We lost Tommy Keene, a power pop titan, last month. Whenever a favorite musician passes away, I always take some time to shuffle through their discography and remember what they left us. Listening to Keene’s old records (and building this Power Pop Classics playlist) brought me back to my first foray into the genre, an experience that taught me as much about being a friendly fan as it did about rock ‘n’ roll.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m crazy about vintage power pop. The jangly electric guitars, the barbed melodic hooks, the vacuum-tight harmonies, the anthemic choruses — what’s not to love?
It was the early 1990s, long before everything was just a click away. I remember talking with a vinyl collector at a San Francisco record swap about his assortment of wax. When I asked him if he had any picture sleeve singles by the Jam, he closed his eyes, arched his brow and explained, “That’s more mod revival than power pop. Sure, one can argue that not all English power pop is mod revival and not all mod revival is power pop. But in my opinion, what differentiates the two …” As he rambled on, I just nodded and slowly sidestepped away.
The word “mansplaining” didn’t exist then, but it sure ran rampant throughout record conventions and music stores. Around the same time, I went to my local shop and tried to buy Cheap Trick’s 1979 album Dream Police. The cashier looked down at my record, mouth agape, and barked, “You don’t already have this?” I told him I didn’t, and that I was just getting into power pop after reading an interview with Weezer. He raised his voice. “Weezer is not power pop!” he exclaimed. “They are, in fact, alternative rock. How many times to I have to tell people this?” I shuffled out of the shop thinking about how a lot of self-appointed music experts seemed to be experts at bumming me out.
These days, I feel lucky to live near record stores with the friendliest of shopkeepers. One of them is so nice, he offered his storefront as a drop-off point for supplies to help those displaced by the recent Northern California fires. It’s people like these, who use music to connect with others and build community, that inspire my fellow Pandora curators and me.
It should go without saying that we’d rather be like friendly record store clerks than music snobs. We curate Pandora to help you find your favorite music and comedy, and we work with our Music Genome Project to help you discover new stuff to love. Our goal is to do all this without making you feel like someone is breathing down your neck and saying, “If you like that, you’re gonna love this other thing that I totally know everything about.” Over time, Pandora should fit you like your favorite pair of jeans. But it should also feel as though you’ve tailored it yourself by thumbing songs up or down. It’s your thumbs, after all, that truly drive your music discovery — and the longer you listen, the deeper the rabbit hole goes.
I still wonder where those self-appointed music authorities from the 1990s are now. I hope that, wherever they are, they’ve found a way to let music fandom be an invitation to explore, not a barrier to entry.