Counterpoint

4 09 2006

Saturday Night Fiver has thrown down a gauntlet – that there is too much pop music in the world – and challenged me to respond. I’m not sure that I can do so as eloquently as he does, but here goes.

Pop music – what are we talking about? Genres are tricky buggers – one person’s prog-folk-metal can be another’s post-punk-alt-country. And I’ve never been very good at knowing what goes where. Pop music, as the name suggests, is music that is popular. Appeals to a wide audience, sounds good on the wireless, sells well.

Let’s quickly deal with saccharine pop and move on so we can get that bad taste out of our collective ears. I’m going to assume, for all of our sakes, that we are not talking about pop music in the completely commercial, formulaic, video hits on a Saturday morning sense. Although, and it pains me to admit it, mainstream shitpop of the Rihanna-JLo school does have a place in the world, for two reasons: 1) to give kids something to listen to in the stage between the Wiggles and developing some musical intelligence, and 2) some yin for the yang of decent music. I’d add in 3) to give me a very simple yardstick to pronounce harsh judgements on anyone over the age of 14 that persists in listening to it… but that might just be me.

As I’ve never noticed the Smiths dancing about in mini-skirts and crop tops, I think what we are talking about is the nebulous genre of indie pop, or what the Duckherder calls “jingle-jangle guitar music”.

Time for some disclosure: I came of (musical) age when grunge ruled the world. It was all about Seattle, angst, and Docs with everything; my holy trinity were Kurt, Eddie and Chris. Britpop seemed a lightweight second cousin to the dirty guitar sounds I adored – bands like Blur and Suede were in the landscape, worthy of more than a passing listen but not incorporated into my hall of fame. As a vehicle to “save pop”, SNF has a good point – Britpop was never going to keep the indie pop dream alive. But by the time I was finishing high school (1995, for the curious), grunge was fading, my hormones were settling, and my ears found a place for the jingle-jangle in new forms as driven by bands like Radiohead, Beck, the Flaming Lips.

Here we come to a key point, and the reason why there will never be too much music. Genres are born and they die, but not before themselves giving birth to mutant children, who seem strange at first but take you to new and exciting places. Pop was a social phenomenon in the 80s. So was rock in the 60s, punk in the 70s, grunge in the 90s. Pop didn’t die out in the face of dance music, it evolved. Some of it took the Last Train to Transcentral, some of it Endtroduced, and still more can be seen peeping through Ben Gibbard’s guitar strings.

The nature of music, and of culture in general, is evolution. High literature dies out along with 80s indie pop, to be replaced by something else. You can argue that this is a bad thing, and I will shake your hand, shout you a latte, and we can while away a spring afternoon bemoaning the general trend towards stupidity and the lowest common denominator in modern society. And mention, at some point, that Shakespeare was the pop-trash of his day. What is the point of art? It’s not about museums and things on pedestals. It’s the expression of distilled human emotion. It’s sending that expression out into the world to elicit a reaction in another person, to give and receive that shared sense of humanity. Art is always experienced on the individual level – the grand narrative is woven together from those private experiences. And you can never see the grand narrative when you’re in it, only after it has passed by. Cultural chaos is nothing new – it just feels messy to us in the moment because history cuts out a lot of the confusion.

The abundance of ways to get a new sound into the ears of the general public has led to an abundance of music in the world, it’s true. But to argue that the sound is in the hands of the record companies? Or that the communicative power of music has been diminished? I’m not so sure. Have you seen the 500-pound gorilla that is myspace? And to a lesser extent sites like Pandora or last.fm? People are making connections because of the music they listen to. Because it resonates in them and they want to connect with other people that have the same emotion. And record companies are screaming because it’s easier than ever for some band with an “unmarketable” sound to record music and get it into the public domain without them being able to get a piece of the pie. They push new product and hunt for novelty factor not because they are controlling the beat, but because they are trying to keep up. Now, more than ever, the individual has the power to control what they listen to.

Finally, if I had to wait for some months and stand in a queue to hear some music, I’d make sure my mp3 player was loaded up with plenty of things to listen to while I was waiting. Because in an environment of superabundance, the key skill is discernment. Which is saying no to a lot of things – but also knowing when to say yes.

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9 responses

4 09 2006
Mangoman

Very well argued. So the issue is actually one of definition? ‘Pop’ is all ‘popular’ music and if someone – indeed anyone – likes it then it must, therefore, be ‘popular’. Reasonable proposition I agree but there are others. Perhaps ‘pop’ includes only that music popular with the mass of people rather than those with the inestimable intelligence necessary to appreciate the latest offerings from the latest group to emerge from the murk. If ‘pop’ music is indeed the pap that one hears played when they hit the wrong button on the radio – when searching for the Country Hour on ABC – then there is certainly too much of it produced for my ears – but not for its producers who must continue to pump it out to make money. Of greater importance is the pattern I sense in the production of pop music that seems similar to the one that generates the current crop of right wing commentators – jones, ackerman, faris et al. Like pop music producers they must deliver a continuous feed of pap to the populace to maintain the level of ignorance and prejudice on which their very existence depends.But perhaps I take this too far and perhaps this is all just an opportunity taken to find a link between twin evils?

4 09 2006
Sherd

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

4 09 2006
Sherd

Hmmm, knowing you as I do, mangoman, I suspect the latter is the case.And I agree that “pop” in the purest sense is pap. But not all music that isn’t zydeco is pop, you know. Surely you spent long enough in the same house as me and my teenaged moods to be able to tell the difference between Spice Girls and Riot Grrls.(damn typos)

5 09 2006
Saturday Night Fiver

Well done Sherdie, and thank you for feeding my argumentative nature.It is, in fact, remarkable how close the arguments are. I completely agree that “Pap” has a place in the pantheon of Pop; there is a certain perverted genius in Stock, Aitken and Waterman … I should be so lucky. Moreover, I believe that art is most certainly not museums … if you wanted to reinvigorate pictorial art, the first step is probably firebombing the Louvre.I would however argue that “Pop”, not music per se, is in the hands of record companies. There will always be music, and it will have communicative power. But “Pop” is not just art, it is sociology. That’s what I mean by Grand Narrative: not solitary but social experience, and that can only happen on a mass scale via “The Charts”. Discernment is a solitary activity; whilst I wouldn’t be seen dead within ten miles of the single “I’m Too Sexy”, 1991 is forever coloured by it (and much else besides) in my memory. It wasn’t a choice (a discernment), it was a gift … from everyone to everyone else. And part of the communicative power of art lies in its social relationship; it tells us something about ourselves as part of something larger than ourselves, even if it is only that Australia once thought the Crash Test Dummies warranted a Number One.

5 09 2006
Saturday Night Fiver

P.S. I should point out that one’s tongue is ever-so-slightly in one’s cheek.Oh yes, and I’m very much a fan of the KLF.

5 09 2006
Bonestorm

From my own perspective, ‘pop’ doesn’t give me what I need or want from music, and so of course I’m going to see it as disposable. I see it as another form of niche marketing more than anything else, since there doesn’t seem to be any artistic merit to it.I have to remember though that for many people, this is all they want from their music… the equivalent of bubble gum that they can chew over for a few days before moving onto the next thing. Someone was telling me the other day that techno is crap because it has no soul. Well, people listen to it so they can dance to it, not so they can get in touch with their inner selves. A case of one person seeing value in something and another doesn’t.The amount of pop being played doesn’t bother me. I listen to CDs in my car and at home so I can tune it out most of the time.

5 09 2006
Anonymous

I may be missing more than one point, but possibly only those that live a sheltered existence, letting various record companies and commercial interests spoon feed them entertainment in general, and music in particular, would believe there is enough music. The argument is as meaningless as “the end of History” bollocks. It seems to be a conceit generated by a lack of awareness, and a particular narrow minded-ness focussed squarely on the time of one’s own ascendant moments.That, and making the same mistake that record companies make – thinking that pop music is still in the hands of the record companies.

5 09 2006
Saturday Night Fiver

There’s a big difference between mass art and private experience. As no one commented on my site, I can only assume my post wasn’t read, but here it is in a nutshell: it’s like Modernism; as a movement, I wish it lasted longer, but it couldn’t, and that’s lamentable. It doesn’t mean everything subsequent to 1970 is not worth looking at.I would also argue that anyone whose interest in music lies in being “spoon fed” or chewing it like “bubble gum” wouldn’t be bothered making an argument at all.

5 09 2006
mskp

hmmm, i feel decidedly marginal in this debate. i LOVE pop music. to me, pop is a sensibility that cuts across genres. it’s as hard to agree on what constitutes pop as it is to pinpoint country, but they both turn up in all kinds of places. for instance, i think the cure are masters of pop music [to wit: boys don’t cry is a perfect pop gem]. i mostly listen to rock, but bands like pulp, interpol, you am i [just pulling out random stuff i love here] are heavy with a pop sensibility. i think it’s simplistic to say that, as a genre, pop is bad. of course, there’s bad pop but there’s lots of bad music, in all genres and eras. it’s sometimes easy to be nostalgic about a period in time that produced “better” stuff [witness sherd’s shakespeare reference]. it’s only the temporal distance that has allowed us to separate the wheat from the chaff. that said, music is emotion and thus can’t be qualified and quantified.i’m not sure i made any sense/valid points. but i’ll leave you with a reminder – johnny ramone’s favourite band was the beach boys.

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