Rediscovering the power of pop

By Rajneesh Narula

(Another in my occasional essay series)


Today I am in a state of mini-euphoria. This is not because I have won the lottery, or that I have gotten that long-awaited call from the Nobel Prize committee. It is instead because I received a copy of Maroon5’s Songs about Jane.


It is no secret, dear friends, that music is one of the pillars of my life. I have a large collection of CDs, and I have few waking moments where I am not listening to my MP3 player or stereo. Music provides not just an outlet for the anguished soul; it also provides a rhythm against which to frame one’s own actions, thoughts and proclivities. I speak here not just of lyrics, but also of rhythms and tunes. Music is a veritable tapestry that can act as a backdrop to life’s mysterious and unscripted twists and turns. It can provide a vent for one’s tangled feelings, and solutions to the smorgasbord of questions that lady Fortuna springs upon us. It gives one a chance to gauge one’s own life against that of the songwriter, poet, or composer. It validates one’s existence, suggesting to the listener: your conundrums are not unique: there are others who have come by here before, sunk into the quagmire and survived to sing or compose about it. You are not alone.


For these are the feelings that first led me to music. As a teenager I had the usual existential uncertainties until I discovered Franz Kafka, amphetamines and John Lennon. Of relevance here is the last on this list. Discovering the lyrics of Lennon helped shape my life. I realised that while I was a little on the weird side, I was not completely whacko. That I was not condemned to bounce of padded walls because there had been others before me faced with the same challenges who had not only survived, but had survived spectacularly. I do not exaggerate when I say that I came to the rather useful conclusion that I was not, after all, on a one way road to suicide.


But my tastes have not stayed locked in a time warp. I am no snob when it comes to variety or genre. My interests are diverse: the only things I categorically refuse listen to are opera and Gloria Estefan.


I have had a sinking feeling over the last year that pop music had no future. There have been few great songs in the last two years. A few had foot-tapping appeal, plus a little humming of the single tune that had made it on to the charts. However, after just a brief period these few too felt and sounded rather predictable. Semi-competent musicians with sickly-sweet lyrics that were designed to sell, seeking out the lowest common denominator on the intelligence and taste scale.


Many have shown promise, only to disappoint when the entire album was acquired. Amongst this number have been such promising young musicians as Pink, Eminem, P. Diddy, Dido, Macy Gray, Robbie Williams, Gwen Steffanie. It is for this reason that my tastes have moved – in despair - to an increasing preference for classical jazz, hip-hop and blues.


It is not that Maroon5 enjoy great instrumental talent –there are no heartbreakingly beautiful performances that mark the work of artists for whom a guitar is like a paintbrush to an artist, rather than a prop for a music video.


Despite this, Maroon5 have saved themselves from the annoying monotony of using variations the same tune to lay down several tracks which is the only saving grace of a host of singers too long to mention here. It is not always necessary for great songs to have great tunes: witness the success of hip-hop and rap, which utilise the same fundamental beats supported by the creative use of sampling and potent lyrics. Indeed, hip-hop appeared until now to be the last refuge of the songwriter-poet, where important and significant nuances about life, love and pain were melded together to tell a powerful story. Indeed, recently, the only people outside hip-hop that have shown any promise in this area have been Christian Aguilera, Nelly, Babyface, and Alicia Keys.


And this is what Maroon 5 have done. They have put together a powerful collection of songs (with the exception of one, which begins disappointingly with what sounds like one of Robbie Williams’ outtakes. It fortunately picks up immediately after) with heartfelt lyrics that show a maturity of emotion merged with a youthful exuberance, told with genuine sense of artistic dramatism. But not over-doing it with sickly-sweetness and happy endings, they have ended each song without repeating the catchiest bits overly so.


Another thing that jumps out at the listener is the fact that the songs are built solidly around a ‘theme’ or ‘concept’. However, it is not a concept album in the sense of any of Pink Floyd’s work, U2’s rattle and hum, or Christina’s stripped. These are albums where the order of play is just as important as the songs themselves. Instead, it is in the sense that each song belongs with the others, in a sense of continuity of theme, for Jane, whoever she is, is portrayed in all her emotional, physical and social (im)perfection, as is the songwriter/poet. One feels the anguish of Mr Maroon, his bipolarity towards Jane, her entrancing persona, and the helplessness of the force of their chemistry and the power of the feelings which she stirs in the poet. This is an album where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 


It has renewed my faith in the creative spirit that defined pop music. It has affirmed that there is hope for the world at large, that the sense of empathy, emotion, angst and expression of the human spirit have not been completely repressed because occasionally, something good does get by the demonic gatekeepers that are today’s large recording companies.


Thank you, Maroon5 (and the anonymous donor of the album) for confirming that there remains hope, and that global capitalism has not completely managed to annihilate the redeeming qualities of pop music.



London 050309