My whole life, I have held a deep, visceral love of pop. I don’t mean “pop” in the broad sense of “general popular music of containing various subgenres and hitting the top 40.” I’m talking pop pop (cue Magnitude from Community). I’m talking outrageously spritely, bright, synth-laden dance pop, under the umbrella of Swedish production stylings a la Max Martin and company. The emergence of this love of mine started as a mystery, considering I was raised by 70s rockers in a religious home where the majority of what I heard in my early years was almost exclusively church worship music (Vineyard, anyone?). I would be teased for this fascination of mine, considering the genre is automatically viewed as “less than” by many. But, at age 8 came my moment of wonder. I shuffled through a trash can after a house cleaning, and found a rare little pink CD by a short-lived Christian pop group called V*Enna, seldom remembered even by Christian music enthusiasts. My curiosity got the best of me and I placed All the Way to Heaven: The Maxi Single into the kitchen stereo, and I was immediately hooked as I became introduced to a vibrant, bouncy sound like nothing I’d ever heard before. I would learn in later years that the title track was undoubtedly created as a Christian alternative to the iconic “One for Sorrow” by iconic British 90s pop group Steps, which would only open more doors of discovery for me as I delved into the… gasp… “secular” pop world! By age 14, I would choose to put this discovery on the shelf for several years as I did my best to be a good, reformed evangelical Christian, caving under the pressure of immense religious guilt, fostered by a church environment where the frivolity of pop-fueled romance and discovery of sexuality was not only frivolous or shallow – but sinful and impure.
Fast forward many years later, after shedding those beliefs and pressures of the past, I gave myself full permission to return to my love of all things pop. The once forbidden fruit of Britney, the infectious hooks of *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, the playful empowerment of the Spice Girls. But most of all, always circling back to the aforementioned Steps, iconic in Britain yet overlooked by the US, with sounds that fuel me with such endorphins and joy, seeing them live in the UK is literally on my bucket list. Fuck it – I love pop. Pop, seen as a musical pariah to many- “shallow,” “repetitive,” and most of all, “not real music.” My shameless revelry feels like a rebellion against not only the trappings of religious purity culture I grew up in, but against the social stigma of music existing simply for fun. I’m not sure how we decided in our jaded state that “fun” was a bad thing. Sure, we have plenty of reasons to be jaded, but after religion did its best to forbid me from so many things that were fun and felt good, I’m not about to let arbitrary musical opinions and societal standards of coolness steal more of my joy.
I think about how the music of Steps has helped me get through some of my deepest depressions and anxieties. From navigating toxic work environments after flailing about in the deep end of the post-graduation pool, to trying to feel some sense of stability and sanity as our world started being ravaged by a pandemic. It has focused me when I felt I couldn’t unwrap my mind from a spiral of worry. It has helped me to move forward with assertion when I was paralyzed by fear. It has brought me deep joy that turned my sadness into dancing. It has made me feel seen and hopeful when I felt alone. It has made me smile and laugh when those were the last things I felt like doing.
If pop can do that, why should I be shamed into hiding what music I love? Why should it be written off as shallow and without meaning? Even under the pouring rain of glitter and the shards of light bouncing off the disco ball, even in the air permeated by the pink saccharine scent of bubble gum, through the sounds of thumping beats shining synthesizers… there is still healing and meaning to be found. Even if only as hearts race in the bodies that dance the night away – each drop of sweat stemming from the pounding heart that flows red blood through the veins, is a reminder that we are so very alive, and so very human. How can that be meaningless?