My Secret Life: Politics professor posts prolifically about power pop

Dennis Pilon is an associate professor in the Department of Politics in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies at York University. He specializes in Canadian and comparative politics with a focus on institutions, electoral institutions, political parties, voting systems, LGBTQ identity and working-class identity. In addition to his academic commitments – including having served as his program’s undergraduate director for six years – this York PhD graduate is raising two children with his husband, plays in a jam band and runs 30 kilometres per week.

Like many runners, he likes to listen to music while he runs. “When I started running, I thought, ‘with all this music, I’ll never run out,’” explained Pilon, an erstwhile collector of more than 5,000 records. “But then I kind of did.”

Pilon began searching for new music to listen to, which put him on a track toward a different kind of running. “I started running across all of this new music that I thought was so great, that it seemed like nobody knew anything about,” said Pilon.

Denis Pilon
Denis Pilon

He was soon chasing an idea that would give him the opportunity to combine his life-long love of music with his passion for informal, creative writing.

“I think every political scientist has thought, “oh I should write a blog,” Pilon joked, “so you can rant about whatever you think. But I thought it would be fun to do a blog that would focus on music.”

And so, in fall 2015, Pilon started Poprock Record, a website where he has posted weekly ever since.

Much like naming a band, finding a name for a music blog was an intricate process. After researching what other blogs were called and finding out which of his ideas were already taken, Pilon set about coming up with a clever name that would be in tune with the style of music he wanted to write about. “It struck me in reading the other blogs that they were too narrow,” he explained. “People make the gap in musical styles much broader than it necessarily has to be. On the one hand you’ve got people who like rock ‘n’ roll, and then you’ve got people who like pop music.

“I always liked the kind of classic rock ‘n’ roll combo sound, but I also like songs that had a very strong melodic quality,” Pilon said. “The musical style that I like, the closest thing that came to it is a genre called ‘power pop,’ a sort of guitar-oriented music associated with the early work by The Who, inspired by the melodic rock and roll of the 1960s and ’70s.

“Often you’ll hear people say things like, ‘Oh, there’s no good music today,’” said Pilon. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, if you like The Beatles, there are tons of bands today that are writing great music that’s not exactly the same as The Beatles, but clearly in the style of that music.’

“It’s definitely rock ‘n’ roll but it’s not screaming guitar solos or guys with spandex playing axes,” Pilon laughed. “That’s why I thought ‘pop rock’ is a better descriptor of the kind of music that I like.

“And then ‘record’ was of course a double entendre,” Pilon explained. “The vinyl record and a record that is an account of something.”

Music has been a constant presence in Pilon’s life. “I grew up with my parents record collection,” he remembered. “They were children of the ’60s and so they introduced me to all of the classics from that era, stretching from the ’50s with Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly into the ’60s, with the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, some folk and some country and western.”

Much of his early working life was focused on music as well, having worked as a DJ for weddings and on a cruise ship, and hosted a show on college radio. His first career was in commercial radio.

A young Dennis Pilon with his electric guitar, a replica of the 1957 Fender Jazzmaster played by Buddy Holly and Elvis Costello
A young Dennis Pilon with his electric guitar, a replica of the 1957 Fender Jazzmaster played by Buddy Holly and Elvis Costello

Writing about music has been natural extension of his passion for most of his life. “I wrote a lot about music when I was young for school papers and college papers,” Pilon recalled. “I started as a teenager as a creative writer. I think my initial dream was to be a novelist.”

For Pilon, blogging represents a refreshing break from the conventions and formalities of the writing he does for his day job. “I can just write with a kind of enthusiasm for the music.

“I always admired the choppy, certain kind of advertising writing, that you often found on the back covers of records from the 1960s,” Pilon continued. “The write up by the A&R man, the arts and repertoire man – and it would always be a man – would be a sort of description of the act in a very exaggerated way.”

The range of posts on Poprock Record varies from regular features such as “Around the Dial” and “Breaking News” to posts rooted in themes that play on puns of deep rock ‘n’ roll knowledge that act like ‘easter eggs’ for those in the know. In “Is that so gay? The queer poprock of The Smiths and Pansy Division,” Pilon explores some of his own experience into a rumination on queer themes and music. “Telephonic poprock!” delves into the history of the telephone in the genre. “Campaigning for hooks: Vote poprock!,” sees professional and personal blend in a post featuring pop rockers taking up political themes.

Asked which musicians, alive or dead, he would most like to interview for his blog, Pilon chose Bruce Springsteen, who “combines rock ‘n’ roll with a serious appreciation of working-class identity and life,” in a way that is rare in popular culture, or Ezra Furman, “whose music is damn catchy and touches on a host of fascinating themes like gender and class.”

While the hobby is enjoyable and fulfilling for Pilon, his blogging can also benefit some of the artists he writes about, many of whom will use reviews of their music as promotional materials to attract a greater audience. “That’s nice to do,” said Pilon. “I like the idea of being able to help these artists further their careers and get more listeners.”

While he mostly writes about up-and-coming musicians, Pilon was once enthused when Ronnie Spector – of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted 1960s girl group the Ronettes – wrote back to him about a review he wrote about Spector’s cover of Marshall Crenshaw’s “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time.” “That’s like getting a message from a real superstar,” Pilon exclaimed. “It’s totally cool.”

Outside of his busy professional and personal schedule, Pilon tries to write at least one new blog post per week. “There are a lot of blogs that start and don’t continue,” Pilon said. He expects that posting weekly will make the blog continue to look active. “This thing is live, people have a reason to come back every now and then and check in with what I’m doing.”

Pilon, who is currently on sabbatical and learning to “quasi-homeschool” during the COVID-19 outbreak, recently had a chapter on voting systems and diverse representation published in Queering Representation and a chapter on working class politics and identity in Political Ideologies in Parties, Policy, and Civil Society. Today, his music collection is comprised of a modest 1,700 records, approximately. He boasts with a smile that Poprock Record “brings joy to tens of people.”