A note to Pop Fans Making Straw Man Arguments

I have no particularly strong feelings about Lana Del Rey. I’ve heard a couple of songs and like them well enough. I couldn’t care less about what her ‘real’ story is in terms of whether or not I enjoy her music. However, this piece, and particularly its adoption today as some kind of rallying cry for pop, infuriates me.

I’ve written a few times about inverted pop snobbery and well, here it is. The worst kind of petty sneering at some imaginary oppressive enemy. It is, to borrow a currently in vogue phrase, reductive. This piece skates over all of the ambiguities that surround (and indeed make) Lana Del Rey. It relies on the fatuous premise that ‘alternative’ writers (who these people are, we are never told) gravitated towards her blindly and naturally, as if she and her marketing have had nothing to do with it. Once you accept that Lana Del Rey did not magically appear one day but has actively touted (and been touted) to specific audiences (a point noted in kind by the admission that there a heap of remixes aimed at ‘alternative’ audiences), then her past becomes relevant. In just the same way that Popjustice found Duffy’s past relevant in this article:

He is reluctant to fully accept the ingenue image. “From the beginning she was very stylised, shot in black and white, sold with the story that she’d barely heard a record before coming to London. The early press releases didn’t mention the fact that she had won [sic] the Welsh X Factor.” But he is not entirely disparaging. “Duffy shows that a manufactured artist can be good, if created by talented people who care about music,” he said.

The ‘Welsh X Factor’ thing in particular was a common fixation that, as far as I can tell, originated with Popjustice. I don’t see how it is any more or less relevant to what Duffy became than Lana Del Rey’s history is. All artists have a story, all artists are creations to some degree, and all people who write about music have every right to examine that and believe it to be relevant.

Now, the particular point being made here is one beloved of Popjustice: that the ‘indie’ world dismisses ‘pop’ music out of hand, particularly if it is manufactured. I think that’s why PJ went to pains to claim Duffy as a ‘manufactured’ artist. It’s also why something like the idea that Lana Del Rey might be terrible live is called a “boring idea of authenticity”. This approach to pop is, I think, cynical and damaging. In short, it treats pop as the disposable trash that these imaginary ‘alternative writers’ would believe it to be. In the effort to create a level playing field between pop and other, presumed ‘superior’ genres, the effort goes into levelling down, not up. So we hear the endless arguments about how everything should be approached as if it is of equal value; about how who writes the songs is irrelevant; about how the ability to perform live is the tedious concern of muso snobs. There is no argument for pop music as something capable of serious, transcendental moments (and I don’t use ‘serious’ here to mean ‘morose’, I mean sincere, affecting and without irony). There is no recognition of the unique brilliance of a pop auteur . There is no appreciation of the fact that the brilliance of ‘manufactured music’ like Motown or Dusty Springfield or most of Kylie’s output has come about from a perfect match between artist and song, a balance and interpretation which is worthy of examination itself and which is cheapened by being lumped in with all ‘manufactured pop’ as if any judgement acknowledging this fact is snobbery.

The urge is clearly to argue for pop as something which must inherently be ephemeral. Obviously this is often true – but ephemeral does not mean worthless. More often than not, however, the pop that truly connects with us, moves us, inspires us, makes us feel impossibly alive, is the pop that treats it as an art form. It has effort put into it and a value placed on it. It is the ‘boring idea of authenticity’ beloved of Motown, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Elton John, The Beatles, Mariah Carey, Abba. Why did Girls Aloud work? Because the people involved took it seriously. They didn’t treat it as pap which would be forgotten in a year. 

On some level, I think PJ knows this. While there are endless digs about ‘authenticity’ and jokes at the expense of U2 or Coldplay, when it’s an artist they like, the notions of ‘authenticity’ sneered at above are suddenly taken very seriously. Nicola Roberts can speak at length about writing music, name-drop cool producers and advance the idea that she’s just making music for herself without comment. If Matt Cardle does the same, it’s a recurrent joke. Lady Gaga is clearly seen as being on a different level to most of her contemporaries. Whether you agree with this or not, the arguments for her being so rest heavily on notions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘credibility’ sneered at in this article, however much it may be argued that she just ‘makes great pop’ or whatever.

The (inconsistent) efforts to disassociate from these notions lead to a horrible conservatism which veers towards dismissing anything that isn’t electro-pop. A radical band like The Beatles are lumped in with dreary indie for no apparent reason other than the fact that they were a band of white men. A brilliant British pop star like Adele is labelled as the spearhead of ‘The New Boring’ for writing sincere, moving songs which lack flashy production and dance routines. An act like Little Mix are elevated beyond all reason simply because they fit the bill and, being explicitly manufactured, can be held up as a totem against these imaginary ‘alternative writers’.

I did spend some time on Google in an effort to identify the hordes of hipster writers who hate Lana Del Rey for being ‘inauthentic’. I found plenty of criticism for her dire performance on SNL – but that has sod all to do with her origins. I did find an article in that most archetypal of alternative voices, Pitchfork. I’ll end with a link to it because I think it’s a brilliant piece of writing. It’s fair to say that it’s ambivalent towards Lana Del Rey but it teases out that ambivalence with great insight and certainly doesn’t dismiss her out of hand for her past. Its strength and why it works? It treats its subject as something worthy of serious thought and develops an argument placing it in wider musical contexts. It treats pop with the respect it deserves.

A note to Pop Fans Making Straw Man Arguments

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