It’s inevitable that a documentary about music will get you thinking about rhythm. What’s not always a given is that a project will be able to match the energy of whatever artist they’re profiling. If things start to move at a pace that feels wrong, rushed, or manic, the music of whoever’s under the microscope has a canny way of letting you know.
It’s a problem that “This Is Pop” manages to avoid. The eight-part series, newly available on Netflix after airing on CTV in Canada earlier this spring, keeps a tempo worthy of its wide array of subjects. Ranging from bubblegum pop of the ’60s to the British radio output of the mid-‘90s to the current and eternal existential debates about the nature of country music, “This Is Pop” keeps moving itself along.
It helps that the show doesn’t force its individual episodes to conform to a single style. Some fully embrace their artifice, as with the overview of Sweden’s decades-long run as pop hitmakers. That chapter has a three-walled bedroom set, a thematically appropriate set of songwriting instructions, and winking piano renditions of decade-conquering megahits. It’s a contrast to something like the show’s look at the career of Boyz II Men, which plays as more formally conventional, but no less informative. “This Is Pop” doesn’t focus solely on the peaks and valleys in the careers of household names. In the case of this particular Philly group that’s been together their entire adult lives, it’s fascinating to get their insights from when their careers are solidly in between the two.What both of those episodes share is a helpful (and at times, playful) pursuit of context. No song exists independent of its influence, so rather than try to frame pop music history as the creation of genius pioneers, “This Is Pop” ends up becoming a show with tiny overlaps as stories unfold across generations and continents. Industry politics intersect with geopolitical trends. Certain artists’ respective renaissances help ignite the interests of their eventual standard-bearers. “This Is Pop” doesn’t set out to present a unified theory of a musical genre as much as it tries to highlight significant brushstrokes in the overall painting.
The show’s sense of specificity fades a little as “This Is Pop” gets later in the season (“later” being a fungible description, as Netflix has made at least one tweak to the episode order from its original CTV run). As the series tackles more amorphous, sprawling subjects like protest songs and music festivals, it starts to drift away from some of that direct-line context that makes those early episodes so compelling. It’s a lot easier to unpack the contentious Blur vs. Oasis rivalry over the course of a full episode than try to encapsulate the legacy of something like “This Land is Your Land” in a handful of minutes. However much the framing devices like Orville Peck’s tour through the idea of “authenticity” in country music may not feel essential to those episodes, they’re still providing a helpful throughline that some of the other music history catchalls don’t quite have.Taken as a whole, one of the benefits of “This Is Pop” is an attempt to look at the industry from plenty of different angles. The perspectives in the series aren’t purely confined to performers and executives. There are engineers speaking to the actual recording process. There are publicity veterans reflecting on the art of getting a band in front of people with cultural cachet. The “This Is Pop” collection of authors and writers offering their expertise doesn’t fit into a one-size-fits-all view of music press. There’s a careful balance that keeps the show from veering too far into closed-off academic treatises or uncritical hagiographic superfandom.
That last element is key and stretches back into the performers themselves. “This Is Pop” isn’t drilling down into the personal lives of every singer and songwriter, but plenty of them do provide windows into their own experiences that go beyond image maintenance. T-Pain’s frankness when talking about his peer’s reaction to his success and the rise of Auto-Tune helps reinforce the idea that fame doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s also just as illuminating to see the number of participants (and their bandmates and advisers) who were perfectly willing to trade a life in the public eye for one centered on accounting or farming or public service.
That also connects with the ways that people whose careers are on display in “This Is Pop” want to reflect on them. Some are eager to revisit the height of their fame. (Andy Kim, a veteran of the Brill Building song factory, is ready to sing the chorus of “Sugar, Sugar,” seemingly at the slightest prompting.) Others seem more reticent to return to the headspace of decades past, or prefer to engage with certain topics from a very specific entry point. If the overall idea is that pop music is a web that stretches well beyond radios, turntables, and streaming services, “This Is Pop” gives room for people to choose to stay inside their singular success or push it aside.
“This Is Pop” welcomes the idea that, despite the enduring power this music has, it doesn’t always come from a flash of inspiration. Some songs are accidents and others are copies. Even if the truth behind some of them remains a little elusive, they’re all part of a long, established battle for the ears and eyes of prospective fans. In the case of the “This Is Pop” episode on the Britpop tussles of the ’90s, that look to the past comes with a bevy of potential bands for curious unfamiliar listeners to discover anew. It’s not a coincidence that these suggestions help make it one of the series’ stronger efforts. Nodding to the past and future, one continual reminder throughout “This Is Pop” is that there’s always more to listen to in either direction.