more money and attention is a squishy concept. Time is always a “hard stop.”

What I also propose, as a musician, brain and genomic science geek and marketer, is that pop pays the most for stuff that supports the status quo.  Pop culture gets paid the most to tell people what they already believe and want to hear and to promote accepted myths, fantasies and magical thinking/beliefs.  Religions are the oldest and most successful pop cultural products and they are based in promises of imaginary things, magic and supernatural stuff. “Life after death” is probably the most universal and powerful of religion’s promises and epitomizes what pop culture is paid to deliver.

Pop culture always tells us stories to deny, hide and fight the hard realities of life.  Thus, songs sing about the exact things the listener will never (ever) come across in their lives, e.g., true love, “Stand By Me’, money, fun at the club, etc.   Magazine covers illustrate the opposite of our mundane lives, food/car/gear/vacation/money/business/etc-”porn.” Books, movies, paintings, politics, media, etc. Yes, politics is pop culture, very much so.  The further from reality and the more and better pop stuff masks hard realities – the more they get paid by more people. Pop is usually the path of least resistance right now and instant good stuff – grat-ti-fi-cation….ahhhhhh, yesssss!

“Illusions are beliefs that we adopt because we want them to be true…The most compelling illusions qualify as delusions. Delusions are illusions that are both false and highly resistant to rational revision, because of the immense power of the wishes that fuel them.”

Lies, then, and lying are at the core of pop culture and its products.  We’ll leave moral arguments for others. If you get paid a lot to lie, what then?  Is anything REALLY “New and Improved”, “Highest Rated” or “Free”, “She Love You”, “Life after death?”  Ahhhh…

“The wishes that underpin religious belief have to do with deliverance from human helplessness…Religious people deal with their feelings of helplessness, he suggested, by clinging to the illusion of a powerful, protective deity who will grant them an afterlife.”

The Endless Struggle
Shakespeare struggled mightily with the pop-craft-art choices.  He had newly invested in theater, streeeetched financially and needed to write new plays.  His artistic vision was pushing him to more emotionally dense, complex and challenging stories and plays.  At the same time, the most pop(ular) actor was getting the biggest audiences and most money doing, essentially, vaudeville slapstick and sthick.  Wot to do? Go with what is making more money now? I call this “popping out.” Or stay true to his artistic vision that was pushing him to get deeper into his art and craft and push it.  Push himself, his craft, his finances, his audiences, push the potential to fail in many ways!?

Another story.  A friend, brilliant potter felt the push to try something completely new.  Being partially, genetically, Iranian, he was drawn to ancient Persian pottery.  Millenia old! Beautiful stuff but very demanding and a real departure. Lots of risks.  Anti-pop. He got nothing but hostility from his peers. Internally, he struggled as well.  Hard work at many levels. The results were amazing, brilliant and financially super successful.

Pop science faces the same issues.  So, pop science seems to universally tell people what they want to hear/already believe.  A brilliant genomicist, neuroscientist client of mine invented a breakthrough in biology, medicine, physiology, genomics, neurology.  The response to his very new, useful and breakthrough ideas is immediate suspicion, hostility and hate-fear. The only science then that is popular plays to existing knowledge, accepted wisdom and the status quo.

Now, NASA had a marketing breakthrough to pop when they false colored the images from space.  Our hyper-evolved visual brains went ga-ga for the candy-colored swirling images of deep space structures and brilliant light effects.  The big lie, again. Space is really infinitely dark, instantly deadly and cold. Space hates life and would kill humans instantly. But not according to the NASA images and our brains gullibility towards images.  You see the same marketing win/truth loss in colorful fMRI pictures of brain function. Yes, the colorful pictures introduce the general public to brain science but, no the brain really doesn’t work like the pictures suggest.  Pop science wins, educating the public about the brain less so.

My guess is that at some point we will be able to measure pop in the brain.  Perhaps the regions of the brain but more likely some kind of gradient in response.  Clearly, what is pop gets more response from more people. That difference in response that we now measure as consumption behavior must be driven by brain processes, which are driven by genomic processes, which are driven by transcriptomic processes.  Sorry, that last part is very geeky but hey – gotta try the “deep end of the pool” at some point.

As a pro marketer, paid to predict folk’s behavior, my hope is we get to know the mechanisms and causes pretty soon.  As a semi-pro musician, I also wanna know how the listeners brain/genome/transcriptome responds to drive consumption behavior.

Ah, the human, and all other life form brain/nervous system – all about consumption behaviors!  Very pop….

Pop, Art, Craft
Let’s wrap up with messing around with the different kinds of actions a creator/maker of artistic stuff does.  Let’s assume a creator starts with something imagined and call that a creative “vision.” Suppose it’s like a “What if…..I…..did this?”   Scientists or artists or suppose any kind of “maker.” Finer distinctions are for another discussion.

What I really want to get to is the back and forth between the craft of making something, the grinding, day-to-day of production, the artistic vision and pop.  To me, art comes from a constant back and forth between the wider communication and connecting with a mass audience of pop and following the idiosyncratic personal vision.  If i just want to reach as wide an audience as possible and make as much money as i can then just being a good craftsman is fine. So, pop music songwriting and performing is outsourced to high paid craftsmen who reliably produce a “product”/sound that sells.  Studio musicians.


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