Put crudely, you succeed in pop music (or any kind of commercial art) by a mix of novelty and comfort. When critics want to put novelty in a good light we call it innovation. When we want to put comfort in a good light we call it “timeless” or “classic”. But this rapidly turns complicated. Stuff that used to be novel can become comforting, stuff that used to be comforting can be finagled into seeming novel again. And both terms are only meaningful inasmuch as they’re relative to the people you want to sell the records to - who might well construct their own comfort AS novelty. So it’s all hugely tactical even IF you accept the idea that this commercial art is by its nature “manufactured” and the desires and preferences of the creators don’t really come into it.
All genres can seem revolutionary compared to some other genre (think about how revolutionary pop-country would sound if metal was the norm); what’s ultimately interesting is how a given work plays with the expectations of that genre. The great thing about pop is that it’s a genre sometimes entered into unwillingly. Because it’s so loosely defined, existing more as a strata of cultural influence than a particular sound, not everyone who ends up in pop thinks of themselves as pop artists, which changes the definitions of the genre in unexpected ways. For better or for worse, there is no genre of music that has been more dynamic over the course of its history than pop. Every other genre looks extraordinarily conservative by comparison.
Let it be known that I, as a huge Robyn fan, in no way endorse the most-pop-is-bad-but-Robyn-is-actually-good argument for Robyn.
You don’t have to agree with it, or think it’s a good argument, but maybe it is in a way true for some people. Myself, for instance, although I wouldn’t say “actually” good because it’s such a loaded yet uninformative qualifier. I’d rather listen to Robyn than any other (undefined) pop, unless someone wants to point me in the direction of something that recreates or, better still, improves on the appeal of Body Talk, Pt. 1. In return I could point you to some hardcore that’s ‘actually’ better than Fucked Up. Unless the appeal (of Robyn or Fucked Up, who I keep coming back to in this situation) is in its slight difference from the norm, and that’s fine as long as we recognise at such and don’t see it as automatically discrediting or displacing the regular genre.
Incidentally, I think there’s either a typo or a Freudian slip at the end of this line of the review:
“Because Robyn is Swedish, and is thus vaguely exotic to us essentially myopic North Americans, there’s been a fair bit of speculation on the part of her most vocal detractors that Body Talk‘s positive reception by North American music critics is the direct result of that eroticism.”
I’m butting in belatedly to say something that I think hardcorefornerds is implying, which is that the word “pop” isn’t paying its way in this conversation. Maybe that’s because the original review (by the previously unknown to me Calum Marsh) starts off with the idea that pop follows convention, but then says nothing about what the conventions are or how Robyn embodies them. Or maybe it’s because whether or not pop is a genre is a very open question - I’m even less likely to predict what a song will sound like if you tell me that it’s “pop” than if you tell me that it’s “rock” or “r&b” or “country.” Or maybe it’s ‘cause I’ve spent zero seconds of my life thinking about whether or not Robyn is pop (whereas I have given minutes of thought to how much of a punk she might be). Many eons ago in a distant galaxy the word “rock” meant electric adventure, and though that feeling’s long gone, the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll” still provides a slight twinge of the old thrill, and “disco” more. I wouldn’t say my feelings are a complete blank on the word “pop” - it’s a patch of sun compared to “rock” or “indie” these days, though that’s a very relative judgment - but the word has never gotten me up and jumping. It’s kind of a placeholder. The tingle I get from “Paris” and “Britney” has only partially made its way to the word “pop.” I usually hyphen-in the word “dance” or “club” or even “r&b” with those two. And come to think of it, the word “rock star” actually does have some lingering potency, in that Dave and Erika and I had a discussion back in ‘07 on Rolling Teenpop as to who was the current best rock star, if indeed there were any remaining rock stars, and we decided there were three: Britney, Lindsay, and Paris. Well, I don’t think Erika was endorsing Paris anymore, seeing as how Paris was apologizing too much for her transgressions. I held out hope - still do, actually, but this is while not owning a television or doing much research on the actual human being or ever even taking a look at her TV show(s) but rather going by sound and lyrics and a quotation I ran across once where Paris says that she really likes Austria ‘cause they pay her to go to parties - that Paris would turn out to be some kind of combination Rolling Stones and Robert Mitchum (though Mitchum didn’t cry when he was sent to jail, and Paris when she got out didn’t say that jail was “just like Palm Springs - without the riff-raff, of course”). I fear this will end up as just more unfulfilled potential, though every six months or so I read something about a potential second album. Hope Storch is involved, if there is one.
Not that we shouldn’t use the word “pop” anymore - it’s fine - but we gotta know when to attach qualifiers and explanations.
(They seem to have fixed the typo.)