And the Nineties are downright wan. The third disc begins with Matthew Sweet's lovely "I've Been Waiting," from Girlfriend -- still a conceptually dazzling album, though one whose promise, perhaps inevitably, has been unfulfilled. For the rest, the compilers try to make the case that various other rock subgenres -- from Brit shoegazers to Sub Pop bands -- toyed with pop, but that banality has little to do with power "pop" per se. "Twisterella," a swirly bit of noise from Oxford's Ride, is not uninteresting, but there's no personality here. The Gigolo Aunts ("Cope") are ridiculous, failing miserably in their attempts to swagger. The Rembrandts sound like England Dan and John Ford Coley (not good). With "Jessica Something," by the Tearaways, the set's L.A. bias is plain. Every town has three or four groups that craft barely diverting stuff like this; the presence of cheese like Candy's "Whatever Happened to Fun ..." and the Wondermints' "Proto-Pretty" on this collection strikes one as hometown favoritism. And God love Redd Kross, but its "Lady in the Front Row" is not power pop, it's just bad rock. Otherwise the programming's fine, though including the Connells' wistful and pretty "Slackjawed" would have been a nice touch. The set closes with a few samples of "pop" genuflections from the alternativeland, most notably Velocity Girl's funny, fuzzy "I Can't Stop Smiling." Ho-hum.
Today the major record labels and the burgeoning commercial alternative radio industry have conspired to create another golden age of one- or two-hit wonders. I wouldn't have a problem with finding Alanis Morissette's "You Oughtta Know" on one of these sets. It's at least as powerful, and about as coherent, as anything the Knack ever recorded. In ten years an album with "You Oughtta Know," the Flaming Lips' "She Don't Use Jelly," and Hanson's "MMMBop" will be a lot of fun to listen to. But ultimately, the Poptopia! set displays one of the problems that affect Nineties rock overall. A lot of the acts display the affectations of too many contemporary rock artists, particularly from the alternative and indie side of town. It's uncool these days to let your feelings out, and letting your feelings out defines pop. The Posies, probably the best of the pre-Nirvana power "pop" bands, truly love Big Star, but their "pop" gets the quotes because it isn't convincing. They're not hostile, but there's a self-conscious smirk under the hooks.
When Big Star recorded, the paradigm of the starving pop genius was virtually unknown; by the Eighties, and particularly in the years leading up to the Nirvana watershed, it was a sour subject that darkened the outlook of a lot of young artists. It's possible that truly great power pop -- without the quotes -- cannot display the essential ingredient of optimism without the beginnings of innocence. You have to imagine that there's an audience out there, that the distracting emotions you feel are shared. If you don't, by definition you're doing something else: You put on a flannel shirt and moan, or pull a wool hat down over your head and fuck around with turntables.
It's possible no one will ever feel that way again, and power pop will be lost to history. That's okay. If the Beatles were the music's Ozymandias, this stuff -- and its corresponding psychic confusion, right up to the present -- is the colossal wreck that remains. Those of us who grew up in the Seventies, just after the Beatles, soon embraced anti-utopianism, and maybe we still do; the massive denials in the work of Johnny Rotten and Kurt Cobain retain their force and logic and persuasiveness. But we shouldn't forget that there once was something strange and alluring called pop, a music that -- at its best -- existed to capture those moments when, in a heartbeat, the world splits, and something like love hits with a bang. Or a pop.