Pop-pocalypse Now?

The always-interesting Ronan Guilfoye has a great anti-pop music screed up today over at his site, Mostly Music. The gist:

This music… this sticky treacly manufactured international pop goo, whose sticky effusions have polluted the entire planet, springs from no culture other than money. It represents only the international corporate business behemoth that has taken the name ‘music’ into its title, despite having no interest in the concept of what music really is. It is unprecedented in human musical history – a music without any culture. A music without any message. And ultimately a music without any true humanity.

Tell us what you really think, Ronan!

Seriously, though–although I have a great fondness for this kind of crotchetiness, and I don’t like most of the music he’s talking about either, I have three objections to this critique:

  • This stuff is immensely popular and important to millions of (mostly) young people and serves as the anthems of their generation the same way that the popular music of your generation or mine did for us. YES, it’s shoved down their throats by multimedia conglomerates, but the fact is that people have access to a whole world of music, and a great plurality if not majority of them are choosing to listen to this, because it resonates with them. To deny the music’s humanity is to deny theirs, I think. And I would say there are millions of fully human, vibrant, intelligent young people in the world who nonetheless have crappy taste in music. (If you disagree, read this guy’s blog for a while. He writes incredibly intelligently about what does not, to my untrained ears, seem to be especially intelligent music. But that makes me think twice about writing it off!)
  • I’m pretty sure the major purveyors of music, art, and literature throughout history have pretty much never cared about quality as much as they have about capital (at least since the end of the patronage system). Singling out today’s pablum for special condemnation smacks of end-times-ism.
  • In spite of the incredibly annoying production values of most of today’s top 40, there are still plenty of catchy tunes out there being written by actual human beings. It makes me angry sometimes, since they’re so annoying, but I defy you to not get something like this stuck in your head. (And it even has a repeating modulation! Suck it, Jerome Kern!)

All that said, I really do think Auto-tune is going to ruin peoples’ ears for real singing, and I do think the globalization of pop is going to continue to weaken a lot of regional music (as globalization has in every other aspect of culture, as inexorable as that is).

Thinking about all this did make me think of my dad, however, who likes to respond to any overheard pop, hiphop, etc. by saying, “they’ve finally come up with music for people who don’t like music.” This from a guy who listens to Schoenberg!

3 thoughts on “Pop-pocalypse Now?”

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write about this Ian, and you make some good points, but……..

    Before I wrote it, I did think about the sentence where I questioned the music’s humanity and whether that called into question the music consumer’s humanity, and I don’t think it does. I think it’s fair to say that I did not once criticise the people who listen to this music. I do believe you can respect people’s right to like something while at the same time believing that this same thing is not actually any good. I was criticising the music itself, criticising its content and its provenance. I think in qualitative terms it has nothing to offer and I think it doesn’t originate from any culture other than that of the accountants.

    And in this way it DOES differ from other commercial music of the past. Of course musicians and managers etc. have often had their eyes on the financial bottom line as far as their music goes, (Mozart definitely did for example), but their music was still rooted in their traditions and society and was adapted from there to appeal to people. This music is rootless – its provenance is the boardrooms of multi-national corporations rather than any country or tradition. The artist him or herself forms a tiny part of the product – they are the cynosure of all eyes, but the level of control exerted by literally hundreds of people over the artist and what they produce is unprecedented. How much input does Britney Spears have into the eventual 3 minute piece of music that emerges from the output of the auto-tune? And how much input do the marketing people, producers, photographers, market research people, engineers, designers, lawyers, accountants, and record company executives have into that same three minute piece? In this way – its origins in and control by multi-national boardrooms and its lack of connection with any human society other than that of huge corporations, gives it a serious lack of humanity in my opinion.

    And I think the counter-argument that it must have quality because millions of people like it is specious – millions of people love McDonald’s and identify with it, but that doesn’t make the food any good. Millions of people throughout history have thought certain political ideas were good, but in retrospect we can see that they weren’t. Large numbers of people liking something does not automatically put that thing beyond criticism.

    McDonald’s or KFC are very good comparisons for this music. This is mass-produced flavourless food that’s sold to the masses by huge corporations who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on corporate identification of the product. Insert the word ‘music’ into that last sentence and you have a good description of the kind of music I’m thinking of (Madonna, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, all ‘Boy Bands’, all ‘Girl Bands’ etc.). I’m not describing all pop music as being like this – some at least sounds like it comes from somewhere (Beyoncé for example), despite its commercialism. But this stuff is from nowhere except the marketing offices.

    I believe in everyone and anyone having the right to like whatever they want in music. It’s not my place to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t listen to. On the other hand, just because millions of people like it, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t say what I believe. And Ian, if you think this music is ‘crappy’, I think you should say so too! God knows there are few enough of us – don’t be afraid to be thought of as ‘crotchety’ 🙂

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Ronan! There are definitely a couple of points where I was devil’s-advocating in there, so my true feelings on it are probably somewhere in between your post & mine. The whole humanity issue did get me thinking–as a thought experiment, what if in some not-so-distant-future cultural dystopia, pop music is actually created by some artificial intelligence through algorithms, etc., and has no actual human input at all other than consuming it or not consuming it? (Although even today, unless you wear earplugs all day and never watch television, you don’t really have the choice not to consume it.) I think you could safely say that particular music would have no humanity even if humans enjoyed it. (Although John Cage might disagree.) So I think I concede on your point that you can question the humanity of the music without questioning the humanity of the consumer.

    I think, though, that you’re actually overgeneralizing about the process by which this music is created–even if the decisions about what trends to push are made in unfeeling multi-national boardrooms, they aren’t creating the sounds they’re selling–in the case of pop & dance music, they get their ideas for what to steal or repackage from actual musicians, DJs, producers, etc., who answer to actual audiences. So to me that music still has “humanity,” even if it’s been watered down (or was never that great to begin with).

    This has me thinking about how this process compares to natural selection–in the case of pop music or fast food, the corporations do of course heavily influence the available choices and do their best to steer consumers in their preferred directions, but with pop music as with McDonald’s, I think people really do like those products, and not just because they’re told to. (For example, I’m not ashamed to admit there are times I love Taco Bell. I don’t eat it very often and it doesn’t make me feel great afterwards, but man, late at night after a gig, a double-decker taco supreme hits the spot.) Similarly, I do think that the sheer number of songs/acts that fail (as with species) means that those which make it to the top (40) tend to have some quality, whether it’s catchiness, or energy, which qualifies them to be there. (To drive home this point, that god damn Rihanna song I linked to was stuck in my head all night. Serves me right.)

    As people who have devoted our lives to playing the musical equivalent of anti-McDonalds, then, I guess our Sisyphean task is to convince a few people to mix in some sushi (I was going to say vegetables, but no one wants to listen to music because it’s supposedly good for them) with their Big Macs.

  3. Ah yes, an age-old debate; first cousin to the “sampling” discussion. I have little to offer but an anecdote: My almost-14-year-old daughter is an avid consumer of pop music (I’m hoping my jazz indoctrination will eventually bear fruit). Yes, she is a Bieber fan, but her big role model is Taylor Swift. She loves her music, but also very much digs the fact that Swift began as a songwriter, aggressively pursued her career from an early age and writes her own material. Can’t really argue with that. And the fact is, Swift is one of the few acts that really sells a lot of tickets.

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