Power Pop is camp
“People should stop saying, ‘Rock is dead.’ He is getting older. -Matthew Sweet
I. What is it
What is pop power? This is a question that many have asked and few have answered satisfactorily. For many, power pop is a modern idealization of mid-’60s British pop, a sticky and sickly Neapolitan of “sounding guitars”, “heavy drums” and “painful vocal harmonies”. The Raspberries, Big Star, Badfinger, Todd Rundgren – these are just a few of the pioneers of power pop.
There are entire message boards and sultry Facebook groups dedicated to the debate about its musical origins and properties. The power pop fandom is as isolated as it is isolating. Most of the year it’s a mushy mumble to itself, every now and then it’s an evangelist screaming from the rooftops. To be a power pop “fan” is to be in an endless search for the greatest post-Beatles pop guitar single that the general public has yet to hear. And once you’ve found it: should you Share it with the world or keep everything to yourself?
To the outside world – and even to nominal fans of the double P – the drama and rigorous dialectic associated with this genre is insane, and it’s understandable.
Gatekeeping makes a bit more sense if you associate power pop with a more general aesthetic phenomenon: camp.
Susan Sontag published her essay Notes on the “camp” in 1964, the same year the Beatles conquered America. According to the Wikipedia article on the camp, the phrase is “etymologically obscure” – it was once a specific cultural posture associated with working-class gay communities, but would later be subsumed (or, co-opted by) the umbrella. postmodern. Sontag herself believed that the camp was fundamentally non-discriminatory, although he conceded that it was on the whole a sensibility created by gay men. Trying to distinguish “camp” from other similar aesthetics is campy.
“Camp is the ever-aesthetic experience of the world,” Sontag writes. “The whole interest of the camp is to dethrone the serious. The camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp implies a new more complex relation to “seriousness”. We can be serious with the frivolous, frivolous with the serious.
Like camp art, the lines between seriousness and frivolity in power pop can be maddeningly obscure. Fountains of Wayne is often considered one of the greatest power pop groups of all time; their most famous record, Welcome to interstate managers, is not power pop in the strict sense of the sound term – it covers everything from pastiche Oasis and Cars to acoustic confessionals and quasi-lounge. What makes this record so awesome – and what makes it so campy – is the level of scholarship, commitment and direct passion that the band brings. to their interpretations of old musical tropes. Camp, according to Sontag, “stinks of self-esteem” even when he reveled in the parody.
II. Pure camp versus camping
Sontag distinguishes between the deliberate camp – “camping” – and the camp which is completely naive, or “pure”. Most of the good potency pops are probably somewhere in the middle. It’s the Pee-wee’s great adventure rock subgenres.
And regardless of where a specific piece of art falls in that spectrum, the camp always seems at least half-aware of the act. Power pop is basically an act; it’s glorified the Beatles cosplay, the Hard Day’s Night playground. The Beatles themselves are just power pop ex post facto – power pop involves a certain degree of self-reflexivity. When you describe a piece of music as power pop, whether it’s your own or someone else’s, you are not simply describing chirping guitars, heavy drums and painful vocal harmonies. Journey songs feature all of these things, but no purist would ever consider them power pop. This is because “power pop” primarily communicates a aesthetic, a nod to or a caricaturization of boomer guitar pop conventions.
Power pop is concerned with baseball’s internal notions of “business failure” and posthumous critical justification. This is another campy sensibility: Power pop fans amplify the failures of their favorite bands, sometimes turning mundane business mistakes into disasters of Shakespearean proportion: “You haven’t heard the Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque? TOURNAMENT said it was better than No matter, and history will prove them right!
But sometimes embellishment is not necessary. Badfinger was signed to Apple Records from the Beatles and seemed poised to become their successors, but they were ripped off by management and lead songwriters Pete Ham and Tom Evans. committed suicide. XTC’s Andy Partridge gave up filming what was arguably his creative heyday due to debilitating benzodiazepine addiction and was ripped off by management.
The pathos of power pop (triple P) is illustrated by the Big Star story. Their first album, 1972’s # 1 Registration, are top notch power pop – a band that clearly took their inspiration from the Beatles and paid dearly for their pride. The rest of us won the lottery.
# 1 Registration is good – but the quality and precocity of its composition would, somewhat paradoxically, make much less sense in an alternate reality where Big Star actually had hit records. “Big Star wasn’t perfect,” journalist Jessica Hopper wrote in her 2013 Fork Review from the Big Star Biography Soundtrack Nothing can hurt me. “[T]heirs was a story of losers enhanced by the passage of time and the success of those they influenced […] How far Big Star fell into the chasm between what they wanted to be and what they were, this that’s what made them great.
You could argue that romanticizing failure is part of the rock myth, and you’d be right. In typical, power pop conscious fashion, this is something the Jellyfish group (who is sort of the big star of the ’90s) wrote his best song on. Big Star is often referred to as a “cult band” and is equated with the Velvet Underground. But the Velvet Underground was nihilistic and self-immolated, and their initial lack of commercial success is hardly confusing. “The heroine” is a challenge in any context, at any point in history, in any possible timeline. In contrast, a song like “September Gurls” may have “challenged” some listeners and DJs in 1974 – record-buying audiences probably weren’t clamoring for Beatles pop at the time – but it’s pretty, melodic, undeniably attractive in a aesthetic sense. The dramatic irony is the hook: power pop is music that would have been huge in the past, or at least, much bigger. It is inherently anachronistic; if you expect innovation, the joke is definitely for you. There is a scene in Nothing can hurt me when David Bell, the brother of Big Star co-founder Chris Bell, is interviewed on # 1 Registration. “It wasn’t the Beatles,” said Bell, “but it was slim Well.”
“Something is good not because it is achieved, but because another kind of truth about the human situation […] is revealed, ”Sontag writes. Big star were not as good as the Beatles – not even Chris Bell’s brother thought that – but that’s almost irrelevant. Simply aspiring to be like the most successful and culturally significant pop group in history is an ambition that borders on delusion. Big Star did their best with a futile premise. Their music is like the most charming three-legged table ever built.
III. What it is not
Power pop die-hards get cramped when they see a band mislabeled as “power pop”. It happens a lot these days; the power pop aesthetic doesn’t exactly take the indie world by storm, but the term is. It is frequently used to describe true pop-punk groups that have more in common with Cartel than with Cheap Trick.
I really don’t care, at least that’s what I tell myself. I think genre definitions should be dictated by young artists, and I sympathize with every critic’s desire to substitute power pop for pop-punk, a label with inevitably harmful connotations. Power pop is, after all, among the earliest postmodern genres, at least according to people busy with letters to the Guardian. Why are so many of his fans – including me, sometimes – so reactionary?
But then, obviously, I can understand the “fate” of the old guard. Before the internet completely neutralized the concept of obscurity, power pop fandom required serious emotional investment, not to mention literal investment. Big Star records were something you owed to research. I’m barely old enough to remember ordering a stack of CDs through the Catalog Kool Kat Muzik with the money I earned from my summer job as a boom operator. That was the time. Also, those days were pretty bad.
The point is, ‘power pop’ was once a reliable RIYL if you were already in the club: if you like any of these bands, you’ll probably like them all. Genre semantics can seem boring or old-fashioned – Where oppressive if you really want to go – but they have a legitimate purpose for people who are always on the lookout for new music. The debauchery of a once hyper specific musical terminology makes discovery more difficult, damn politics.
Sontag likens the camp to a “private code” or an “identity badge”. I think the power pop fandom is like an archery board: outside there are normal music fans who just like Big Star or whatever; inside of that you got the diehards who probably go to conventions and are fluent in the genre and its history, but they take it really serious, thus becoming a product of the camp themselves. The innermost ring is made up of diehards who probably go to conventions and are fluent in the genre and its history almost against their will – they have a deep, unwavering and unwavering love for this style of music which was very popular with teenagers between the years 1963 and 1966, although they also recognize that the whole thing is a little silly.
“To name a sensibility, to draw its outlines and tell its story, requires a deep sympathy modified by repulsion,” writes Sontag. My relationship with power pop is characterized by this ouroboros of sympathy and disgust. I admire him and hate him. I’m constantly moved by it and also horribly embarrassed to have anything to do with it. To me, power pop is more than chirping guitars, heavy drums and painful vocal harmonies – and at the same time a lot less.
(Photo credit: William Eggleston)