What Is Anti-Pop? 

Featured Image: Porsh Bet$

“I feel like I’m being stung by a thousand bees all at once,” said Corey Taylor, Slipknot’s vocal maniac, about his children. “You might as well be listening to a piece of wood.” He wasn’t telling rock channel Loudwire about their tears, laughter or subtle bangs for early tea. It was way more personal. “I just kind of end up sitting there, just kind of stagnant in my rage,” he told a man with a High On Fire shirt (quite aptly), “going, ‘What do I do?’”


He’s talking about the music his kids listen to. The interview was in 2015, so who’s in the crosshairs? Ellie Goulding? Bruno Mars? To him, they’re all compressed dung. Taylor is the traditionalist’s anti-pop. He believes that pop is sendantry, a condition of making do with what you’re given and never wanting more. 


You’ve heard this before – the millionaire veteran going, No, no, things were better once, and it’s your fault for eating up shit. Which is miles off the fact that Slipknot have also been pop music. Their 2001 album, Iowa, went number one in the UK, an achievement followed belatedly by 2019’s We Are Not Your Kind, edging just 12 copies ahead of Ed Sheeran. Are they as influential as they used to be? Hardly. But they are still popular. He is forgetting that metal was pop in its tight-assed heyday. So were Strauss, Sinatra and Primal Scream. Elvis was pop. Mozart. Artists who infiltrate and advance mainstream tastes needn’t be ashamed of it. Pop is a relative declaration, like right or wrong. It is influenced by context, technology and social habits. Anyone who believes pop is solely the gunk doled over gym speakers and scratch card ads must realise that these background songs, safe, innocuous, are made for collective experiences. The weird stuff – as always – bubbles up from elsewhere. 


So, this hackneyed annoyance may be as tired as the members of A-ha sound trying to validate their existence with Kierkegaard quotes. We’ve heard it all before. Rap is trash. Punk was real. Auto-tune was the death of artistry, not the birth of a texture. If you aren’t playing a solo on a guitar you built from a piece of reclaimed string and whatever’s in Brian May’s bins, you’re not having a good time. 


Odd then, to find some music representing ‘anti-pop’. Dammit, Spotify. You make a playlist several years ago, and here I am, trying to see whether you’re actually crying into an Urban Outfitters fleece or leading sad bois to the most profitable algorithm. 

Spotify might’ve legitimised anti-pop for the sake of inventing it. You might ask what anti-pop is. An easier answer might be what it isn’t. Fans quibble, yet they seem to locate a genre that embraces popular tastes while dismissing them. 


It isn’t big or pretty, but heavy with hooks. Is it lo-fi? Not really. Can you dance to it? Sure, sometimes. Does it matter who you are? Ahhhh, we’re getting somewhere. Recall BROCKHAMPTON’s origins on an open-call message board, where Kevin Abstract recruited more than two dozen members to bugger the term ‘boy band’. Or Rex Orange County, at 19 years old, scoring features on Flowerboy from a Soundcloud DM. These artists have been tagged as anti-pop for their mastery of disparate bangers and Logic Pro, the bastard sons of Odd Future’s seminal showboating for the power of a kid, great friends and the internet.


Anti-pop is therefore a declaration of independence. As music fans debate the bogeymen of industry plants, mixtape albums from major stars and the “clear, actionable words” demanded by TikTok talent scouts, we may yearn for authenticity. It is the same feeling that lit responses to NME’s C86 cassette, the freebie that defined UK indie. You’ll find it in the riot grrrl scene and the flowering crunch of ‘70s Zambian rock. Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ railed against the accepted shape of Baroque, giving soloists more license to tell a story. Innovators need a foe, after all. Anti-pop supposedly fights crassness, the slick skin of moneyed-up singers, with a more fearless edge.


But the source of pop is not the only difference – it’s the sound too, which few people agree on. Parker Levy’s 2018 article ‘The Rise Of Anti-Pop’ says it is “by definition sad and very deep, with lots of messages about pain and suffering.” He cites America’s addiction to antidepressants, the uncorking of aimless grief in Earl Sweatshirt, Lil Peep and Billie Eilish. The day-glo template of past pop music, he asserts, “encourages good vibes and feelings.” Anti-pop might be a caustic reframing: happy-sad, self-aware, using simplicity to refine black thoughts. 


Then again, maybe you’re anti-anti-pop if you suggest a mood. For Edward Lucano, journo at The Bronx’s Fordham University, the genre cannot be summarised, and that’s what makes it so exciting. “An anti-pop record could derive its sound from alternative, jazz or hip-hop either individually or all at the same time,” somehow both “an inherent sense of yearning or uncertainty” and musicians “whose sole intention is to make the foundation of any concert venue quake and crumble.” 


Listening to Spotify’s Anti-Pop offers mild understanding. There’s angst, such as Paris Texas’ ‘FORCE OF HABIT’ (“I live life in a comedy!”), oikish delight from Remi Wolf, Park Hye Jin moaning about haunted love. Many of the vocal performances make a virtue of their flatness; Dean Blunt’s on here as well. Three minutes are a luxury. These songs duck in and out. Kick drums are thick, proud. Synthesisers tend to squawk from the back of the mix. When you hear a guitar, it is woozy, tumbling around like a boy who found his mum’s appletini. 


Some of the artists have expressed synchronicity with the conversation around anti-pop, although I doubt they’re aware of it. Terry Presume (track 94) told Notion that “my sound is never to be boxed into anything, this song is a moment, one that people shouldn’t be too attached to because it’ll shift unconsciously again.” This is always encouraging. However, it’s rarely transgressive. A Taylor Swift can confound us just as much as a Joji. Pop’s greatest showmen and women have moved with the times or been burned by them, tried on personas, cleaned up, scuzzed out, lost their mojo, become figureheads when they’d seemed destined for trivia games. 


And therein lies the greater truth of anti-pop: it isn’t much new. It presumes that pop music has a clean, ecstatic smile; that it is a massive, toddling Disney beast, leaving emotional complexity at the door of the Hot 100. 


I don’t for a second buy the argument that pop can’t make you cry witout pulling cheap tricks. ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ can strike you like a knife under the eyes. ABBA’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’ is one of the most devastating breakup songs ever recorded, while more recently, ‘Driver’s License’ has wailed with millions of teenagers balling clueless fists on their beds. Clarity is part of pop’s appeal. Those examples are irrelevant. We could go on all day listing chart legends that are very, very sad. 


Anti-pop, if it even exists, merely reacts to pop as we’re used to it now – which, fair enough, tends to be the clipped, overproduced pulse beneath moments like dancing, shopping or waving your arms on social media. Alright. But pop will change. And it doesn’t have enough unified intent – other than to ensure you remember it – for an opposition. The mere fact that anti-pop is messier and scrappier isn’t enough. Hundreds of genres enjoy their own rulebooks. They are not pop, until they are. 


To me, the term is another emo, deep house or post-punk, just exceptionally poorly named. We’ll look back on it – presuming we do – as a response to a time, not a threat. Even modernism became old fashioned. William Faulkner was probably relieved he could smile more. 


And if you’re after subversion that smells of margarita, may I suggest hyperpop: today’s extremis for caterwauling fun, dark-ass lyrics and ear-shredding production. 1000 gecs, glaive et al are figuring out that parody is the sincerest form of flattery. Their music detonates like a smoke bomb at a hen night. Through sheer speed and relentlessness, hyperpop is the wicked cousin of the sounds we take for granted. It is another of pop’s mirror images. Soon enough, it may turn into pop, plain and simple. 

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