Friday, July 23, 2010

Poptimist #31 (eat ur heart out menya)

by Tom Ewing

When I was small my friend and I had an imaginary band. We only had one idea, but it amused us enough that we filled tapes and tapes with variations on it. It went like this: Each song would start off as a corny pop number but just as it hit the chorus would devolve into noise, shriekings, the hammering of biscuit tins, and so on. So like every nine-year-old we already had an idea of generic pop and of how to subvert this particular form. Except that the stuff we created as "generic pop" obviously sounded nothing really like any kind of recognizable pop, and not just because it was being played and sung by children. It was a context-free mishmash of "ooh I love you"s and "babys"; a dense string of pop signifiers with no hint of structure.

Every now and then researchers will channel their inner nine-year-old and try to come up with a generic pop song, usually with devilishly satirical intent. I read about one such this week in music tech blog Hypebot, created in part by analysing the most common words in 2010 pop. The chorus goes like this: "Love gonna stop, Imma rock your body hard-- like damn/ Had enough tonight, I wanna break the love-- like bad." This reads like what it is-- a mash-up of Peas, Ke$ha, Bieber etc.-- and works fine as a gag, but like my imaginary band it fails a pop Turing test of actually making sense.

Anyone who reads or talks about music will run into the word "generic" a lot, but as any nine-year-old or satirist could tell you it's a more slippery idea than it seems. So can generic music be good? How do we spot it? The word is rarely complimentary: most of the time it's just used as a fancier stand-in for "boring" or "bland," a word standing in opposition to "distinctive." As a dismissal it seems to me loaded with an additional implication-- that this boredom is somehow intentional: The people behind the music have purposely avoided anything that might challenge expectations. And behind that is the idea that playing with expectations and boundaries is something we should want musicians to do.

UK blog Popjustice recently pushed back against this idea. "Here's the news," it wrote in the middle of an unusually serious entry, "if you only enjoy music that breaks pop's boundaries, you are not really a pop fan." I'll look at the specific implications of this idea later, and whether it works for pop more or less than for other kinds of music. But for now let's just take it as a pointer toward a happier idea of the generic: a core of musical ideas or values, which, executed well, satisfy the fans of a genre just as much as music that moves beyond those. I got this feeling listening to the new Kylie Minogue album, Aphrodite: Not one track stood out, but I never stopped enjoying the record. As an experience it felt rather like good customer service: seamless, efficient, friendly, and inobtrusive. I don't want a Kylie album to break any boundaries, any more than I want a hotel concierge to break them: It would be nice if either exceeded my expectations by doing what they're meant to do better, but that's all.

But it's very hard to talk about this kind of experience and have it sound positive-- comparisons to customer service and compliments like "inobtrusive" are always going to be read as ironic or backhanded. Not to mention the fact that they won't actually reflect a Kylie fan's experience of the record: The fact that I enjoy Aphroditewithout needing a standout hardly implies the people behind it didn't want anything to stand out! "Generic" turns out to be one of those ideas that start to break down as you zoom in on it, and one reason to mistrust the word is that it often gets used to punish listeners who are actually paying attention to detail. The perception of genre often happens at a distance: A more involved listener might hear a record which strikes me as generic and hear a ton of intriguing choices in it. For example, I enjoy techno but I'm often drawn to obvious breakout tracks with big corny or melodic samples, like Samim's "Heater". Someone more committed to techno would simply be better equipped to appreciate the distinctions and incremental innovations in particular producers' styles. And someone more committed to Kylie would get more out of each variation on her sleek electro-pop theme than I'm doing.

Naturally, I'm happy for those people to show me what I'm missing. One positive spin on the generic rewards the faith and concentration of purists: The strengths of innovative records are individual and obvious; the strengths of a genre are collective and become apparent with hindsight. I'm thinking here of compilations like Dave Godin's excellent Deep Soul Treasures series. Godin put together collections of obscure 1960s and 70s soul sides with the emphasis firmly on the emotional intensity of each performance. This wasn't a history of innovation in soul music, but a curation of what Godin saw as the genre's core qualities: Listened to as a whole, each compilation verges on the overbearing, but almost every individual single on them is brutally powerful.

A final version of the "good generic": cover versions, where genre becomes a dressing-up box, and the point is for a recording to take on the most immediate qualities of a chosen style. Researching this piece I asked friends on Twitter what the most generic music they enjoyed is: quite a few mentioned Eurodance and Hi-NRG cover versions. I've a massive soft spot for these myself-- labels like Almighty Records specialize in taking hit songs and retooling them for gay club dancefloors. Songs by the Arctic Monkeys, the Killers, or Coldplay get a bashing house beat, diva vocals, and the melody pushed upfront by way of huge hands-in-the-air keyboard riffs. It's reliably exhilarating: Attempts at subtlety, let alone innovation, would only disappoint.

All these ways of understanding the generic-- as dismissal, as hindsight, or as drag-- highlight a particular problem with the idea: The generic is something one sees only at a distance in time or in taste. Which brings us back to that fascinating Popjustice idea: "If you only enjoy music that breaks pop's boundaries, you're not really a pop fan." Let's assume that you can substitute any kind of music for "pop": Is the implication that if you focus on the edge of a genre, you miss out on the essence of it? One way of answering that might be to think about functionality. As one friend says about techno, "sets that are all anthems don't really work; you need the filler in there to build up to the anthems," even if it's the anthems that people remember.

Not all genres have the direct practical context of techno, though-- boring pop records may help interesting ones to shine, but it's harder to imagine their makers seeing this as their function! The key word in the Popjustice formulation is "only": By implication, it's talking about a type of listener who won't use "edge" records as a way into the genre's centre but as a way of dismissing the genre entirely. This makes the apparently protectionist sentiments of the statement a lot more agreeable.

Imagine two people who don't normally listen to pop music, who then hear and enjoy the new Robyn album. One says "Gosh! This is better than I expected pop to be, perhaps I have misjudged the genre." The other says "Ah! This is better than most pop, it justifies my decision not to bother with the rest." Which one is more sympathetic? Surely the first, but the second seems as common a reaction. It would be unfair to blame Robyn herself-- it's hardly an artist's fault if critics or listeners use them as a stick to beat other music. And even if the critics love Body Talk Pt. 1over other pop records, does that really make it in some way bad for pop as a whole?

For that to stand a chance of being true, there needs to be a community of "real" pop fans, the integrity of which is weakened when boundary-breaking records are singled out for praise. In other words, the idea of a "boundary" isn't just aesthetic, it's social: The dangerous records are those that reach out beyond the community to new audiences. There are two threats here, possibly contradictory: The new audiences dilute the original scene and its values, and the attention paid to boundary records starves the center of publicity and money.

These kind of ideas have plenty of resonance for fans of some music. Fears over keeping it real, selling out, "false metal," and so on are rooted in the sense that a musical community should resist commercial exploitation or critical gentrification. But what makes sense for metal or hardcore seems faintly absurd applied to Robyn's dance-pop. This isn't because pop music is more frivolous or less authentic than hardcore, but because reaching new audiences is something pop routinely does. When you break through social boundaries in other genres, pop is often what you end up becoming.

So what attracts me in music isn't the idea of pop as a community or style but pop as a quality-- an immediacy and a desire to be heard as widely as possible. Novelty and comfort-- crossing or building musical boundaries-- are just tactics for doing this: Preferring one or the other doesn't make you any less a fan. And a focus on tactics rather than goals is why self-consciously generic-- or subversive-- pop hardly ever convinces.

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