A year or two ago, the Seattle rapper Macklemore had a huge hit with “Thrift Shop.” Billboard named it the number one R&B/hip-hop song in the country, but also noted a strange wrinkle: R&B radio stations weren’t playing it. Part of the issue was that Macklemore is white and most urban contemporary music hits are made by and targeted toward African Americans. But related to this was a business story: “Thrift Shop” had been promoted first to alternative rock radio, then crossed over from there into Top 40; R&B stations were an afterthought, not courted at all. The question that Macklemore’s success raised, then, was definitional: is the essence of music what it sounds like or the people that it attempts to represent?
That tension, between pop as music and pop as encapsulated identity, explains why if you get older listening to commercial music you realize we constantly have the same debates about it. Our parsing of Miley Cyrus’s trainwreck isn’t so different from how we once analyzed Britney Spears — after Spears melted down, a South Park episode even predicted Cyrus would be next. If we’re concerned about country bros multiplying, how distinct is that from when Miley’s dad Billy Ray was in a cohort of “hat acts” 20 years ago? And if it was a story that Iggy Azalea, a white female rapper from Australia, parodied black Southern slang on “Fancy,” or Taylor Swift ironically invoked twerking, can we not relate that to, oh let’s see, American Bandstand teen idols circa 1960, blue-eyed soul circa 1970, the disco backlash bleaching charts in 1980, Vanilla Ice in 1990, and a global pop industry built on the R&B techno-beats of New Jack Swing cementing Britney herself by 2000? Pop spins us round like a record used to.