Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Broken Record That Keeps On Spinning

I'd like to direct any unaware readers to Tom May's masterly and thorough analysis of the UK Top 40 (and a bit more) (no satisfactory perma-link, but it probably hasn't moved from the top of the page) - it shows, perhaps, that one can no longer think of the mediocrity that fills the charts as a kind of systemic corruption, but as a structural problem, so deeply rooted that almost nothing can get into the charts that isn't hopelessly dull, naff or rote. This is an area fraught with problems for me, as an experimental music fan: the standard line for avant-music enthusiasts is that popular music, as such, will always be crap, because of its being engineered to suit 'popular tastes' (this latter term left conveniently vague, but with the implication that, in order to appeal to the widest possible audience, music must be as aesthetically watered-down and unadventurous as possible); but this, as far as I'm concerned, caricatures the notion of 'public taste' in a distinctly unlikeable way. The notion that people essentially can't be trusted to pick their own music is the kind of misanthropic cultural scare-mongering I gave up quite a while ago. In either case, it's contradicted by a vast swathe of evidence: the fact that many of Timbaland's best productions - possibly the most conceptually and musically exciting and experimental the Nineties produced - got into the top echelons of the chart (Aaliyah's 'More Than A Woman' hitting No. 1, Missy Elliott's 'Get Ur Freak On' reaching No. 4), and that considerably more people bought those records than buy the emissions of whichever identikit balladeer has come to the top this week, gives the lie to the entire notion.

Neither does cultural theorist and jazz hater Ted Adorno's notion of the 'culture industry' wherein, to quote wikipedia, "society was controlled though a top-down creation of standardized culture that intensified the commodification of artistic expression", entirely help - it denies agency to cultural creators in a way that seems both incorrect and almost dangerous: even within the major label system (to say nothing of international independent labels), there are people working to make music their way, and often coming out with very good, not to mention popular, results. There isn't any apparent 'standardisation' of culture in this chart; looking at it, it's a desperately mixed grab bag full of nothing: a bit of R&B-peppered trance, some overenthusiastic pub-rock, dumb (and dull) as dirt synthy rap, a lot of earnest balladry with OTT inflections and soft-rock guitars, apparent 'soul' (Lord knows that's what Winehouse and Ronson pretend to), ghastly white-as-the-pure-snow 'indie' - the only standardised factor is the level of dullness and mediocrity involved. The obvious parallel would be with the 'traditional' image of music in the early '70s - the 'salad mix' albums produced by the likes of Mud and 10CC: some cod-reggae here, a bit of flat country, a saxophone solo, all over the same plodding beat, with the same ghastly vocals; casting about desperately for novelty, drowning in a drought. (An aside: this 'traditional' image of the early 70s is of course, a minor fiction - there was a lot of exciting stuff happening (roots reggae, dub, the gender- and genre-bending power of glam, the avant-fringe that followed in the wake of Captain Beefheart and the Canterbury scene, the continued explorations of free improvisation); the parallel to now would be the continuing flow of exciting stuff produced by the international experimental underground.) It seems, as I've said, to be not so much any kind of mass stupidity or hesitancy on the part of the public, but a structural problem: the economic and artistic structure of the industry is such that it produces a universal mindset pathologically incapable of producing or accepting anything new or exciting.

I say 'new' in addition, because accompanying this tendency towards total bland-out is an endemic reliance both on the music of the past, and from the work of other bands. The Ronson-Winehouse cover of 'Valerie' and the new Duffy album (both of which are in constant rotation at work) are cases in point: Jools Hootenanny knees-up atmosphere, cloying reverence (to objects which, actually, were rather crap in the first place - and this is me, speaking as a Phil Spector fan), disgusting petit-bourgeois self-satisfaction. Acknowledgement of the past is unavoidable in the production of music, to the extent that the constituent language of any art-form is determined by its historical development, but it doesn't necessarily mean producing music that is simply derivative: free improv, experimental noise, hip-hop, experimental folk (such as that put out by the Bo'Weavil and Language Of Stone labels) and the profusion of electronic musics show that it's possible to create and sustain living traditions that can still produce original, exciting music. There's certainly no dearth of interesting ideas floating around, and no lack of interesting ideas from the past to build on (and I use that phrase deliberately). Perhaps then, what we are seeing is a collective and individual failure of will to do so, the music being, as May puts it, "fundamentally handicapped in that those behind it or performing it impose limits on themselves and what they will give to their audience": they are not prepared to try new things in the hope that it will attract more listeners. Maybe what we're seeing at the moment is not so much the very bottom of music history's innovational barrel, but an ultimately transitional phase between the major-label era and one in which DIY labels, enabled by the Internet, music production software, and the easy accessibility of CD manufacturing equipment, will essentially rule the music landscape; one drained and battered by compromise.


Blogger Brad said...

I read the article you linked to. I appreciate the effort, but since I a) am not British, and b) do not listen to radio, I can't say I knew what he was writing about most of the time. I don't think pop music fans are "stupid", I just think the qualities that might cause them to like a song (traditionally "good" singing, positive association with socialization/drinking/dancing, conductive to signing along or playing on guitar) are generally things that don't do anything for me, whereas the qualities that do appeal to me (highly conceptual and experimental, presentation as serious "art", often a suspenseful or disturbing mood) generally don't do anything for most other people. Most popular music isn't a 'watered-down' version of what I consider good music, it's mostly a seperate unrelated thing.

I find it fascinating how many "serious" music fans, yourself included, always tend to recognize Timbaland as good and respectable. I really haven't seen a single blogger who thinks he sucks. I admit that his music is not terribly offensive, but I do not see the genius of it. Is it really anything more than the repetitive audio wallpaper laid behind various unappealing vocal performances?

Oh, and thank you for bringing Crystal Castles to my attention last year. Their debut CD came out in Canada this week, and I really enjoy it. I wonder if it will get on the pop charts here.

March 21, 2008 at 8:10 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Fair enough, although I don't think that it's quite so simple as pop songs having those qualities making them popular - for example, the singing on Leona Lewis' 'Bleeding Love' is, by normal standards, technically good and aesthetically awful, and there's no real positive social associations (it might fit into the lineage of 'hairbrush anthems' to sing along to, with Avril Lavigne, Celine Dion, etc., but I'm not even sure of that.) I'm going to have to do an investigation one of these days into the subjective aesthetic reasoning behind *why* people like certain kinds of pop - it just baffles me. Incidentally, what are the pop charts in Canada like?

RE. Timbaland, what I like about his production is how futuristic, graceful, and complex they are, and, in the context of the pop songs they form a part of, how absolutely weird and fucked-up they are. For example, Missy Elliot's 'Get Ur Freak On' is backed up by a hyperkinetic rhythm played on Indian devotional instruments, but then seems to buckle, warp and spit sparks halfway through the song, twisting and shifting in tempo. It's fucking mad. I could go on. Needless to say some of the people he works with are less than pleasant - 50 Cent's recent album, for example, was awful, and as cash- and ass-obsessed as usual, with its saving grace being Tim's production work.

March 25, 2008 at 2:12 PM  
Blogger Brad said...

You're looking for the Canadian Hot 100. I imagine it is similar to pop music in the UK or USA or other western countries. There's a variety of genres up there, but I get the impression they're still racially segregated into white rock and black hip-hop, at least in the songs performed by men. I guess it's like that everywhere else too.

1. Sara Bareilles - Love Song
2. Flo Rida feat. T-Pain - Low
3. Chris Brown - With You
4. Jordin Sparks & Chris Brown - No Air
5. Miley Cyrus - See You Again
6. Rihanna - Don't Stop the Music
7. Buckcherry - Sorry
8. Hedley - For the Nights I Can't Remember
9. Usher feat. Young Jeezy - Love In This Club
10. Timbaland feat. OneRepublic - Apologize

Hey, what do you know, Nickelback/Three Days Grace/Finger Eleven aren't on there this time! Of those 10 songs, #2 is the only one I know what it sounds like. As I said, I don't willingly listen to radio.

There are some additional sales charts , which tend to be laughable/confusing. What definition of "alternative" could they possibly use? :(

March 26, 2008 at 8:25 AM  

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