When you let slip that you’re a power pop fan, you can often feel the attitude coming from anyone within earshot: Sure, it’s a light, harmless little diversion, but it certainly isn’t “serious” music. Practitioners of power pop, however, refuse to wallow in that lack of respect. You won’t find Wonderboy’s Robbie Rist, who appears to be at the center of anything pure pop related in Los Angeles, playing the Rodney Dangerfield role. (A little pop culture trivia related to Rist: He played Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch.)
“Why should we try to overcome anything?” Rist says, good-naturedly, when asked how he deals with the attitude. “Five years ago, you almost couldn’t say the words ‘pop’ or ‘melody’ in public without someone giving you the hairy eyeball,” he says, demonstrating why he’s the West Coast goodwill ambassador for power pop. “Now, there are bi-coastal pop festivals–International Pop Overthow, Poptopia, Baypop, Sparklefest–and record labels like the amazing Not Lame, Parasol, Permanent Press, and Smile, with bands all over the world playing this kind of stuff. Some of them even get signed to major labels for about eight seconds! Tsar, anyone?”
Then there’s the name itself, power pop. Even longtime fans and players will admit that the moniker is a little goofy, if not outdated. “Well, Pete Townshend coined the term in 1967 to describe The Who’s music,” explains Mike Nicholson, who’s played in a number of North Carolina bands, pop and otherwise (most recently the vocal-less X-Rayons, a crew that brings to mind Athens’ wonderful Love Tractor). “Personally, I hate the term, but since no one has come up with something less embarrassing, I guess we’re stuck with it. To a lot of people, it conjures up the late ’70s with skinny ties and Rickenbacker guitars.”
“I guess certain influences in some sort of combination have to be in place,” Nicholson says, trying to sort it out. “Influences like The Beatles, The Byrds, Big Star, The Raspberries, certain periods of the Beach Boys and The Kinks and more modern influences like Jellyfish, The Posies, Redd Kross, Material Issue and others. But there aren’t any rules, really.”
It just might be time to call a summit and come up with a new name. “There are so many bands that play within the genre that it’s getting harder and harder to define what is and isn’t power pop,” Nicholson says. “You’ve got Fountains of Wayne who sound nothing like The Sugarplastic who sound nothing like The Shazam who sound nothing like The Apples in Stereo–yet they’re all considered power pop.”
Nicholson knows whereof he speaks. His knowledge and love of what one day may be referred to as the Music Formerly Known as Power Pop has led him to organize an annual pop music festival in the Triangle. With, in his words, “a serious case of the Jones to see a bunch of bands that I don’t normally get to see and to meet people with similar tastes,” Nicholson went the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland route and put on a big show last year, with Kings in Raleigh serving as the “barn,” and Sleazefest and L.A.’s huge International Pop Overthrow serving as joint inspirations. He hadn’t planned on doing it again this year, but as encouragement and interest mounted, he decided to give it another go. The mid-October event has shifted from Kings to Chapel Hill’s Local 506, and the name has changed from The Shindig to Sparklefest. But the music–triple-billed as “power pop,” “pure pop,” and “melodic rock”–remains the same. Skinny ties optional. Very optional.
Nicholson also acknowledges the existence of a certain ‘tude towards the genre. “Try playing pop music opening for a band that sounds like Tool or Creed,” he says, probably trying to shake off a bad memory or two. “It’s an uphill battle. I’ve never had too many people be directly confrontational about it, but there does seem to be an attitude that I’ve picked up on that it’s somehow not ‘rock.’” But does it bother him? Nah. “I’ve heard it all and played it all, and I just keep coming back to what gives me personal joy as a musician, a listener, and a human being.”