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This is Pop review: Netflix docuseries is a well-rounded exploration into the history of chart-topping music

·5 min read

This is part 3 of the three-part series Firstpost is doing on the occasion of World Music Day. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.


Pop music often invites the scorn of music snobs €" "It's overplayed/overrated," "There's nothing special about it," "The lyrics are so foolish," "Oh, I only listen to Porcupine Tree and Tool" (you know who you are). Yet these songs have embedded themselves into the collective consciousness and acted as cultural unifiers by transcending geopolitical confines.

It is their lyrical simplicity and their earworm melodies that draw listeners to them, something that ABBA's Benny Andersson to Backstreet Boys' Brian Littrell agree upon in Episode 2: "Stockholm Syndrome" of This is Pop.

This is Pop, an eight-episode docuseries that Netflix premiered on 22 June, does not set out to defend popular music. It doesn't have to. What it does explore is how many beloved hits came into being, why they have the effect that they do, and how more often than not many artists and songs have challenged preexisting notions of what music should be. It's an in-depth inquiry into the history of pop that enmeshes biographical details from celebrated names in the music industry with a scholastic approach, ensuring that the series does not elicit many yawns from the viewers.

Nathan Morris of Boyz II Men. YouTube
Nathan Morris of Boyz II Men. YouTube

Nathan Morris of Boyz II Men. YouTube

The pilot episode focuses on Boyz II Men, one of the original contemporary boybands that broke race and class barriers, after crossing over into the wider, white-dominated pop charts. Nathan Morris, Shawn Stockman, and Wanya Morris speak about the genesis of their group, and their struggle to preserve the momentum of their success during a time when white boybands like Backstreet Boys, *Nsync, and 98 Degrees were appropriating their every move. History repeated itself, new faces took over the old, because after all, Boyz II Men were modelled after New Edition. Their crash was inevitable yet they resurfaced with a new attitude.

T-Pain in This is Pop. YouTube
T-Pain in This is Pop. YouTube

T-Pain in This is Pop. YouTube

My favourite episode is "Auto-Tune", where T-Pain recounts how he used the groundbreaking invention to create his signature sound. Time and again, he was told the novelty of the effect would run its course. He recalls going through a four-year-long period of depression after Usher told him he ruined music for "real singers."

The episode questions whether auto-tune is a crutch or a tool for enhancement. Long ago, I was of the belief that auto-tune is a lazy way of finessing one's performance. It was only after T-Pain's NPR Tiny Desk concert did I start seeing him in a new light. T-Pain admits that he was conflicted about the response his performance received. One can only empathise with the singer, when he relays his story, the disapproval and mass backlash, with genuine honesty.

He also talks about how innovation frequently remains unappreciated and only becomes acceptable whenever someone else also follows suit. It's uncomfortable and alien, and hardly fits into the ambit of our understanding. Following the norm is definitely easier than challenging it €" but conformity never breeds innovation. The same lesson is learned from "When Country Goes Pop", where artists like Dolly Parton and Shania Twain defied the stiff standards of country music to be their own people. They paved the way for newer musicians like Taylor Swift or even Lil Nas X, whose song 'Old Town Road' ruffled feathers by colliding the world of hip-hop and trap with country. Billboard landed in controversy after it quietly removed the song from its country music charts, later citing that it does not "embrace the elements of today's country country music."

This is Pop gives a proper introduction to the many Swedish imports behind the nostalgic pop hits of Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears to Childish Gambino's 'This is America.' These are names behind hits after hits that we probably never paid much heed to. Britpop and its ascend into the radios and TVs across the world, the long drawn battle between Blur vs Oasis, and the germination of similar, slightly less-talked about bands that followed their footsteps were teachable moments for even long-time fans like me.

The last episode goes over the legacy of the Brill Building, a sub-genre of pop named after a real-life location that brought together aspiring songwriters, record producers, and singers to create the next big hit. The episode on music festivals explains how these large-scale events have ushered major pop culture moments. Each of these iconic festivals were reflective of the various stages of history, like Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock took place at the peak of the counterculture movements in the US. It was entrancing, particularly the footage of Pandit Ravi Shankar's celebrated performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Glastonbury in the UK, for instance, was the first of its kind to generate profit.

This is Pop examines the various -isms that have weighed down artists €" racism, classism, sexism. The music industry is still in a constant tussle with these issues. Boyz II Men discuss putting in double the effort than their white counterparts, news reports show how Twain's body, after the release of her 'Man! I Feel Like a Woman', being the more talked about topic than her music, and female artists in Britpop divulge how the regressive "lad culture" sexualised and further marginalised them from the scene.

The docuseries is an example of well-rounded journalism bringing together different voices and perspectives €" journalists, music historians, engineers, producers, public relations executives, and the musicians themselves.

The journey of the series services the fans with enough content from archival footage to evoke nostalgia, and marvel from unknown anecdotes. Also employing different methods of storytelling €" direct-to-camera interviews, voiceover narrations, and colourful infographics €" keeps the topic engrossing.

This is Pop is streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here €"

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