A simple google search of the term ‘mainstream music’ presents us with particularly unflattering stereotypes. The Urban Dictionary’s top definition describes it as “un-original and boring”, referring to listeners as “people without any taste in music”. The search results are littered with articles that question the existence of good modern music, and many of the YouTube suggestions have titles written in caps lock to reinforce the anger and bitterness that their creators’ hold towards mainstream music; and yet, it is exactly that: mainstream. If it is as awful as many people painstakingly point out, why do these songs become so popular in the first place, generating thousands of sales and catapulting artists to international stardom?
Of course, the charts encompass several musical genres, none of which will be to absolutely everyone’s taste. Indeed, the popularity of certain songs can seem inexplicable, and critics are right in saying that several songs that remain in the Top 40 for weeks on end can lack substance or meaning. However, in an age of increasing political and social awareness, many artists that could perhaps have fallen under these categories in the past are now using their platform for empowering their fans through the medium of mainstream pop, something which cannot be ignored.
Many female artists champion women and female empowerment in their music. For example, in their latest single ‘Strip’, Little Mix inspire their fans to celebrate their bodies no matter their size, skin colour or stretch marks, defying the unrealistic beauty standards set by the media. In her record-breaking number one single ‘thank u, next’, which has broken records on various streaming platforms (and therefore could not be more mainstream), Ariana Grande confessions about her own relationships to encourage listeners to love themselves and not to hold grudges against people who may have hurt them in the past. In an age of social media bullying, these messages serve as valuable reminders that hatred, and self-hatred in particular, can be overcome.
In addition to pop, mainstream markets are increasingly embracing newer genres such as grime, a genre which has been credited for the increase in youth engagement with politics. At the Brit Awards 2018, Stormzy, after winning the prestigious British Album of the Year award, famously freestyled during his performance, asking “Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?”. These artists give their audience a voice to draw attention to the issues that are important to them, providing a platform for change.
Similarly, many chart-topping artists choose to share the problems that affect them everyday, such as physical or mental health disorders and addictions, in order to de-stigmatise them and show that it is okay to ask for help. For many people, even the existence of a particular artist can offer them a lifeline, making a valuable difference which should not be discredited, even if those artists aren’t deemed the most original or poetic in comparison to others. The ‘fandom’ culture on social media has changed the way we communicate globally as interaction based around popular musicians can help people bond and form new friendships – without mainstream music the world would be very different and perhaps more isolating for some people.
Of course, all of these songs can be interpreted differently; for many people, the charts simply aren’t what they used to be, and they cannot understand how anyone could form any emotional attachment to modern mainstream music. Despite this, there is something to be said for the songs we hear multiple times a day on the radio: they must have something going for them if they are so successful.