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Essay: An Office Pop Phenomenon

By Callum Foulds

Headphones on a yellow background
Photo: Unsplash

I believe that pop music is sorely under-appreciated when it comes to serious music criticism. Even I have been guilty of turning my nose up when suggested I take a listen to a popular record. Despite this, I have delved deep in recent years into these realms; the artists of the highest streaming numbers of today, or iconic figures that passed me by in childhood. One particular sub-genre has caught my attention: one reason being that I am unaware if this genre is even acknowledged to exist; the other being the quiet omnipresence of the genre’s place in popular music. Office Pop is the term I have come up with in order to define this phenomenon.

To explain it in the simplest manner: office pop is music defined by it’s ability to sound as if it has been made within the office; as well as suiting the vibe of late 90s and early-to-mid 2000s office culture. Think noises resembling telephones or the drip of a broken coffee machine; taking off your driving-glasses and replacing them with your at-work-very-serious-business-person-glasses; strutting down the street in a simple but severe hairdo; wearing every dollar out of a new black power suit, shoulder-pads strong and a biro between your teeth. It’s music that makes you feel effortlessly chic, strong and powerful. It’s music for the aspirational, those who don’t take anything less than extraordinary.

There are plenty of examples of this phenomenon, but I’m going to talk about a select few (of which you can find at the bottom of this article). ‘More More More’ and, ‘Give It to Me’ by Kylie Minogue are perfect examples of this peculiarity. Both tracks sound as if the phone is ringing, giving them a work-hard-play-hard vibe, spurring you on in meeting your daily sales quota.

As someone who has never actually worked in an office environment, I am sure I’m not the only one who has had a romantic ideal of the lifestyle. There’s a mysterious quality to the work that goes on, and as equally mysterious the strenuous yet glamorous lives of the people who work there. This vision is reflected in the bizarrely titled, ‘Deadlines & Diets’ by Girls Aloud. There’s a sultry sombreness to the song, capturing the luxuries of being able to mull over problems like deadlines and diets, awarded only to those who are afforded the free time away from work to have these issues. Perhaps it isn’t as deep as this, but it does go to show that even having problems can be aspirational. A more recent example of the genre is, ‘Coochie (a bedtime story)’ by Shygirl. Lyrically it is far from the tropes of office pop, but sonically it carries the torch into the contemporary landscape: the soft glow that permeates the song conjures images of phone and computer screens; and the simple echoes herald the repetitions of daily life, whether inside or outside of the office.

Regardless of contemporary examples of office pop, it is interesting to note that most instances of the style appeared during the late 90s and early to mid 2000s. One explanation for this could be the growing popularity of shows like Sex and the City; a fictional world in which the characters have an utterly flawless balance of work and home life, and their qualms are almost entirely regarding sex and relationships. This was an archetypal lifestyle, one which people mimicked in their own lives. Having a cushy, well-paid job meant you could commodify the way you lived. Music that reflected this energy could be said to have acted as a soundtrack for these kinds of aspirations; for a world in which you have one eye on the job, and one eye on the perfectly curated life.

Whilst taking all of this into consideration, it would be fair to argue that office pop is purely an offshoot of city pop, another sub-genre of pop that came from late 1970’s and early1980’s Japan. Hikaru Utada, one of the most popular Japanese artists in the early 2000s, helped popularise the genre: like office pop, her music displayed seductive beats and glossy aesthetics; invoking scenes of busy city life and indulgent spare time. As parts of society capitulated to certain ways of living, it makes complete sense that art, in this case popular music, reflected the zeitgeist.

Office pop condoned and even encouraged the ways in which people lead their lives. It is clear that there is a direct correlation between the growing commodification of leading a busy life, and the popularity of this sub-genre. I believe that people wanted something to accompany the frantic-deadline-meetings, the crafting-of-the-perfect-to-do-list; something that made them feel as important and glamorous as the characters in their favourite tv shows.


About the Writer:

Callum Foulds is a poet and recording artist based in Nottingham, England. They enjoy good food, scary movies and playing with their cat. They can often be found reading on the couch, or agonising over whatever creative venture they are currently embarking on. @cf_oulds

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