1989 and Pop in 2014

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So Taylor Swift is a pop star now – it’s true, she said it herself. 1989 is her ‘first documented official pop album’, a pretty bizarre description which has nonetheless pretty much been taken at face value. She may previously have had record-breaking albums, multi-platinum singles and arena-filling tours but this was…something else. Something not pop. Something to do with guitars.

1989 has been greeted with the kind of hysterial, ostentious hyperbole which characterises poptimism, with lots of CAPITAL LETTERS about SQUEEING and imagined ‘real music’ snobs who are gnashing their teeth at her popularity (hello, NME). I’ve written about this kind of thing many times previously – about how it stems from a patronising, insecure relationship with pop where there’s an implicit sense that this stuff is actually beneath the person SQUEEING. They write in the persona of what they imagine a pop fan to be – an over-enthusiastic child. They think they’re being transgressive in liking the most popular act on the planet, simply because it’s ‘pop’.

One of the central tenets of this approach is an opposition to any serious consideration of what they’re professing to love: see the big push-back against critical discussion of Swift’s Shake It Off video. This stuff is just fun! It’s just silly! Don’t take it seriously! SQUEE! So the critics don’t actually perform any criticism. Yet the concept and execution of 1989 says some rather interesting things about modern pop. The fact that it was signposted very explicitly as Swift’s first pop album is fascinating enough in itself, given that she’d sold over 100 million units prior to its release. Yet the signposting did its job, with pop audiences previously ambivalent to Swift jumping on board and delivering her biggest first week album sales to date.

Swift is clearly a canny operator but I think both this and the Red campaigns have marked her out as an artist with an enormously perceptive appreciation of how pop music currently works. Previously viewed as a ‘country’ star, with Red she made a real push to broaden her already massive audience. This happened most obviously with the choice of Max Martin as a collaborator but there were more subtle aspects too. The lead single features that line about her douchebag boyfriend listening to ‘some indie record that’s much cooler than mine’ while third single 22 features ‘cool kids’ scoffing at her (“Who is Taylor Swift anyway?!”) as she sings of dressing up ‘like hipsters’. I didn’t see a single review which grasped just how clever this was in positioning the enormously popular, all-American Swift as some outsider artist who wasn’t taken seriously by ‘music snobs’ (as opposed to being a multi-Grammy Award winner who’d performed with very-credible-indeed artists like Stevie Nicks, the Rolling Stones and The Civil Wars). Swift got the poptimism which dominates the current music scene and was tickling its tummy with an imagined victimhood. Suffice to say, it worked a charm.

With 1989, it was pushed further. Signifer was heaped upon signifer to let everyone know that Swift had ditched those boring, ‘authentic’ guitars and was now FULL-BLOWN FUN POP YAY! Yet, again, I’ve not seen any review which has grasped this as a marketing approach above all else (and I’m not particularly saying that as a criticism). Swift understood perfectly that this was the route to the hearts (and more importantly, the wallets) of listeners turned off by the ‘rockist’ trappings of the country-pop she’d previously been associated with. So in comes more Max Martin and also the equally ubiquitous Ryan Tedder. The first single, Shake It Off, was a self-conscious statement of intent which went out of its way to sound like it could have been from a heap of other current pop acts. As it happened, most of the rest of the album wasn’t particularly different from what she’d done previously in terms of the actual songs – but the production (synths over guitars) and the framing concept were more than enough to turn this into a sense of some dramatic transformation.

Indeed, 1989 was presented by Swift as an homage to an era of ambitious pop when artists like Madonna, the Eurythmics and Phil Collins (all name-checked by her) were making “the most incredible, bold, risky decisions as far as pop music goes”. Again, this has largely passed without comment. Yet if you look at the execution of Swift’s vision it’s surely a testament to just how moribund pop is right now? If we look to Swift’s apparent inspirations, they had little in common beyond being popular. In fact, if you look at the big pop acts of 1989 it’s pretty remarkable just how diverse they are and, not uncoincidentally, how little overlap there is in their collaborators. Swift, in contrast, has ‘gone pop’ by working with the same writers/producers as Katy Perry, Britney Spears, P!nk, Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, Jessie J, Jennifer Lopez…I could go on. Far from being ‘incredible, bold, risky’, Swift has again managed to package a pretty conservative move as something transgressive.

Now this isn’t to say that Swift doesn’t stamp herself over 1989 creatively or even that it’s a bad record – at times it’s a very good record. Nonetheless, it seems sad that that rather than being perceived as previously delivering her own unique take on pop, Swift has to be incredibly obvious and aim for homogeneity in order to be widely received as a ‘pop artist’. It’s even sadder that few amongst the folk who are supposed to love this music the most have bothered to take it seriously enough to move beyond patronising stock responses.

One such stock response is the accusation of ‘nostalgia’ when contrasting the present with the past. Yet if Swift calls on the spirit of 1989 to frame her record, it seems fair enough to look at how pop and its appreciation has changed in that time. There may undeniably be much brilliant music being made now but there’s a real sense that the possibilities for pop music have narrowed. I thought about this while reading a compelling piece on ‘the scourge of relatability‘ which argues that the criteria for judging art, and how we approach it, has been changing:

…to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Now certainly that’s pushing all the buttons that will lead to accusations of ‘snobbery’ and the rest, but it’s difficult not to look at 1989 and its reception without thinking that we do indeed ‘expect the work to be done for us’. People had to be told that Swift was now pop and, for a great many, that meant it was now okay to like her. It’s ‘ambitious pop’ as something dreamt up in focus groups rather than as a dazzling ferocity which demands to be noticed, which shakes things up, which does something different. I think today’s pop scene is starved of this – it’s why there was such an enormous response to Beyonce’s audacious album release, something which seemed to belong to another age of other-wordly superstars (even if it still featured people like Tedder, Pharrell and Sia). 1989, then, is a perfect album for our modern pop age – but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Do You Get It? Some Thoughts on Music Criticism

If you’re one of the few unfortunates who reads my blog with any regularity, you’ll be bored to death of me bemoaning the state of music criticism. It’s a subject I return to often, particularly focusing on the lame ‘post-modern 101’ refusal to be overtly critical of POP! music and instead elevate some properly rubbish music with some half-baked nonsense about how authenticity isn’t real, maaaaan. Last year I attempted to sum up my thoughts in a ‘manifesto for pop‘ and now Neil Kulkarni has written a blog which contains a lot of the same points made far, far more entertainingly. There are so many sections from it which I could quote at length – I won’t, you should just read it – but I’ll begin with what was point 7 in my ‘manifesto’, which means quoting myself cos I’m a dick:

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.

Kulkarni writes at length about this, noting the “pre-emptive whingeing” wherein reviewers observe that it’s surely only old bores who could possibly dislike whatever it is they’re discussing. I’ve stuck One Direction up there because the response to them from music critics who haven’t been 16 in quite some time is pretty emblematic of this trend. I’ve observed circle jerks on Twitter where various writers congratulate themselves on their ability to tolerate 1D, assuring each other that it’s mean and pointless to criticise them as they’re ‘not aimed at them’. Thinking about that for more than 30 seconds reveals it to be patronising rubbish – as Kulkarni puts it:

Young people want to be spoken to across the table, not condescendingly DOWN to by the simplifications and lazy dumbness of those young enough to know better or the embarassing sticking-up-for-the-kids type shit older pop writers imbibe in to stay the right side of their juniors.

Well, he doesn’t just ‘put it’ like that, he absolutely nails it. The writers who indulge in this sort of response are absolutely terrified of looking like they don’t get it and so hedge their bets rather than giving their actual opinion. They condescend to allow the kids to listen to their rubbish pop because hey, they’d never actually listen to it themselves would they? It’s not for them! So there is no allowance for the fact that pop can be great and it can be dreadful. No distinction made between young folk with their infinite varieties of taste or recognition that plenty of teenagers regard a group like 1D with contempt. Those of us who love music to such a pathological degree that we bang on about it constantly will all share memories of songs, artists and albums that took our little ideas of what music was out of their box, smashed them in front of our eyes and took us outside into an enormous, terrifying, wonderful world. When I was 14 I didn’t want to hear older people telling me that I was allowed to like Let Loose or Doop – in fact I started reading the ‘adult’ music press religiously and devouring every album which received rave reviews, every artist who sounded like they’d changed the game. I didn’t want my music to exist in some gloopy neoliberal fucktopia where everything had equal value as long as someone bought it. I wanted – and I loved – writers who reached out of the page, grabbed me by the collar and said ‘listen to this, it will change your fucking life’.

It’s a no-brainer that your tastes will develop as you age. That’s not to say that you necessarily stop liking certain kinds of music but, as you clock up life experiences and develop emotionally, different songs and artists speak to you in different ways. Personally speaking I don’t think a teenage me could ever have loved Leonard Cohen in the way I do now – I needed to live a bit before I could inhabit his songs. The point is that you do get different as you get older and you do have different perspectives – if you don’t you’re either dead inside or an idiot – and all a critic can do is bring that to the table. They can’t second-guess what the response of someone 20 years younger than themselves might be; they can’t make excuses for music they think is shit because they think great music is only for older people. I overwhelmingly write about how this is done to pop (Poptimism) but Kulkarni’s particular focus is on landfill indie. It gets around.

I think part of this trend is the related move towards a cloying ‘positivity’ where WRITING THIS THIS SCREAAAAAAAM ZOMG!!! about everything and anything is seen as more worthy than actually being a critic. The responses to Kulkarni’s blog (discussed here) are almost uniformly examples of this: he’s called ‘bitter’, ‘angry’, a deluded nostalgist. People make trite comments about how it’s so easy to hate things, contrasting this with the ostensibly ‘pure’ and ‘productive’ overblown love for even the most insipid rubbish which passes for so much music writing these days. Tellingly, there are quite a few responses which attack Kulkarni for not being paid for his writing – indeed, there’s one on his own blog. They speak volumes. What is, after all, the value of an opinion which hasn’t been paid for? What is an appreciation, a demolition, a response to art if you can’t get it printed in the NME or on Yahoo Music? It gives ample fuel to what Alex Niven writes here:

Unfortunately the mainstream of music journalism right now appears to be dominated by a peculiarly virulent strain of braindead consumer hedonism, by people who simply don’t acknowledge that pop music can be debated about in politico-cultural terms. It would be (sort of) alright if these people were cognisant of their position, but depressingly I fear that they’re just moronic capitalistic yes-people for whom pop music is a leisure pursuit and nothing more. 

We’re given a glimpse into a cosy world of paid writers, getting their music and gigs for free and thinking that this makes their opinion more important than the music fans whom they occasionally condescend to defend if they think it reflects well on them. I was thinking about this again regarding the responses to The Knife’s gigs. Many claims were made that people expecting a GIG were ‘missing the point’. In this interview the following, quite insanely patronising, question is asked:

In a strange way, the complaints are almost like a critique of capitalism in themselves. I think it’s a pretty recent development, this sense of entitlement among fans to what artists should or should not do on stage: which songs they should perform, the manner in which they should present them. It’s almost like ticket-holders imagine themselves to be stakeholders in the band.

I say ‘question’, it’s more a plea to The Knife to recognise that the interview is one of the elite who ‘gets it’. Somewhat ironically given the ‘critique of capitalism’ line, the interviewer’s refusal or inability to seriously tackle the contradictions and problems inherent in The Knife’s show but rather agree with them at every turn causes Niven’s accusation of “capitalistic yes-people” to rush into your head. Obviously those people, those sheep, who bought tickets to see a band they loved and wanted to enjoy and didn’t enjoy it – they’re so entitled, such capitalists. They lack the appreciative skills of the critic (who probably had the added bonus of a free spot) who doesn’t actually need to be made to think themselves but can see that lesser mortals need to “question themselves a bit”. It’s another circle jerk, another self-congratulatory sneer from the balcony above yet fuelled by the same terror of being seen to ‘not get it’ as insincere 1D adoration. The alternative is not getting it or, even worse, being bitter, being negative.

What’s fundamentally missed here is that responses to The Knife’s shows, and writing more generally, can and should say something themselves. Criticism can be a transformational art form. Clearly much of what we read in the press is very strictly governed by diktats (albeit sometimes self-imposed) that constrain the response to ‘this is good/bad’ and it’s precisely for that reason that sneering at Kulkarni for his unpaid passion is so, so idiotic and tedious. Overwhelmingly, the best music criticism I read is on the fringes – in smaller sites or blogs rather than in the traditional places. The last time I picked up Q Magazine (the David Bowie issues) I was pretty appalled by most of what I read. There’s nothing challenging, nothing illuminative, no sense that the critic can have a role beyond flattering ego (primarily their own) and saying ‘yes, you can spend your £10 on this’. Perhaps The Knife’s interviewer wouldn’t unquestioningly accept the assertion that their show can make people ‘question themselves a bit’ if music writing wasn’t so currently posited on the basis that the critic is a species apart – an implicit assumption which is made all the more absurd by the failure of most of these people to actually ever express any view other than the most obvious one. The only way in which the critic is ‘separate’ is that they are in a tiny minority of people who are privileged enough (by this I don’t necessarily mean financially – time, opportunity, abillity and more come to mind) to write at length about this stuff. As such, there is an obligation to actually criticise, in its broadest term. Argue, destroy, defend, adore – just show some fucking passion and some backbone and accept that looking like a bitter idiot who doesn’t get it isn’t actually all that bad sometimes.

Since The Knife’s two shows in London this week the internet has been awash with reviews and comments like the one above. They make claims that The Knife “highlight artifice as the fulcrum of all performance, and in doing so take a self-referential, probing look at its effectiveness as a tool for subversion” and celebrate its ‘disruption’. Anyone who thinks it’s all a bit second-year art school and perhaps taking the piss for a £30 gig just doesn’t get it.

I understand that some people genuinely had a fun time (though the feedback I’ve heard on an anecdotal level has been overwhelmingly negative) and I can understand that. What I can’t get behind are these ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ reactions which imply (or even explicitly state) that you were somehow an ignorant heathen if you took issue with the show; there certainly seems to be an eagerness in some quarters to let us know that they GOT IT. Myself, I was so excited about seeing the band that I devoured videos, descriptions and reviews of the show as soon as they became available. My expectations slumped as a result and I ended up not even bothering to go.

So while my comments come in that context, they are largely on the common themes of these responses. Firstly, they all make some claim that, as it’s The Knife, we should never expect a ‘typical concert’. The review above explicitly states that “Shaking The Habitual was not written with live performance in mind, at least not in the conventional sense.” I saw The Knife at The Forum in October 2006. It was most definitely a ‘typical concert’. The act performed their songs on stage in front of an audience. They had light-shows, big screen visuals, props etc. They sang live. It was absolutely bloody brilliant. Where this idea that The Knife are crazed auteurs who would never deliver a concert has come from, I’ve no idea. As for Shaking The Habitual, to my ears it’s largely ‘challenging’ because of its length and some clearly deliberately tedious tracks, not because it sounds so unlike anything ever recorded before. I don’t really see why it would be difficult to perform it live.

The second common defence is that The Knife never billed the show as a ‘concert’ but rather as some artistic presentation of their music. Aside from the fact that the announcement of the tour really had nothing in it to alert people that the bulk of the show would be taken up by playback, it’s utterly absurd to berate people for not expecting a gig by buying a ticket for a show at the Roundhouse. The Knife could have made the nature of their show much clearer in many ways. Playing at a venue such as the ICA and billing it as an ‘art piece’ would have solved the issue of expectation in one fell swoop. People buying a ticket to see a concert billed as “We, The Knife, will be performing live” at a venue like the Roundhouse have reasonable expectations.

Now, much of the rhetoric around Shaking The Habitual has concerned itself with that favourite preoccupation of broadsheet music journalists: “authenticity”. It’s incredibly fashionable nowadays to sneer at the concept in a manner which suggests you once read the first few pages of an ‘Introduction to Post-Modernism’ and think it’s terribly clever to argue that the music of Bob Dylan is no different from the music of Fast-Food Rockers because it all depends on the listenerzzzzz. The Knife have thoughts on this which are rather more developed but still clearly manna from heaven for this audience. The responses to their show, however, completely demolish everything they’re saying. A positive response depends on believing that an act like The Knife is more authentic than other acts who may use playback and dance routines. As the Evening Standard reviewer noted in one of the few dissenting pieces I’ve read:

The problem is that this kind of performance art is rarely as arresting as that which it attempts to debunk. If Britney or Beyoncé mime, they are slaughtered, yet the spectacle they provide while doing so is light years from the spinning and waving that went on here.

He is so spot-on that it’s painful. No-one spends time dissecting the motives and intentions of a Britney Spears show – because they think it inherently has less worth. Yeah she can mime, she’s just a pop artist! If The Knife do it and shove some trite academic speech about ‘authenticity’ behind it, well that’s very different indeed! The same mentality was evident in almost all of the reviews of Shaking The Habitual which claimed that it was a ‘challenging’ and ‘difficult’ work which you may not even wish to ever listen to again, but still rewarded it with strong ratings. Can you imagine someone doing similar with a Madonna album? If they weren’t grabbed by it after a couple of listens they would have no hesitation in tearing it to shreds. Underlying much of this, then, is that almost-subconscious contempt for pop which shines through in the attitudes of many who ostensibly claim to love it. When it gets down to it, they think pop is the realm of piss-taking reality television and ironic club nights in Vauxhall; it couldn’t possibly be an art form on a par (or better than!) The Knife.

We have seen it for a long time in responses to artists like Björk, who can become as ropey as they please as long as their work appears suitably ‘artistic’ and ‘challenging’. The assumption is, of course, that mass listeners are simply too dumb to get it and if you do, you’re one of the enlightened ones. Many of the responses to The Knife’s show have presented it as clearly a work of genius which dissects those dumb, trashy pop concerts that people like – you can smell the sneering contempt and the masturbation from a mile off.

The Knife Live In London