Growing up (and growing old) with pop music

The first song I ever truly loved was West End Girls by Pet Shop Boys. There were many songs that brought me joy before then, but I remember oh so clearly that this was on another level. It felt as though the music and vocals of this song had taken me to another place because it didn’t just make me want to dance and sing, it made me feel all sorts of other things.

When West End Girls reached number one in the UK charts, I had just turned 11 years old. In April that year Madonna released Live to Tell and, despite the fact that I had no experience of a broken heart, I once again felt the song very deeply. I recognised those emotions, despite the fact I had yet to experience them for myself. This is when I started to appreciate a well-crafted pop song on a different level and, despite the fact I would defend my right to listen to Bros, I could already tell what was the ‘fast food’ of the pop world and what was ultimately more satisfying.

Deep down I knew that I’d not be singing songs like When Will I Be Famous in years to come (although I don’t think anyone could have predicted what would happen to Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up!), but I think I could tell that Janet Jackson’s Nasty would send shivers down my spine 30 years later. A perfectly crafted pop song has great melody and lyrics that will shine through whatever vocal performance or production is added on top, and you don’t have to know much about music to spot it. I’m not talking about disposable pop music, but cleverly constructed pop with heart and soul and longevity.

Is it a coincidence that my two big favourites of the 80s, Madonna and Pet Shop Boys, spent more weeks at number one in the UK singles charts that decade than anyone else? Probably not. Back then I listened to the chart show on Radio 1 every Sunday afternoon and watched Top of the Pops every Thursday on BBC1, and so my love of pop music can probably be traced back to growing up in a decade that was obsessed with it. A slightly less mainstream pop act carried me into the 1990s, partly because the already dark and quirky Depeche Mode started to venture towards a more rock-like sound right when I was at my most angst-y, and then I had a couple of decades where my musical taste was perhaps at its most eclectic.

However, recently I’ve been rediscovering good pop music and my taste has somehow returned to what I liked in the late 80s and early 90s. As well as Janet Jackson’s Control, I’m listening to Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer. In addition to Madonna’s Like a Prayer, I’ve got Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster on my Spotify, plus an awful lot of Pet Shop Boys albums from the last 40 years. As I sit here listening to the Scissor Sisters’ debut album from 2004, it’s left me wondering if this is my “real” taste in music, rather than what I feel I ought to like, or do our tastes simply change throughout our lives?

After the sad news was announced about Aretha Franklin recently, 6 Music played both of her 1980s duets with Eurythmics and George Michael and it left me wanting more pop on an otherwise wonderful radio station. Not just the occasional bit of Lizzo or a handful of the requests on Sunday’s Now Playing show, but some recommendations of fantastic pieces of contemporary pop. After all, this is the type of music that doesn’t just remind you of what you were doing when you first heard it, but songs that you can appreciate for the piece of art they truly are.

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