On 5 January 1980, “Pop Muzik” by M was at #32, its highest position in the 80s. Its peak position was #1 in 1979.
That change I was talking about last post, that would rescue the world from the mundanity of insincere ballads, the predictability of mass-produced disco, and the feebleness of soft rock? That change is new wave, and the first instance of real new wave I get to talk about is “Pop Muzik” by M.
As a self-professed new wave boy, I was aware of this song before starting this project, but I didn’t remember it from my childhood. I know it mainly as fodder from nearly every series of new wave compilation albums, but I had no idea it went all the way to number 1 in late 1979. How does a light fluffy nonsense song get to number 1? Well, it helps that this particular light fluffy nonsense song is a bit of a novelty song. There were lots of serious new wave songs happening at roughly the same time — Ultravox, Roxy Music, The Tubeway Army — but audiences, well, American audiences anyway, weren’t having any of it. But something that fizzes and pops like the pop muzik it either praises or mocks (“wanna be a gun-slinger, don’t be a rock singer”), well, that something can cut through the sentimental and overproduced schlock on the charts to have a moment in the sun.
From the first chords, Pop Muzik tells you it’s announcing something new: it’s a fanfare of synthesizer; no drums, no brass, no guitar, no aching or tweezing violin, just pure synthetic keyboard telling you that this is something the likes of which you’ve not heard before. Then the song regales your ears with all sorts of noises, pulsing and popping around each other in complicated patterns. Seductive, but decidedly not soulful backup singers caress your ears: they don’t tell you to listen, or berate you for not listening, they just sing, and if you don’t want to hear them, it’s your loss. If there’s anything this song harkens back to, it’s 50’s do-wop, “shooby-dooby-doo-wop” in this song’s parlance. If you’ve seen the movie 20 Feet from Stardom, you may remember one backup singer saying of The Monster Mash that it was the song where she was asked to sing like a white girl — the singers in Pop Muzik may as well have been those white girls.
The thing is that, as much as this song calls you to dance, it’s practically impossible to put into a meaningful set with disco songs. It’s the anti-disco. It’s jumpy, it’s jerky, and it has no violin! You have to think to find the beat. It only makes sense in the context of other jumpy jerky new wave songs. There were clubs at the time that were devoted solely to new wave music, but it wasn’t filtering into mainstream radio yet. In a few years, it would be dominating the charts.