Jul 21, 2021
By Lily Moayeri
Photography by Courtesy of Netflix
Serious music lovers—at least “serious” in their own minds—generally have a snobbish attitude toward pop music. It’s shallow and doesn’t have any substance. It should not be considered in the same way and at the same level as “real” music. The Netflix docu-series This Is Pop smashes through all those lofty ideas in its eight 44-minute episodes.
Through its topical episodes, This Is Pop sifts through subjects such as Auto-Tune, boy bands, Britpop, festivals, Swedish hitmakers, country music, the Brill Building, and protest songs. Not chronological in any way and wholly unrelated to each other, This Is Pop explores each topic with priceless archival and supplemental footage, input from essential musicians and producers in each of those subject areas, plus experts from journalists to educators, insiders and organizers.
Michael Bivins is sweet and likeable as he recounts his experience managing Boyz II Men in “The Boyz II Men Effect.” Shania Twain goes head-to-head with Wynonna Judd as Brandi Carlisle referees in “When Country Goes Pop.” The teddy bear-esque T-Pain reminds us that he was the whipping boy of the now-ubiquitous plugin in “Auto-Tune.” Guileless and deadpan, Swedish musicians and producers from ABBA’s Benny Andersson to Ludwig Göransson take us through their history in the driver’s seat of pop music in “Stockholm Syndrome.” Neil Sedaka states, “I was the Justin Bieber of the ’50s,” and Linda Perry brings that time to the present in “The Brill Building in 4 Songs.” From Glastonbury’s Michael and Emily Eavis to the co-founders of the Bonnaroo Festival, the power and importance of music festivals is illuminated in “Festivals Rising.” Blur’s Alex James speaks to the glory days of Britpop from his dairy farm while the women of the scene, particularly Miki Berenyi of Lush, really break that time down in “Hail Britpop!” The impact of protest songs is examined in the, frankly, out of place, “What Can A Song Do?” which feels entirely disjointed from the rest of the series. Whether or not you are interested in any of these artists or their music, the stories are fascinating and a huge part of cultural history.
This Is Pop’s dissection of each topic is insightful and specific. In the process, it shreds any previously held opinions about the disposability of pop music. Each episode is a stand-alone mini-documentary. There is a singular vibe and presentation style for each episode, which are helmed by different directors. The focus is international and what every episode shares is an inherent tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. This humor matches up with the topic, and with the culture of the episode.
Music documentary specialists Banger Films, who are also behind the Netflix series, Hip Hop Evolution, are the masterminds of This Is Pop. The former started as a four-episode limited series and has blossomed into a four-season, so far, series. If the popularity of This Is Pop is any indication (the series enjoyed a healthy run in Netflix’s Top 10 for a few weeks at the time of its premiere on June 22, 2021), it is headed in a similar direction. This Is Pop’s topical approach to pop music allows for endless exploration of the subject, from a variety of angles.
In the meantime, This Is Pop has spawned its own podcast of the same name, which premiered on July 12, 2021. Similar to fan podcasts, such as Shat on TV, which minutely unpack fantasy series like Game of Thrones and Westworld, the eight companion episodes of This Is Pop: The Podcast delve deeper into the topics of the episodes.
Series producer Amanda Burt takes us behind the scenes of This Is Pop, the series and the podcast.
Lily Moayeri (Under the Radar): How did you decide on the running order of the series?
Amanda Burt: We made episodes so they could play in any order. In fact, when it launched on Netflix is when we found out what order they chose. I have heard that it’s marketed to people differently depending on what your Netflix likes are. If you’re a super Britpop lover, and you’ve watched everything you could on Oasis up ‘til now, the “Hail Britpop!” episode may be the first one that you see. In Canada on Bell Media CTV, they picked the order they thought would work for their audiences. The secret is: Don’t have an order. That’s what made sense in the end.
How did you decide on the show’s episodic nature?
The show was originally called Pop Evolution and it was meant to be in the same style as Hip Hop Evolution. It became pretty clear when talking about the stories that chronology wasn’t our friend. Where do you start? Where do you end? Do you end up running out of runway? If you start in the more modern age, you’re ignoring the history of the genre. It just wasn’t going to work. We decided to take a totally different approach, almost a 30 For 30 for music. There was some tone and feeling and love of what we were doing in each episode, but the more different they were from each other, the happier I was. I wanted it to be close to the subject matter and not some format we thought would get more eyeballs. We decided to let the creative lead in terms of format.
The wealth of music knowledge is evident in the series. How did you tap into for all that information?
I wanted to make a series for people who loved music as a baseline. But, I also wanted people that maybe weren’t total music fans, but who were hungry for ideas and visuals and culture. What would they respond to human-wise or vibe-wise from the music or the artists we talked to? I have a lot of friends who worked at MTV and Much Music. Back in the day, they were always bummed out because they would have to do really fluffy reporting on pop stars. There was never a deep dig or deep dive into what pop music was.
There are lots of amazing pop and pop culture writers that are looking at pop music as something they study. That’s the path we wanted to take. We had amazing music journalists writing and researching. People that are connected to music, have interviewed 100s if not 1000s of people, have written many articles and books found the stories before we went into the field. We wove deep knowledge from a different people at different ages with different tastes before I even had directors on board.
When we went out in the field and started talking to people, we were armed with everything we could find out. But, then, we were open to whatever people told us. I’d say in every episode we learned things that we didn’t read anywhere, we’d never seen, we’d never heard before. That’s what you see on screen, a lot of the stuff that hasn’t been talked about yet.
More than once the interviewees said they were revealing something for the first time.
I worked in news for a long time. It was drilled into our heads to not know the story before we’re telling it. You know there’s something happening, you know there are people involved so let’s put ourselves in the way and try to actually figure out what’s going on. We had a story and we had scripts before we went out into the field, but there’s no point in getting people to say the same thing twice. If we have them on tape in archive saying something from before, we can just use that. When we were actually talking to the people, I didn’t want us to know what we would come back with. I just knew that we should tell them what we knew and we could have a conversation from there.
The series is “director-driven.” What does that mean exactly? What were you looking for in the directors you chose?
We were working out of Canada, so I was looking for Canadian directors. I was looking for people that were open and collaborative and not stuck. I hoped that they liked music, but, I didn’t want them to have done a music doc before so it could look and feel different. I didn’t want to impose a format. I didn’t want to say, “We need to have this many talking heads, this many celebrities and that’s how we’re going to do it.” I wanted people that were excited to do something different on a platform that you don’t get to normally do, a Netflix episode, and just do whatever you feel. I wanted the episodes to all to feel really different. I found people that were all versed in documentary in various ways, but I wouldn’t say any of them had ever made a classic music doc, which made it a pretty awesome team.
This Is Pop: The Podcast has come after the series, but the series itself feels like it could have come from a podcast. Why did you decide to do a podcast?
We were so limited with the length of the episodes, I wanted the show to be a jumping off point for the next conversations. There are a lot of conversations that come out of This is Pop that only come out in context of the other episodes. What did we leave on the table are the things we talk about in the podcast.
A lot of stories are what actually happened in the room, or how long did it take to get that person, or who would we rather have had. Also, our research and going out into the field and connecting with talent, it’s pretty open-ended. Some of the episodes have people from the Netflix episodes. We go a little bit deeper with them than we could have in the series. Some people have no connection at all but maybe can speak more to the themes that emerged from the episodes. We wanted the podcast to not just be about the show but about the ideas that come out of it and how you might relate to it.
Pop music is so emotional. Whether you hate it or love it, there’s an emotional connection to it. There are a lot of stories and conversations that come out of it. We wanted to have a place for that while people were still in the world of the show. (www.netflix.com/title/81050786)
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