A Manifesto for Pop (and for writing about it)

The pieces on Rihanna’s new album (including my own but particularly this one from The Quietus) have raised some interesting points about pop music. Largely, however, the various reviews have been interesting because of what they avoid. While many (but not all) critics/pop writers note the Chris Brown involvement and express unease at this, the general consensus seems to be that you can ignore this as long as you enjoy the music. That seems baffling to me – it’s unavoidable in the record, from the title onwards. No, what this argument is really saying is ‘hey, it’s only pop music – if you enjoy this, who really cares about its meaning?’ It treats pop music as an ultimately disposable, ephemeral pastime which is certainly not worth wasting your critical faculties on. This approach permeates most writing about pop music with even avowed pop lovers refusing to seriously engage with it as an art form. Instead we have an almost endless stream of sarcasm, cynicism, irony and self-imposed critical distance where even love for something is undermined as soon as it is expressed.

I remember that when ‘We Love Pop’ magazine launched, I read a feature in The Independent where the editor elaborated on its rationale:

The Wanted were at No 1 in the singles charts recently – what sort of magazine do you buy if you like The Wanted? Or if you were one of the thousands of girls watching Beyoncé at Glastonbury? There are no music magazines out there that target girls. Girls’ magazines featuring music stars tend to be the gossip ones and not about the music.

I think it’s fair to say that this raised the prospect of a kind-of Mojo-esque magazine devoted to pop music – one which took it very seriously and focused heavily on the music. A cursory look at any WLP cover, however, will show that it’s very much another magazine heavily in the vein of the ‘gossip ones’ the editor was differentiating it from. It doesn’t really tackle pop seriously at all. If we stick with the Rihanna/Chris Brown issue, something where WLP could be said to have an important role to play in speaking to an audience of teenage girls, they’ve largely avoided it. Instead it’s the subject of sarcastic jokes, perfunctory nods or odd outbursts of faux-sincerity which only engage on a completely superficial level. Again, it’s presented as something which distracts from the music rather than being a core part of it.

Can pop only be tackled if it’s done so in this very lightweight, light-hearted manner? Clearly not – a website like The Quietus has had frequently brilliant articles on pop, Q Magazine has had entire issues devoted to serious discussion of Madonna and that archetype of ‘music snobbery’ Pitchfork had an often-astounding column devoted to ‘poptimism’ . No, serious discussion of pop is clearly happening (if on a small scale). It could be argued, then, that many of the people writing about pop at the moment are approaching it with the almost-subconscious contempt which they imagine most others have for it. It comes back to that tired old ‘rockism vs poptimism’ thing: rock is the ‘serious’ music, which is taken to mean earnest and po-faced, and it’s the subject of earnest and po-faced analysis. Pop is fun! Pop writing should be fun! Pop writing should not be earnest and po-faced! And we end up with an approach which is seemingly terrified of taking anything too seriously and certainly hesitant to tackle pop as a serious art lest they be lumped in with the boring guitar snobs.

Thinking about this led to a discussion with a friend regarding Rihanna and Lana del Rey which very quickly became a proxy for notions of authenticity, talent and seriousness which are diffused throughout current pop writing. This made me realise that, in all the time I’ve written about this kind of thing, I’ve never really articulated my approach to pop. In attempting to do this I found that much of what I was thinking applied equally to my approach to writing about pop.

So, in the spirit of discussion, I present my own little manifesto for pop. I apply it mainly to artists but the implications for writing are implicit:

1 – Care about what you do. This is fundamental. Whether it’s Katy Perry, Grizzly Bear, King Creosote or Flying Lotus, the big divide in music is not between rock and pop but between those who take what they’re doing seriously and want to do it well and those who do not. ‘Artists’ like Cheryl Cole, Pitbull and the countless dire indie bands in the world rely on people’s low expectations, aspiring to nothing more than passable facsimiles of what other, better artists have done before. We should not be afraid of calling these people out. Most of all, we should have disdain for those who see pop only as a route to money and/or fame.

2 – Pop is an art form. A magician is an entertainer. A juggler is an entertainer. That dog which won ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ is an entertainer. Entertainment is but one aspect of pop, which is an art form. Sometimes pop makes us sad, sometimes it makes us uncomfortable, sometimes it makes us angry, sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes it blows our mind. These can all be great, positive things and they are lost if we view the primary purpose of pop to be light entertainment. That idea brings us Olly Murs.

3. Art is human creativity. This sounds almost absurd. Yet the logical conclusion of many ostensibly ‘pro-pop’ arguments is that a catchy pop song made by a computer would be great pop, as the origin is irrelevant. However art is a human construct, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”. This is precisely why it’s absolutely fine to make demands on pop artists. We want them to communicate their inner world with us. This may be done by them writing songs. It may also be done by them interpreting songs written by other people, bringing their unique voice and persona to them. It is not done by someone blankly miming to a boilerplate dance-pop knock-off. Understanding this and having some expectations of pop artists is not buying into notions of ‘authenticity’ or ‘rockism’ – it’s understanding the very purpose of art itself.

4. Pop is fundamentally about music. Again, one which perhaps seems obvious but sometimes everything around the music can take over. People like Cheryl Cole and Olly Murs are television personalities who have perfunctory music which serves these personas. We can all think of pop stars (even ones we love) who have released sub-standard music with brilliant videos, dance routines, live performances, glitz, glamour! These things are not unimportant but they should never replace the music. It always must come back to that. That’s why we’re here.

5. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like any art form, pop has a context and relies on relationships. The first and most important relationship is, of course, between it and ourselves. But it is also influenced by and speaks to wider society. Issues of politics, of power, of economics, of gender, of race, of sexuality, of interpersonal relationships – all of these and more feed into great pop (even if it’s not explicit in the record itself). That’s not so say that they forever anchor it or that it doesn’t make sense beyond this context but that’s part of the wonderful complexity. Never, ever dismiss any of these issues because ‘it’s only pop’.

6. Pop artists are not your friends. In that great pop communicates an inner world, it’s understandable that we may be repelled by personalities which we find abhorrent (hello, Chris Brown). However this is very different from the X Factorisation of pop where being ‘likeable’ is one of the most important things about an artist. Towering, untouchable, alien artists such as Madonna, Prince and Bowie would never have done well by this standard. A great pop star is there to make great pop, not be someone you can imagine popping down the pub with.

7. Don’t patronise young pop fans or use them to justify crap pop. A common response to criticisms of certain pop artists these days is to say ‘the kids like it’. What’s forgotten here is that just as lots of adults like dross, so do lots of kids. Why are we so afraid of thinking this? Watching ‘Crossfire Hurricane’ the other evening I was struck by the scenes from the early career of The Rolling Stones where girls in their early teens were fanatical about them. Just as teens (and younger) throughout the past 50 years have loved Elvis, Little Richard, The Beatles, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift, Beyonce. And loads have hated these artists and loved countless other artists who rarely (if ever) trouble the charts. Every time someone (usually at least double the age of the people they’re talking about) defends something terrible with an appeal to ‘the kids’, they’re talking rubbish.

8.  Beware instant opinions. Relating to point 2, great pop is frequently not instant. This is sometimes forgotten, especially in this age of Twitter and Facebook and internet forums and album leaks. Literally ten minutes after a big pop album leaks you’ll be able to find people giving forceful opinions on it. This is fair enough but the nature of online identities is that opinions very easily become entwined with self-worth. They become about getting attention, making a statement, being right and are quickly calcified as a result. This is exacerbated further by the speed of leaks and the corresponding demands on attention, where if an album doesn’t instantly grab you there are strong temptations to move on to the next one almost immediately. Some albums take time; some albums make demands of the listener. This fear of making demands, of not being instant and of people moving on quickly is what fuels the identikit-pop which floods the charts.

9. We are all here because we really love this stuff. All of us who spend hours and hours every week listening to music, thinking about music, writing about music – we are very much in the minority. We are not typical of how most people interact with music. Why, then, do we go to such pains to pretend that we are? Why do we pursue the kind of relativism which, applied to other art forms, would see dreck like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ compared with Shakespeare merely because ‘people like it’? If we truly thought that mass consumption was the ultimate arbiter we wouldn’t waste our time on this. The fact that we do is because none of us truly believe that and the beginning of a sincere interaction with pop is to acknowledge this and stop trying to speak on behalf of the people who really couldn’t give a toss. It’s not being a ‘snob’ to recognise that you care about all of this far more than most people do. Does that mean your opinion is the be all and end all? Of course not. But it means you shouldn’t instantly undermine said opinion with appeals to an imagined mass audience.

10. So show it. Following on from 8, if we love pop – we should show it. Drop the easy recourse to sarcasm, to gossip, to irony and get stuck in with the art we adore. Let go of corrosive fixations on ‘flops’, on ‘snobs’, on ‘haters’. Stop pretending that we don’t find some popular pop artists spirit-crushingly awful and don’t love some hugely unpopular ones. Above all, stop pretending that we don’t think pop is a wondrous, magnificent, life-changing GREAT THING that matters.

And…there we go. Comments welcome!

A few of these pieces have popped up in the past week. I find it bizarre as it was clear long ago that Chris Brown’s career wasn’t particularly going to suffer – I wrote my own piece on his ‘rehabilitation’ back in March 2011. Yet here we are and this Observer piece is particularly interesting in that both ‘sides’ trot out some well-worn but rather unchallenged arguments. A few comments arising from it:

  • Peter Tatchell’s comments about how he should be forgiven were harmful for exactly the reason we see here: he’s viewed (wrongly, in my view) as a totemic ‘liberal’ and someone who would be expected to condemn Brown. So his comments are seized on as being evidence that ‘even’ right-on folk like him want to move on, implying that anyone who doesn’t is some bitter crank. Yet Tatchell, not for the first time, had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. It quickly became clear that he had absolutely zero knowledge of Brown’s career, his disgusting lyrics referring to Rihanna and the incident, his bleating, self-pitying tweets and comments, his tantrums and recurring violence. I think it’s fair to say that if another ‘celebrity’ had dismissed homophobic actions with the ignorance Tatchell brought to this issue, he would have been incensed.
  • ‘People find it hard that his apology wasn’t “sincere” enough’. I’m not really sure why sincere deserves those sneering quotation marks – as I wrote in my piece above, only the most ignorant or most idiotic of observers could possibly believe that Brown had sincerely understood the gravity of what he did and apologised for it. His response has been and continues to be insulting and degrading at every turn. This is the crux of the matter. Despite how they are presented, I’ve encountered few people who believe that there is no way back from his actions. Of course there should be – yet it requires a bit of effort and humility on his part. This is additionally important due to his status and his young fanbase, whom we have already seen taking very disturbing messages from the whole thing.
  • Yes, it’s completely outrageous that white men such as Charlie Sheen appear to get a free pass for their actions. That’s a reason to attack hypocrisy, not excuse Chris Brown.
  • It’s also bizarre that Cheryl Cole received such an easy pass for her assault – one which, lest we forget, she pleaded ‘not guilty’ to. From what I can gather she’s never properly accepted responsibility for this. While there are clearly very different dynamics and relations going on with domestic violence, we can expect that a man convicted of a similar assault would have received a far more damning and lasting response from newspapers like The Guardian.
  • Laura Snapes instantly begins her argument with the observation that Chris Brown’s music is rubbish and so it should have been easy to forget him. It’s inexcusable that this is not developed further as the question of whether we should be more forgiving of musical geniuses is a very interesting and pertinent one which has a lot to offer to the argument. Andrew Emery is correct that the issue of whether or not we like Chris Brown’s music should not cloud our responses to his violence; the fact that our personal preferences for artists sometimes do cloud our judgment is one worth considering more fully.
  • Andrew draws a distinction between the law and music, arguing that being punished in the former sphere is enough to allow enjoyment of the latter. I would argue that music is not separate from morality and that popular culture has a far more powerful impact than a single conviction could ever have – especially a conviction in a sphere where the wealthy tend to receive preferential treatment.
  • Laura Snapes inadvertently highlights some of the dodgy racial politics bubbling beneath the surface of this discussion with her already trite contrasting of Frank Ocean’s ‘smart’, civilised work with Chris Brown’s. I still find it breathtaking how swiftly Ocean’s blog has led to his adoption as a totemic example of intellectual, humane r&b in a genre of barbarians. As Andrew quickly points out in response, this is nonsense and relies on a heavily selective view of Ocean’s work indeed.
  • John Lennon is typically wheeled out by Brown defenders of a certain age as an example of the shocking hypocrisy of his detractors. I think it’s unreasonable to expect people to have an equal response to (heavily disputed) events which took place before they were born. The implications and connections are hugely different. Of course we should be able to discuss them but it smacks merely of more cynical obfuscation of the issue rather than a sincere attempt to examine responses to domestic abuse. In Lennon’s case, the fact that the allegations of abuse came in two books which were printed long after his death makes comparisons even more irrelevant and impossible.
  • I wouldn’t particularly say that people have been demonstrating great willingness to give Mel Gibson another go.
  • The news in the comments that Chris Moyles actually re-recorded Chris Brown’s parts in a single he liked as he refuses to play Chris Brown made me like Moyles that little bit more.

Is Chris Brown’s rehabilitation now complete?

I observed in my recent blog about Cheryl Cole that the logical conclusion of the arguments usually wheeled out to defend her role in pop was music originating with computers, with pop fans rooting for their brand of choice. This column in The Guardian is quite timely, then, in taking that possibility and using it to ask what ‘art’ is. Many would argue that it is merely an aesthetic, and largely an individualistic one at that – if I like something, it is art. This is, in fact, the view of many Cheryl fans who have moved a step beyond attempting to justify her as a popstar – when Lucy Jones of The Telegraph criticised Cheryl yesterday, she received several replies pointing out that Cheryl ‘brought pleasure’ to many people and that was all that mattered. On a very fundamental level it’s almost impossible to argue against this – people have different tastes and ideas and woe betide anyone who is seen to be attempting to impose their own onto others. If we step away from pop music, however, I think this argument is far less persuasive. In the ‘high art’ forms, such as literature or fine art, there are readily accepted contexts in which works are judged. We are able to recognise and discuss technique, form, an evolving yet nonetheless fixed history. Indeed, without this context the study and teaching of these forms would be impossible. It is a context which has been forged by human creativity and effort – sometimes affected by technology, certainly, but not replaced by it. We could program a computer to faithfully replicate many of these techniques etc but however satisfying the result, the machine would not, could not, move the form on. Here, then, it seems obvious that ‘art’ requires a human hand.

I will never forget the trauma that was studying Shakespeare at university, where we would spend hours poring over specific paragraphs and unpicking the depths contained within them. I could never quite believe that one artist could have been so skilled, so astoundingly talented. Aside from the poetry of Shakespeare’s verse and prose (and how dismissive that seems!), his plays are packed with references and allusions to history, religion, mythology, other literature and the culture and politics of the period. This requires both intention and insight, which instantly puts the work beyond the reach of any computer. They are also bursting with a humanity (and understanding thereof) which even the most advanced computer could never hope to replicate. So, while judging Shakespeare on the level of ‘do I like it or not? Does it bring me pleasure?’ may answer the question of individual taste, it doesn’t begin to answer the question of whether Shakespeare is art as it doesn’t appreciate that which separates it from random scribbling.

Even with intertextuality, post-structuralism, Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ or Adorno’s negation of aestheticism itself, we rely on these contexts and histories created by humans, even if to react against them (and in doing so, expand and progress the form). All of these things have become part of critical theory and part of our interpretation of art (however much some of the individuals behind them may have despised this development). The same could be said of Punk rock – it reacted against the dominant ideas of popular music at the time and created something new, yet for all of its radicalism it is now seen as influential as the context it kicked against.

Popular music certainly has its own history, its own context. The major difference with the more ‘traditional’ art forms is perhaps that it’s a fairly brief one, with mass-produced recorded music only arising and dominating in the 20th century. The notions of authorship and artistry which we appeal to when speaking about pop music tend to be those which, varyingly depending on your tastes, only hark back as far as Motown and/or The Beatles. The former is held up as the banner for ‘it’s not important who write the songs’ and ‘the star is key’; the latter are obviously archetypes of creative self-determination in pop. In their way, the Sex Pistols were an important crossroads as the perfect blend between the two, having their own Berry Gordy in Malcolm McLaren and playing ‘characters’, yet writing their own songs and playing instruments (albeit in a self-consciously rudimentary fashion.)

Yet the tensions between the two concepts of pop have never really abated; many still pick their side, mocking ‘manufactured music’ or ridiculing ‘authenticity’. What is lost here are the deeper commonalities : both undoubtedly treated pop music as an art form, and there is far more going on in the best of both ‘worlds’ than ‘does the listener find this catchy?

Ironically, it was another meeting of these ‘worlds’ which perhaps ushered in an era where this was obscured: Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, while undoubtedly a brilliant piece of work, was the ‘Jaws’ of the music industry, ushering in the era of the blockbuster. Many of the arguments we hear today – justification by appealing to record sales/popularity, the dominance of love for an artist’s persona over their work, the fetishism of an artist who retreats from their work and becomes the product themselves – can arguably be traced back to this massive breakpoint. Its aftermath certainly calcified attitudes of ‘manufactured vs authenticity’, which is perhaps surprising as most of the pop artists which came after were certainly self-determining. Yet this was also the period where the star, the character, became a visual product and commerce really became an unavoidable part of pop. This spectacle was so removed from what had come before that it paradoxically calcified the tribe mentality.

We’ll probably never stop asking what art is. What’s remarkable about pop music today is that so few seem to care. As The Guardian blog illustrates, it’s a conversation which never dies with certain forms. I suppose Instragram is its own ‘I like it vs how it was made’ argument…but that’s another story.

Evolutionary music doesn’t mean the death of the creator

Cheryl Cole: She’s Not About That

I’ve written before about how Cheryl Cole is basically a television personality who ‘sings’ and, with the promo for her new album kicking off, that is now clearer than ever. I want to take a few moments to look at what she says about certain attitudes towards pop music.

A couple of weeks ago she appeared on ‘The Voice’ and jumped around a lot while miming:

Sure, it takes some chutzpah to mime on a show called ‘The Voice’ but the response from her supporters (and supporters of a certain idea of pop) was instant and obvious – she’s not about singing live and all those ideas of ‘authenticity’ beloved of ‘music snobs’. She’s a vehicle for pop songs and her ‘talent’ is her charisma.

Now, let’s take that at face value. Let’s ignore the fact that the song she is a vehicle for is derivative pap which desperately wants to be ‘We Found Love’. Let’s even ignore the fact that the above argument was almost always followed up by ‘Anyway, she IS singing beneath a backing track!’ which rendered them utterly self-defeating. Let’s look at this instead:

Here, Cheryl is most definitely singing live. And it’s absolutely dreadful. The entire thing is a car crash – more than that, a motorway pile-up. Aside from sounding horrible, she seems utterly flat and blank, as if she feels completely exposed. There is no ‘charisma’ here. So no, Cheryl is most definitely not about singing. So why is she there, then? Because she’s here in her role as a personality. That woman from Girls Aloud whose husband cheated on her and who cried a lot on ‘The X Factor’. Her role is really no different from that of Miranda who introduced her – she’s a face that people recognise and generally like. Being presented as one of the nation’s favourite pop stars, then, confuses this and ultimately demeans pop.

Cheryl being of modest talents is absolutely fine when she’s part of the team that is Girls Aloud. I use ‘team’ in the widest sense as the song-writing and production of Xenomania are as much part of Girls Aloud as the five women are. This is a singular vision – an often daring, exciting one which five women of varying talent present magnificently. It is evidently irrelevant if they write their music, just as it was irrelevant that The Supremes performed songs written within the Motown factory. Everyone involved has their role and it just works.

As a solo artist, Cheryl is front and centre and her shortcomings are woefully obvious. She is a dreadful singer and even on record her voice isn’t unique enough to be instantly identifiable (unlike, say, Diana Ross). The songs she’s performing are brought to her and intended to be generic enough that they could be performed by a plethora of interchangeable pop stars. She has absolutely nothing to say (even back in the infamous Times interview where Nicola Roberts expresses her reactionary right-wing views, Cheryl is clearly too media-savvy to say anything beyond throw some tidbits about her celebrity partner and celebrity spats) yet aims for a ‘Northern lass done good’ persona which prevents her becoming a fascinating vacuum like Britney. 

Yet aforementioned personality, combined with a classical beauty, was formed in front of millions and has made her a mainstay of the gossip magazines. Cheryl Cole is comparable to the stars of ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and the responses to both are similar – they are working-class folk ‘done good’, achieving a strange celebrity where viewers/readers feel they know them and what they actually do is secondary. It’s not difficult to imagine Cheryl presenting shows on ITV2 a la Mark Wright – the only difference is that she has come from a pop band. So that’s where  Cheryl the personality goes. The music is completely subservient to the brand that is ‘Cheryl’; at times, in fact, it seems completely irrelevant (as I’ve noted before, Cheryl’s miming on ‘X Factor’ demonstrated astounding contempt for the contestants whose singing she was judging). It’s pop as the path-of-least-resistance, ‘will this do?’ songs which are intended to do nothing more than sell. Any concept of pop as an art form or as a performer and song as a skillful, deliberate match capable of something transcendent is absent. Cheryl is the product to be sold and, as with Peter Andre, pop is merely part of the whole brand. She is literally a step above having a cd player placed on a stage and someone pressing ‘play’. Pop done well is an art and art necessarily involves human creativity – if all we cared about was whether a song was ‘catchy’ or not, we could literally listen to the product of a computer which had been programmed with algorithms for countless pop hits. Perhaps it would be catchy – it certainly wouldn’t have any soul. That is the logical conclusion of the argument that it is irrelevant what Cheryl does. The funny thing is, plenty of people have brand loyalty to inanimate objects and it’s easy to imagine some dystopian future where people bicker over whether equivalents of Apple or Microsoft produce the best pop songs.

Really, when people justify Cheryl’s lack of involvement – in every possible sense –  in her own pop music by saying that it’s not what she’s about, they are more right than they know. She’s not about pop; certainly not about music. She’s about fame-as-product. I think pop music deserves better.