Why pop needs mediocrity

In pop music, the middle of the road matters too. We can't all be Beyoncé.

July 5, 2017

The artists currently topping the Billboard 100 are perfectly adequate: Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, Sam Hunt, and everybody involved in “Despacito” can successfully deliver a pop song that’s neither excellent nor terrible. Their singles don’t necessitate a station change, and don’t run the risk of rivalling “Humble.” They are the macaroni salad of the summer BBQ buffet—they aren’t deal breakers, but they’re certainly noticeable if absent. We need them.

Which is interesting when you remember that we’re existing in a musical culture of extremes. In pop especially, artists like Rihanna, Beyoncé, Kendrick, and Harry Styles operate in the upper echelons of pop star hierarchy, selling out concerts in seconds while feigning surprise at their all-encompassing popularity. Artists like Adele, Drake, and Ariana Grande offer excellence through their songwriting, performances, and vocal abilities, and arguably keep the industry afloat through their tours, merchandise, and record sales. Daily, we are confronted by new definitions of The Best™ and reminders that if you’re not, you’re part of the rest.

“The rest,” for the record, being the average. The fine, the mediocre, the good enough. And considering pop’s ability to filter most of the straight-up bad from the cultural gold, “medium”-level pop stars are what’s left behind by the creme de la creme. But the surprising thing is, they’re important.

There’s currency in music that straddles the line between being catchy and being unmemorable. Pop is hugely defined by the legacy of artists who’ve been one-hit wonders or delivered reasonable enough music to warrant perpetual airtime. Fifth Harmony, The Chainsmokers, and Nickelback can all be categorized as artists we know, but whose legacies are steeped in singles and not albums; whose listeners consist of loyal fans, and that’s it. Ultimately, “medium” pop acts are microcosms. They keep us busy while the artists we love to have time to grow, and the industry needs them to even the score.

In pop, we love to establish hierarchies. We love to crown certain artists as the second coming of Christ, and to wonder aloud how the once-mighty have managed to fall. But comparison is key: genres may differ, artists’ abilities vary, but we use the mediocrity of some to make the others seem better. Compared to Fifth Harmony and their recent fallout with Camilla, Little Mix’s music seems a little more fun and reflective of drama-free collaboration. Compared to Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith’s vocals are a little more impressive. (Or vice versa, if you want to talk about who can play guitar best.) On the flip side, Liam Payne’s single seems like a petty tantrum (“Used to be in 1D / now I’m free”), while Harry’s solo debut came across as thought-out and largely grown-up. And as for The Chainsmokers? They exist to make Justin Bieber look a little bit better.


So yes, certain pop acts exist in the middle of the pyramid, but they prop up our kings and queens. We need them.

But perhaps most importantly, we should never underestimate the power of “fine.” Not every artist can change the game, and nor should we expect them to—particularly since nothing’s as big of a buzzkill as interrupting a jam to point out technical inabilities within a song or where lyrics lack in originality. After all, our youths are largely shaped by songs that have been “good enough.” Ace of Base’s “The Sign,” Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5,” and anything by 98 Degrees were what soundtracked school dances, bad bars, and parties. Mediocrity, while not sustainable in the long run, can take us through an evening before we need to delve back into what resonates deeper. Filler is important, whether musically or when snacking. Nobody wants to be John Cusack in High Fidelity, high on their own self-importance.

Not to mention that “medium” pop sells. For over a decade, Nickelback have played and sold-out stadiums. Katy Perry played Glastonbury and BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend this year (to high acclaim, regardless of the critical disdain for Witness), and Imagine Dragons are consistently nominated for major music awards. And when looking at the music industry, this matters: these acts employee producers, publicists, marketers, set designers, and the slew of other professionals, ultimately keeping the rest of the industry—and the artists we really care about—afloat. So yes, certain pop acts exist in the middle of the pyramid, but they prop up our kings and queens. We need them.

Or at least that’s what you can tell yourself the next time you turn up “Despacito” and convince yourself that Justin Bieber singing in Spanish is an organic evolution of his creative self. (And that he didn’t forget the lyrics while performing it in public.)

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