Embracing Inherent Multiplicity within Pop Music

Great pop music demands our attention, irrespective of what we would rather listen to when we are alone. It is bold, often times inescapable and occupies an ironic space.
This irony presents itself because pop music and culture appears to be liberating and unapologetic, while simultaneously upholding hegemonic structures of heteronormativity and whiteness. In Black Looks and Representation, bell hooks acknowledges a “recognition by mass culture, that aspects of black life, like “voguing” fascinate white audiences.”[1] In addition to bell hooks’ observation, the fascination white audiences have with black sub-cultures can also be predatory and exploitative. This is why Madonna is applauded on a mainstream level for her ‘Vogue,’ music video released in 1990, while little to no respect, acknowledgement or financial compensation trickled down to the Black LGBTQ dancers and creators of Voguing.
I really love the documentary titled Paris is Burning (1990). However, reading Black Looks and Representation made me view the piece with a much more critical lense, as bell hooks probes us to consider what it truly means for a white director to feel comfortable enough with documenting the personal stories, opinions, thoughts and existence of black queer people. In her critique of the Paris is Burning director (Jennie Livingston), bell hooks states: “Livingston’s comments about Paris is Burning do not convey serious thought about either the political and aesthetic implications of her choice as a white woman focusing on an aspect of black life and culture or the way racism might shape and inform how she would interpret black experience on the screen.”[2]
It is no surprise that in the current sphere of pop music, queer artists such as MNEK, Victoria Monét, Rina Sawayama and King Princess make interesting ‘pop’ music but are artistically branded as alternative artists who do not receive the mainstream support they deserve. These artists have loyal fan bases and many including myself will acknowledge that this is what truly matters, not mainstream success or accolades. However, acknowledging the importance of supportive listeners does not negate the sad truth – mainstream pop music listeners have not embraced queer artists as fervently as they’ve embraced vocal allies of the LGBTQ community, such as Ariana Grande (who Victoria Monét has consistently written songs for over the years), Cher and Lady Gaga. These three women consistently dominated pop music in a way I am yet to see from an openly queer artist, therefore presenting mainstream pop culture as a rigid space where the illusion of freedom prevails – the illusion being that allies dominate the charts, while actual queer artists are mainly kept in the shadows.
Photography by Daniel Obasi
Queer artists, especially black queer artists, deserve to experience their work at the forefront of our minds. More particularly, queer continental; African musicians deserve their work at the forefront of our minds and should not have to hide who they are to be given a chance at mainstream success. Sadly, this is increasingly difficult especially in a country such as Nigeria where the laws do not reflect any progress in the freedom and rights of LGBTQ people. Nigerian pop music should ideally carve a safe space for queer artists irrespective of our archaic laws and social norms, similarly to how the Nigerian fashion and visual arts space has actively tried to over the years. These latter mediums of creativity have embraced the inherent multiplicity of queer artists in a way the Nigerian mainstream; pop music scene has failed to do. On a global and more so national scale, pop music maintains the status quo as opposed to disrupting it.
It is easy to argue that many queer artists (including the artists mentioned above) do not make quintessential pop music and would not be branded as such in a fairer world. However, when have innovative pop artists ever stuck to one genre? inherent multiplicity is needed in pop music, as the best mainstream artists always take inspiration from alternative and underground cultures, bringing them to the surface so these sounds can be accepted on a wider social scale. On the interlude titled ‘also also also and and and,’ on Moses Sumney’s 2020 ‘Græ’ album, Taiye Selasi boldly states:
I insist upon my right to be multiple
Even more so, I insist upon
The recognition of my multiplicity
All things encompassed in one
I,I really do insist that others recognise my inherent multiplicity.
Taiye Selasi’s words are not only integral to this article and corresponding playlist, but they equally serve as an important message all artists should take on board regardless of the type of music they wish to create. Artists should demand their freedom to create pop and undeniably indie music in the same breath.
Asides from recognising the inherent multiplicity of the artists we listen to, audiences should welcome and commend artists who understand their inherent multiplicity to create and experiment with music and art on their own terms – a duty I have struggled with over the years. My personal struggle with this is evident through my relationship with The Weeknd’s music and artistry. The Weeknd’s dark and emo sound appealed to my angsty teenage mind, I loved his music so much and became one of those annoying people who embarrassingly referred to him as ‘Abel.’ When The Weeknd started experimenting with more mainstream pop music on his 2016 album ‘Starboy,’ I felt betrayed. In hindsight, I now know it was ridiculous to feel that way and betrayal is a strong word but that’s honestly how I felt. It felt like The Weeknd was leaving me to embrace an audience that didn’t understand Echoes of Silence, House of Balloons and Thursday. Back then, I was a selfish fan. I didn’t want to commend The Weekend for understanding his inherent multiplicity as an artist. I should have been happy for his mainstream success and exposure, not critical because he was no longer the same artist solely creating dark emo music. It’s quite remarkable that The Weeknd has managed to stay true to who he is while experimenting with different sounds over the course of his career. This is something I realise now but did not want to give The Weeknd credit for in the past. As acknowledged by Donawon on Episode 112 of the podcast, Submarine and a Roach The Weeknd “evolves within the confines of his nature…every version of The Weeknd is something that could happen in a weekend, depending on the character [Abel Tesfaye] decides to embody.”
My ‘House of Balloons’ vinyl
Great pop artists do not stop at recognising their inherent multiplicity, they also embrace it, share it with the world and bask in it. Michael Jackson is commonly considered the king of pop when in reality he created music which was far more rooted in r&b and soul. He also experimented with practically every genre possible. Rihanna’s Loud album is typically recognised as a pop album, yet contains a plethora of genres ranging from reggae on ‘Man Down,’ sultry music such as ‘Skin,’ and soft ballads like ‘California King Bed.’ On streaming sites, Beyoncé’s RENAISSANCE album is placed in the ‘pop’ category but the album is heavily influenced by disco, 80s ballroom culture, r&b and hip-hop. Drake also shows duality is possible within pop culture, as he blurs the line between ‘rapper’ and ‘pop artist,’ constantly.
A great pop artist is someone who shifts the general public’s attention to their sound, therefore changing the trajectory of what gets to be considered normal, even if this ‘new normal’ is experimental and unusual to begin with. Great pop music demands to be heard, seen and felt.
written by zbk
[1] bell hooks, Black Looks and Representation, page 152
[2] ibid.
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