by Sophie Winfield
“Chow invites us to forget everything we thought we knew about what makes good music.”
Lesley Chow’s You’re History seeks to debunk our misunderstanding of (or our unwillingness to understand) the magnetism of pop music. The genre is often dismissed by critics as a mere “guilty pleasure”, something that has few critical legs to stand on other than the fact that a song is fun and enjoyed by the masses.
What Chow argues throughout the book is that this fun-ness of pop songs – the often-indescribable aesthetic and emotional pleasure one can derive from them - doesn’t make them any less deserving of critical acclaim than songs from other genres. She questions why there is a severe lack of books about the pop genre, drawing one’s attention to how something can simultaneously be regarded popular by nature and yet remain critically underrated and misunderstood.
This misunderstanding is especially important: throughout the book, Chow doesn’t try to argue that the pop songs she discusses should be approached via a different critical lens because of their popularity. Rather, they should be dissected and analysed with the same respect we give to the work of indie songwriters. Instead of dismissing songs as simply being “foolishly infectious”, she says, we should focus on “explaining why it catches on … what it took to strike “the right chord” with the public”.
To do this, Chow comments on the moments in songs that are often entirely brushed over: the 'oohs' and the lines that are repeated so frequently you can’t get them out of your head are, according to Chow, just as important in creating an iconic song as those lines that can easily be considered lyrical genius. “To write off an artist on the basis of vapid lyrics is premature, at the least” says Chow, before delving into the success and hypnotism of Rhianna’s 2007 hit Umbrella.
Strangeness, too, is important. No matter whether a sound be easy on the ears or shrill and saccharine, if it leaves a mark on the listener and continues to “boggle the mind” it is important.
Chow’s knowledge of intonation and rhythm and her ability to explain how powerful they can be in changing the entire course of a song is phenomenal. From discussing Beyoncé’s glee yet smug tone in Love On Top to the emotional difference between Gloria Jones and Soft Cell’s “whoa” and “ohhhh” in their respective versions of Tainted Love, she explores what makes a pop song feel so explosive and pleasurable for the listener. By asking questions such as “why am I so struck by this sound?” and “What is it I can’t get out of my head?”, she hones in on the feeling that is a result of the sound; whether that be the pure pleasure and ecstasy felt when listening to the music of Janet Jackson and TLC, or confusion at the hands of Kate Bush, Chow wants to understand it.
It feels as if this book couldn’t have come at a better time. Female singers find themselves constantly having to defend their art; whether that be Cardi B and Meg Thee Stallion having to defend WAP from conservative accusations that they “aren’t doing feminism any favours” or Taylor Swift publicly calling out a new Netflix show for writing “lazy, deeply sexist joke[s]” at her expense, it is clear that the power of these women’s music is so often lost amongst the noise.
By embracing the strangeness and power of the music created by the women she discusses throughout the book, Chow invites us to forget everything we thought we knew about what makes ‘good music’, and simply lose ourselves in the pleasure and euphoria of women’s pop.
Sophie Winfield is a freelance fashion and culture writer with articles in Marie Claire, Boyfriend Magazine, FROW magazine and more.