There’s a fine line between being unique and being popular… and only some can master it
Words by Brinsley Chidavaenzi
Making a Pop record, as an artist who’s had non-Pop music in the past, is a hard feat. But it’s a feat that most of the greats have done in their careers. At some point, some stage, the prospect of Pop appeal is alluring. You can’t really fault it. Music is meant to be shared and the more shared it gets, the more ears your work can lend on – meaning the more investment people can attach to your work.
We champion the niche until the niche get too big and want them to back to making music how they used to and then in the same breath we wonder how come an artist isn’t big enough or known more. Catch 22 heaven. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Trying to satisfy the people that loved your work for being unconventional vs. the potential attention and exposure to a much larger audience is the stakes of the game. The tightrope balancing act of this is a tricky one but you can win you the glory of this being done well and break huge terrains of new ground in audience or being a laughing stock if you don’t. ‘A flop’. In recent years, we’ve seen artists switch between making records that aren’t based on Pop structure to easier listening to records that are smooth and radio ready.
Kendrick’s DAMN (2017) is shift from the jazz/black music encycloaedia opus To Pimp A Butterfly as is Janelle Monae’s ‘Dirty Computer’ (2018)’s multi colour pop-funk-punk odyssey from the avant intergalactic soul of her previous albums. Now James Blake’s ‘Assume Form’ (2019) being more accessible and direct than Blake’s previous electronic soul bearings. These three examples are victory laps in showing how an artist can move towards a wider audience.
Keeping the characteristics that made listeners resonate to you in the first place:
Examples: Kendrick’s history of larger themes and commentary within his work – even on DAMN where the themes and content are more abstract leaning and less obvious than his previous counterparts (TPAB – in which Mortal Man has a poem summarising the album’s content and GKMC being summarised by the voicemails).
Not compromising on values that listeners are familiar with and associate the artist with.
More inclusion of choruses/refrains.
Simplification in song structure or arrangement or production choices.
Within the spectrum of popular music that includes vocals: most people take in the vocals at first value but the production is a backbone that ideally compliments the vocal performance. If the production is singular, trendy, sparse and catchy enough – the vocals have excellent room to be at the forefront. Subversion of what’s popular and run of the mill and bringing that into your fun musical world can also be a golden moment of subversion that can strike listeners as a unique moment of left field creativity colliding or a ‘you’re trying to hard to be trendy’.
People will always say you’ve ‘sold out’, but it’s popularity that can make an act ‘selling’ – and that selling can always lead for an artist to have greater future experimentation and a change of sonic direction. And selling is ultimately what we need to survive and thrive as musicians. But don’t cheat your artistry.