Why we’re wired to love pop music

Music snobs, please note: it takes a sophisticated composer to write a good pop song, says Jude Rogers. And they’re part of our emotional DNA.

For ages, this grown-up music critic felt like apologising for really loving pop. Stuff from my childhood was a particular critical niggle: Bananarama, A-ha, the first Kylie album, early, screechy Madonna, all the big, shiny sentiments that soared through those songs… All together now: ahhh!

And, when I became a mum 20 months ago, nostalgia radio stations were my jam. I’d burp my son to Yazz’s The Only Way Is Up (“Baby, for you and me now”), rock him to Wham!’s Freedom (“Tell me I’m a baby/And I will understand”), even sigh to Duran Duran when the bugger eventually stopped wailing (“Please, please tell me now, is there something I should know?”). But, although pop music was a life raft during those tough early months, I soon realised it wasn’t frivolous, either. It was about creativity, colour, escapism, life – it had depth and meaning, too. This is when my book Pop! came together, a book for young children, telling them all about what pop music is and the things it can do. As I worked on it, I also realised why pop means so much to us adults as well – whether we have children or not.

Pop music provides emotional links back to our earliest memories and experiences, for starters. Speaking personally, it takes me, The Mum, back to me as A Child, straightaway. (My first memory? Being allowed to wash the dishes with Grandma at two-and-a-half, singing along to ABBA’s Super Trouper on the radio.) It also takes me back to my parents as parents, fitting my feet into their shoes. Oh, the times I’d tell my dad what was No 1 in the charts (like The Flying Pickets’ cover of Yazoo’s Only You in Christmas 1983 – probably the first Christmas I can blurrily remember). Oh, the times Mam would make car journeys better by playing her Sounds Of 1963 cassette (me wiggling my shoes to The Swinging Blue Jeans’ Hippy Hippy Shake as we headed off on holiday). Music soundtracked my first impressions of these important people, and it’s not a coincidence. It’s the way we are wired.

My first memory? Being allowed to wash the dishes with Grandma at two-and-a-half, singing along to ABBA’s Super Trouper on the radio

Back in 2009, researchers at the University of California, Davis, revealed that music helped trigger autobiographical memory in the medial prefrontal cortex (single-science GCSE description: the frontal lobe of the brain, the bit that’s just above your eyes). More brilliantly, our brain’s ability to track chord changes and melodies in a song, and its ability to conjure up memories, happen in that very same place..”A bit of recognizable music [therefore] fills in as a soundtrack for a psychological motion picture that starts playing in our mind,” clarified neuroscientist Dr Petr Janata to the Live Science diary that year. “It gets back to recollections of a specific individual or spot, and you may out of the blue observe that individual’s face in your inner consciousness.” In other words, pop music can actually jumpstart the retelling of the story of ourselves.

Fascinatingly, this cortex is also one of the last regions of the brain to degenerate when people have diseases like in Alzheimer’s – this is why music can produce responses in people when real-life interactions cannot. The idea of its power in the brain gained more scientific clout in 2011, when a cellist with severe amnesia, caused by the brain disease encephalitis, was revealed to still be able to recall and learn music. So his brain tissue was so badly inflamed he couldn’t recognise anyone or remember anything, but music was still there, beating and pulsing away. Music is at our psychological core, then, literally, in the very matter of us. No wonder it still means so much.

And that’s before we even get to the specifics of pop. Of course, it is in “popular” music’s very nature to conjure up earworms, but we shouldn’t cynically dismiss it because of that, says Professor Jane Ginsborg of the Royal Northern College Of Music, an expert in music psychology. “When people say, oh, the thing about pop being memorable is that it’s simple and obvious and repetitive – that downplays its importance in our lives. We all sang nursery rhymes as children repeatedly, didn’t we? They don’t have that same charge.” The lyrical contents of songs stick with us too; they often taught us about grown-up emotions when we weren’t old enough to understand them. Bands who make the most memorable pop are often sophisticated composers, Ginsborg says. “My childhood loves were The Beatles, and they were the most sophisticated writers. We forget how much intelligence is actually behind pop.”

Considered intellectual debates about how we’re feeling aren’t always the best ointments. Give me a synthesiser and a voice to shake the bones

As our brains develops fastest before the age of seven, Ginsborg adds, “so music from those years takes us back to that state of learning – and to very particular events”. In other words, pop music properly makes our brains whirr. I find it fascinating that, every time I hear The Bangles’ Eternal Flame, I’m back in a school swimming-pool changing room after getting my 25m swimming badge (a radio in reception playing Radio 1 music always filtered through). That feat is not the most significant event in my life any more – several others have surpassed it – but it was a big triumph back then for Unsporty Little Me. Something in the hope of that song, and in its sweetness, grabbed me at that moment. Songs can be stepping stones, or rungs to hang on to, I’ve realised, as we navigate new waters, as we shape who we are.

And they still can. I remember Rihanna’s We Found Love hitting me hard when I first heard it, reminding me how far mine and my husband’s relationship had come after we married. I remember Sia and David Guetta’s Titanium making me feel strong at a time when I really, really needed it and, yes, these are salves delivered in sugary doses, but sometimes that’s precisely what we need. Considered intellectual debates about how we’re feeling aren’t always the best ointments. Give me a synthesiser and a voice to shake the bones. Now we’re talking.

Don’t forget that pop isn’t just about music as well. It’s about the people behind it, and the imagery they use. MTV culture was new in my childhood, and my first musical loves were proper visual treats. Adam Ant – a handsome prince who swung on chandeliers in pop videos! Boy George – his hair is so pretty! Both were great singers; it didn’t miss my attention that they were rebellious, androgynous, make-up-slathered men. It never left me thereafter that self-expression was a brilliant thing and, as a grown-up, I love that I remember where those values first stemmed from.

The feelings pop projects remain in the very fabric of our lives, and they can be played out joyfully, noisily, even subversively, through songs. Pop is escapism and expression, and we need that more than ever as adults, hemmed in as we are by hectic schedules, busy jobs and competing demands on our time. Lucy O’Brien, author of definitive Madonna biography Like A Icon, and NME writer during the 80s, agrees – and adds that we shouldn’t forget how pop stars rocked our worlds in other ways. “Pop stars have had a huge effect on people’s idea of the world, like Madonna really did when we were young. There she was, singing about unplanned pregnancy in Papa Don’t Preach, and bringing up issues of race in the video to Like A Prayer. To do that in songs that were both really melodic and catchy made all the difference.”

Pop is escapism and expression, and we need that more than ever as adults, hemmed in as we are by hectic schedules, busy jobs and competing demands on our time

These days, social issues can still get into the top 10, she says, although it’s most likely to be in the form of, say, a controversial grime track – but it reminds us that pop is about big, important things. “Pop’s only really defined by what hits the mainstream, and that can still be anything. Ideas enter from all angles and there’s always something interesting around.” O’Brien also calls pop music “the most robust kind of folk music, that means a lot to people emotionally”. I like this description a lot. After all, as you look around the world, you realise the power pop music has.

I don’t just mean in the weight of tweets whizzing around the world about Justin Bieber’s #hotness either, but by the ways in which pop is still silenced and censored internationally. In Iran, Western pop music has been banned since 2005. China has a regular blacklist of tracks (Lady Gaga and Katy Perry were on it 2011). Balloons and drones have been used to smuggle pop music into North Korea. We also live in a world where people were murdered for going to a rock gig. I don’t mean to use this example crassly, but to give music’s importance the respect it deserves, just as the Eagles Of Death Metal did, when they went back to Paris less than a month later to play. Pop has the power to move us, transport us, mould us and change us, found lifelong enthusiasms, create new communities and change lives for the better.

I thought about this today, one more time, in the very mundane setting of giving my son his tea. Spotify was streaming and we had The Beatles’ back catalogue on shuffle… All together now: ahhh! As She Loves You came to its glorious end, that amazing, strange vocal harmony hanging in the air, a sound came out of my son’s yoghurty mouth: “A-geh!” So I played it again. Once more at the ending: “A-geh!”

And, after I took him down from his high chair and let him run around the room, another sound emerged from him: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Mammy? Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Yes, she loves you, I said, and I felt like a grown-up again. Here’s to a future of big, soaring sentiments, lifelong enthusiasms and changed lives. That’s our music. Up you, pop.

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