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Taking the Temperature of American Pop

I think American popular music has been a genuine wonder of the world, one of the most consequential cultural phenomena of the past century. You hear it on local radios from Lusaka to Seoul to Rio de Janeiro. (We can now hear many of these stations in the U.S., through the relatively more recent wonder of the Internet.) I have always loved American pop, but I don’t follow it closely, hence I know a lot more about the pop of, e.g., 1926 or 1956 or 1976 than about the pop of today. To try to remedy that, and get a sense of the spirit of American pop a.d. 2016, I went to the Wango Tango concert, sponsored by radio station KIIS FM 102.7, at the Stubhub Center in the southern part of the Metro L.A. area.

It is hard not to sound orotund in making this assertion, but based on what I heard today, the state . . . of American pop . . . is sound. Most of the music was upbeat and catchy, and there was a heavy emphasis on anthems of empowerment. I remember, a little over a decade ago, spending a fair bit of time listening to pop music from Africa, and thinking that our pop was rather lugubrious by contrast. On today’s evidence, this is no longer the case. How representative was today’s sampling? Well, it featured some of the most famous names in American music: Gwen Stefani, Meghan Trainor, Demi Lovato, Iggy Azalea, and Ariana Grande. The only ones of whose work I had appreciable prior knowledge were Lovato and Trainor, and the others were for the most part just names to me; so I was surprised how many of the songs I heard today were familiar to me from daily life – supermarkets, bars, malls, etc. – even when I didn’t know the artists behind them. So these acts were pretty representative of what America listens to today.

And even more representative of what a specific American demographic listens to: young women from, say, 14 to 24. I was told to expect an audience that was largely young and female, and this was proved correct. Still, there were a lot of males, from elementary-school-age kids to young adults, and there was a significant representation of women in their later 20s, 30s, and 40s. The most striking disproportion was racial: There were a lot of whites, a lot of Asians, and a lot of Hispanics, but only a tiny handful of blacks. (The music market is perhaps more segregated now than it was when I was a kid, back in the ’70s.)

The audience was extremely pleasant, polite, well-behaved, and united in its appreciation for the artists. (The only time when there seemed to be a disproportionate response from one sector of the audience was for the performance of a guy named Zayn, whose romantic songs sparked an especially impressive level of frenzy from the females present. His songs were fine, but I think there was some “heartthrob” effect at work in the response. I don’t deny that he’s a handsome chap, but his work didn’t make me mark him as someone whose recordings I should seek out. Yes, I recognize that this is exactly the sort of thing that will be quoted back at me in the future if this guy becomes the Elvis or Sinatra of the 2020s.)

The very pleasant, and rather unanimous, audience response may be typical for pop, I don’t actually know. Almost all my experience of popular-music concerts (i.e., not classical, jazz, or “world”) comes from the rock end of the pop–rock continuum; I think the closest I came to a “pop”-concert experience was a Madonna performance at Madison Square Garden about a decade ago. I’d say that while I generally prefer listening to rock than to straight-out pop, I prefer the sweet-natured and demonstrative pop audience I interacted with today to the too-cool-for-school folks I tend to encounter at rock concerts.

The acts were all talented enough, and I enjoyed them; probably the only one that left me cold was Iggy Azalea, whose songs I found monotonous; and even in her case she performed one of the most instantly recognizable songs of the past five years (“Fancy,” which I have to concede is “catchy,” because, after all, I had caught it, without exactly wanting it). The acoustics at the Stubhub Center left something to be desired; as a result, the vocals were fuzzier than they should have been. (This didn’t impede the enjoyment of the audience, which seemed to know the lyrics of many of the songs by heart.) I just listened to some Iggy Azalea tracks on my home stereo and she sounded better than she did at the concert.

It was great especially to hear Demi Lovato, whose voice is as powerful as ever; Trainor’s delightful anthem for female curviness, “All about That Bass”; and a vocalist, previously unknown to me even as a name, Alessia Cara. (I stayed for ten of the twelve acts on offer; the only ones I skipped were the Chainsmokers and Ariana Grande.)

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