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The Rolling Estonian: Making the Case for Pop Music

Why is it that society condescendingly looks down on modern popular (or “pop”) music? Critics bashing the genre are pervasive in mainstream music discourse. To them, pop music lacks substance, is too homogenized, and originates from the same exclusive group of producers, contributing to the genre’s increasing commercialization.

Taavi-Peeter Liiv sitting on a bench
Singer, songwriter, and producer Taavi-Peeter Liiv (source:

I’ll give credit where it's due – some of these criticisms are not entirely baseless. Record labels want to generate profit and they know that simplicity sells. Enamoured with this simplicity, modern pop producers and songwriters often weave the same catchy rhythms throughout their projects, resulting in pop’s identifiable and formulaic sound.

Even worse is the fact that pop music’s increasing commercialization stands directly at odds with individual artistic expression and what it means to be an artist in modern society more generally. Artist–label relations are complicated. Record label contracts, which often include complicated clauses on ownership rights, limit the degree of creative freedom and expression that artists wield in their projects. This is not to say that artists have zero agency in the creative process; pop singers Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey have been lauded for their songwriting abilities. But the point remains that record labels wield a great degree of influence over their artists, including everything from rhythm to album art. 

Postmodern record labels did not regard profit as their overarching objective. They certainly did; when rock and roll’s popularity was climbing the charts after World War II, for instance, record labels cut their contracts with many jazz artists who, at that point, largely constituted pop music's sound. Out with the old, and in with the new, shiny gold.

That being said, it would be erroneous to conflate pop music as being synonymous with materialism or commercialization. After all, pop music represents what is popular in society at any given time (hence the term). Pop music’s commercialization is symptomatic of modern society’s exuberant consumerism more generally, rather than commercialization being inherent to pop music itself.

Record labels’ thirst for profit in the current age has manifested into something palpable – not only has it changed the way pop music sounds but also the way it is presented to consumers. Pop music is undeniably intertwined with commercialization. From the speakers of your local mall to the ads you see on television, pop music has successfully asserted itself as society's soundtrack for promoting consumerism.

Though, what is responsible for this shift in culture? And why are some people embarrassed to associate with the genre at all?

The rise of the Internet Age, social media, and globalization have fuelled consumerism like never before. Social media pumps out new micro trends to follow every other month, stirring the desire – no, the need – to buy whatever is in style at any given moment. In this consumer society, people’s attention spans are shorter: we desire more things, more frequently. Record labels quickly learned that this sort of accessibility sells in music, too. The result: pop music today has become identifiable by its catchy rhythms and simple lyrics. In other words, it's easy to digest. (It should be noted that not all pop music can be defined by simplicity. Many artists intertwine complex themes and messages into their projects worthy of discussion. But the point remains that, overall, pop music is highly associated with commercialization, and by extension, simplicity and accessibility.)  

Add sexism and gender dynamics to these considerations and you get an even clearer picture of how pop music is perceived in society. Many contemporary pop artists target young girls and women as their main listening demographic. What women indulge in is therefore perceived under the context of the pop industry's commercialization; that what they enjoy is mere fluff produced en-masse to increase profit. The result: the sexist conflation of pop music as a genre that is inherently superfluous and less complex than what male audiences may listen to.

It follows, then, that some people are ashamed to admit that they enjoy pop music because they perceive it to lack any substantial complexity. People want to be different. They want to assert their individuality, complexity, and depth while they are submerged in an ocean of sameness. Just as a person who follows and buys into micro trends is deemed “basic,” so too is someone who solely listens to mainstream pop music.  

But this shouldn’t be the case. Indulging in popular things does not take away from someone’s uniqueness. Similarly, enjoying pop music does not take away from someone’s complexity. 

Estonia has many upcoming pop artists. Since the issue of his first single in 2020, Taavi-Peeter Liiv has released two albums: Absurd (2020) and Skorpion (2022). Skorpion is a smooth jazz-pop fusion that weaves elements of electronic throughout. Adhering to pop’s facet of accessibility, the album’s tracklist is only eight songs long, making it an easy 28-minute listen. Whether you are a pop music aficionado or are hesitant to delve into the genre, Skorpion provides a seamless, mesmerizing listen either way. Right off the bat, the album's first track “Võluilm” is sweet and sultry, enticing you to into the rabbit hole teeming with seduction. Another song worth highlighting from the album is the third track, titled “Tunnnete kaubamaja,” for its lively and spirited bridge near the end of the song. Overall, the album's success derives from its versatility. It's mellow and sultry, but these qualities mesh well with the catchy melodies.

Pop is for everyone and is good in its own right. Don't let mainstream rhetoric prevent you from revelling in what you enjoy.

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