Tag Archives: Collapse Board

Published Elsewhere

Published recently over at Lost in the Sound: Klosterman vs. tUnE-yArDs vs. Collapse Board vs. Wikipedia. Criticism on criticism, if you’re into that sort of thing. Plus, an enlightening trip into the change log of Tune-yards’ Wikipedia entry. Oh, and take a moment to admire the kickass header art put together for the piece by the man behind Lost in the Sound, Frank Wu, which I’ve helpfully posted at the top of this page.

/s/CLT

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Music for the Masses: Pop and Cultural Elitism

If you need a definition of where the lowest common denominator in lies in pop music, you probably don’t need to look any further than this:

New research has revealed that Adele’s singles were the most popular karaoke tracks in 2011.

The singer’s chart topper ‘Someone Like You’ was the most sung song of the year with one in four singers choosing the track, according to the Lucky Voice website.

Her cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’, from her debut ’19’, was also the second most popular choice after it accounted for 10 per cent of three million tracks chosen by 100,000 users.

The math work out to one out of three bar patrons being assaulted by a (probably) drunken rendition of Adele’s hits. Adele is probably the closest thing to “ubiquitous” in today’s fractured music market, having sold over 5 million copies of her latest album in the US alone. But what is it about pop music that makes it universal enough that one out of three karaoke participants feel confident enough to take it on?

There is a notion out there that pop music somehow “transcends” genres or human differences, as though the conceived-in-a-marketing lab product was a superior experience to deeply personal songs crafted by individuals without publicists, co-writers and multiple producers. However, this notion is only proven if said “pop music” becomes incredibly popular.

By definition, pop music is popular music. However, being popular also brands the artist, music and listener with a certain stigma. Simply put: if it’s this popular, it can’t be very good. And there is something to that: charting music is rarely ground-breaking or truly interesting. It is, however, solidly crafted and immediately pleasing. Not necessarily a bad thing.

Is it “good” music? Is that even a fair question? Music criticism semi-legend Everett True spends some time discussing this over at his hobby blog Collapse Board (he said mock disparagingly), coming down firmly on the side of “good.” (Although mainly because there is no “bad” — which is the same rhetorical device that allows fervent atheists to dismiss Satan. After all, if there is no God, a Satan is rather pointless.) But I do agree with one point: good/bad is closely tied to context:

Imagine you’re listening to some music without knowing the context it first appeared in – where it came from, what the band/artist look like, which country, what age, when, etc etc. Your judgment is still tempered by whether that music reminds you of other music you’ve heard, favourably or unfavourably. CONTEXT. Good and bad don’t actually come into it. Plus, your judgement is also tempered by what the weather is like outside, whether you’ve just drunk some coffee, had a row, played sports, if you’re in the bath, got headphones on, etc etc. CONTEXT. All these affect your judgement. Not whether you hold to some weird ideal (that doesn’t actually exist) of whether a piece of music is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

[Extraneous note: much like other opinionated posts on Collapse Board (and that’s most of them), it has begun to take on a life of its own, resulting in followups and followups to followups and I would imagine is well on its way towards a series of inwardly-gazing posts from an ad hoc collection of contributors, which also includes particularly wordy commenters. Not necessarily a bad thing, but when it becomes a habit, it’s not unlike riding your hobby horse until it expires and then trying to beat it back to life. All that being said, I subscribe to the blog and read damn near every post, so it’s never boring and rarely predictable. Except for the part I just detailed, but that part is still Never Boring.]

Because of my own musical development, I know that I am predisposed against pop, if that makes any sense. Not against pop music in the traditional lightweight-affable-and-stuck-in-your-head sort of way, but rather against cultural works that are universally appreciated. It sounds godawful phrased like that but there it is. Much as I can appreciate the legitimate talent that is Adele and her cowriters, producers, etc. (and that “appreciation” is highly suspect, if I’m being honest [and I’ll try to be]), I still find myself unable to punch it up on the monitor (this joke works on multiple levels [as does the “levels” part]) and give it a listen. This has been my attitude towards most incredibly popular bits of culture since some indeterminate time in my past. The thought process has become “Well, everyone else saw Titanic so now I don’t have to.” (Whatever that means.)

It’s a form of elitism, basically. I know that I won’t enjoy listening to Adele because I know that I don’t enjoy things that are highly popular. This is a dangerous line of thinking, especially when one grants himself tastemaker status by writing about the kind of music he likes. The “elitism” part is the part that worries me most. Because of that worry, the mind searches for somewhere to lay the blame. And it easily finds a target.

At some point, you take stock of the world around you, realizing that the last 50+ years of pop culture has culminated in Jersey Shore. The easy route is to blame “society.” After all, without them, kids would probably be raising themselves and the airwaves (both radio and television) would be filled with “worthy” artistic endeavors, which, in all honesty, would probably be a lot less interesting than it sounds.

You can blame MTV. Personally, I’d head there first. After all, it’s made a cottage industry out of finding the kind of people most likely to prey on starfuckers, turning them into stars and unleashing them into the camera-covered wild to, well, prey on starfuckers.

But do you blame MTV for finding a societal sweet spot to manipulate? That’s trial and error. Going back to the well is heinous but turning the navel-gazing lives of self-centered backstabbers into a money printing machine is simply harmonic convergence, televisionally-speaking.  And can someone actually blame society for a writer’s strike, one that led to everyone trying out reality shows and realizing that they were the sort of high-margin item the networks had always hoped for but could never obtain? You, as a creator, find out what society likes and give it to them. Over and over and over.

But society, as a whole or as individuals, can’t really be blamed. They (and we) like what we like. It’s a tautology that morphs into a cliche, but even worse, when coupled with a somewhat falsely attributed “herdlike” mentality, it becomes a lazy insult, one designed to give the insulting party a step or two above (and ahead) of humanity in general. Is a shared cultural experience less valid simply because it’s SRO?

I am especially wary of this trap. It doesn’t look like a trap. After all, many writers over the years, great writers, have taken their shots at the masses. P.T. Barnum and H.L. Mencken both stated words to the effect that you can never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. There’s an ugly truth underlying that statement but if you continue to feed that vision and sell the idiots what you think they want, don’t be surprised if that’s all they buy.

If this view of the public is entertained long enough, it turns into a cynical platform, from which “wisdom” is dispensed and regrettable statements are made and terrible conclusions are drawn:

The pollution created by these ships is gargantuan, despite the shipping industry’s ludicrous attempts to acquire the PC-friendly veneer of “green transport.” Shipping contributes to the wreckage of ecosystems by belching rapacious jellyfish and other foreign beasts out of their ballast tanks; shipping contributes over 1.5 billion metric tons of CO2 exhaust every year (a rapidly growing figure); particulate matter from shipping exhaust rains onto the earth by the thousands of tons every day, infusing even the Arctic snow with soot and hastening the Arctic melt…

Container ship captains race across the oceans at maximum speeds in order to earn their bonuses; their ships are packed to the gunwales and beyond in order to make each trip pay as much as possible…[T]he containers must be arranged with the utmost care; the maximum number, but not so many that they go popping off in a storm. It’s said that over 10,000 containers are lost at sea every year…

Just one standard forty-foot container can carry as much as 59,040 pounds of Snuggies, shiny leggings, Maroon 5 t-shirts, blenders, Christmas gewgaws etc., and over 100 million container loads cross the oceans every year…

So how absurd is this, that we should foul the oceans and the air with these huge container ships, that the polar bears should die and the cities drown, so that some feckless citizen can go to Wal-Mart, buy a plastic bird feeder Made in China and thereby feel helpful to nature at the low cost of $3.49?

This is what happens when you treat the general population as “feckless:” you blame their desires and affections for the ills of the world. This is why when people start suggesting ways to make the world “a better place,” they begin trying to eradicate things like big box stores, commercial farming and overpopulation, all “problems” created by the masses’ indiscriminate desires and actions.

Pop music is yet another “symptom” of the “disease” that is being a part of the masses. Maroon 5 = Christmas gewgaws = feckless citizenry = Wal-Mart = destroying life on this planet as we know it. It’s complete bullshit and it does nothing more than enforce a caste system in casteless societies. Those who appoint themselves as “above” their fellow man rarely need anything more than a shelf full of Can albums to justify their thought processes.

Contrast this attitude with D.F. Wallace’s take on cynicism and ironic distance:

Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is…

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

So, as a writer who writes about music, where does this put me? I’ve already stated my aversion to incredibly popular culture. It would be easier to simply not give this any more thought. Plenty of writing exists taking pop culture to task for turning the masses into compliant sheep who are more than willing to like what they assume they like, simply because so many other people like it. And maybe it’s true. Maybe people like songs they know the words to, thanks to repetitive airplay. Maybe they like singing along with other people who know the words, also thanks the limited scope of Top 40 radio.

I know from firsthand experience DJing at a Top 40-oriented club that people still want to hear the same songs they heard on the radio that day. And they want to hear them more than once. It certainly felt like a negative at the time. Fifteen years down the road it just seems like logic. When someone builds a successful business based on watching teenage girls feed a jukebox, it’s rather hard to apply hindsight effectively enough to make them completely wrong. It works and it has worked for years.

Having a teenage child provides a not-always-welcome shot of reality . When names of current artists are brought up and I express my lack of knowledge, I’m greeted with incredulous looks, much as if I were a foreign exchange student who had arrived via time machine. I’m instantly a man out of place and time and it’s quite obvious that I’m the one with the problem.

Even worse is attempting to enjoy being on the cutting edge. Hearing “Pumped Up Kicks” blaring in my kid’s room, I first assumed it was one of the CDs I had made her. But, no, it was the radio belatedly giving credence to a song I had recommended well over a year earlier. At first, there was a brief feeling of vindication. But this was swiftly buried by the realization that I had recommended hundreds of songs over the past few years, none of which had cracked the Top 40. (There’s a vindication to this as well, but it’s a hollow vindication based on the assumption that a lack of popularity instantly legitimizes any and all songs that fail to chart.)

As it stands, long-winded soul-searching aside, I will be no more likely to check out Adele’s latest offering. (And even more unlikely to grab the mike and belt it out, as participating in karaoke generally requires me to have a BAC north of .10, at which point I should probably be hospitalized rather than humoured.) But my mental beef is with the artists, not the audience. I can’t honestly attack people for liking what they like. They all have their own motivations, even if the motivation seems to be nothing more than a desire to move along the well-trafficked path of least resistance, especially since I too tend to gravitate towards the sorts of things I like, even if they’re a bit further off the path.

/s/CLT

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