This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race

Britney Spears’ previous album, Britney Jean, staggered onto the stage as the pinnacle of ‘zombie pop‘ and was “one of the most depressing albums I have ever heard.” It was so wretched that I thought we might have reached the bottom of the barrel:

…pop isn’t taken seriously as an art form yet a trite populism means that it’s instinctively defended against any and all criticism. When the banal output of One Direction is celebrated as a joyful cultural force, the pressure to do something great is pretty much non-existent. Add to this the fact that record sales are in decline, resulting in labels increasingly relying on their star artists for revenue (which itself comes more and more from advertising and endorsement deals) and you have a recipe for conservatism. The results of this have been unavoidable this year in most of the big pop releases: Prism’s dry self-denial; Gaga and Justin’s need to smother their music in tortured conceits to lend it ‘worth’; Miley’s ‘will this do?’ singles-and-filler effort. There’s been a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring. If Thriller was the music industry’s Star Wars, it feels like we’re at the stage where the results are market-driven dreck akin to Pearl Harbour.

Reading this in 2016, it’s certainly more difficult to complain about ‘a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring” when the pop mainstream is dominated by artists like Beyonce and Frank Ocean. The former surprise released Lemonade with an accompanying feature-length ‘visual album’ while the latter, not to be outdone, preceded his second album with an entirely separate visual album and then dropped blond with international pop-up shops. Both ‘campaigns’ generated enough hyperbole to power a nuclear power station, massive critical acclaim and commercial success. On the more prosaic end of the pop spectrum, teen idols like Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik have been reinvented in collaborations with electronic and r&b producers like Skrillex, Diplo and Malay.

Britney Spears has kinda been paying attention. This week she releases a new album, Glory, and it’s a step away from the formulaic EDM which characterised her recent efforts into more diverse, but not unexpected, areas. It seems a major pop album in 2016 isn’t complete without forays into reggae, hip-hop, minimalist r&b and other ‘sonic terrains’ which would please the Pitchfork and Vice crowd. Glory is miles better than Britney Jean (it would be very difficult not to be) but it still feels dead behind the eyes without turning that quality into a dazzling strength, as Blackout did. More to the point, it feels very traditional, in this age of the pop arms race – it’s just a collection of songs with no particular theme, trailed well in advance and preceded by a single. Perhaps it was felt that ‘the return of Britney Spears’ was a big enough splash on its own but it seems doubtful that this will be the case.

Listening to Glory, a couple of things conspired to lend context and get me thinking about pop in 2016. Firstly, Madonna’s Cherish came on random play soon after Glory ended:

Madonna of course has had plenty of her own creative conceits and bold marketing moves but it struck me, listening to Cherish, that you so rarely hear pop music like it anymore (even from Madonna). It’s guileless, charming and feels unencumbered by an acute self-awareness or concern for a wider context. In an era when songs, videos and albums show an eagerness to launch a thousand memes and our popstars offer carefully curated connection via social media, it seems increasingly rare to hear pop songs confident enough that they themselves are enough.

Rare but not unheard of. My thoughts turned to what seemed to me the most obvious example of this kind of pop in recent years: Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION, which saw its worldwide release one year ago this week. This anniversary was fresh in my mind as Jepsen has announced a companion release, E•MO•TION Side B, to mark it. The five-day gap from announcement to release is as far into the pop marketing arms race as Jepsen has yet ventured and while Call Me Maybe launched a plethora of viral videos, they felt like a cute aside to the song rather than a calculated part of its appeal.

In a review of Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP I once wrote:

…Gaga lacks confidence in pop as an art form in itself, seeming unable to let a song breathe and instead overbearing it with very deliberate efforts to be seen as a ‘proper artist’. Throughout ARTPOP signifier upon signifier is piled on top of sometimes brilliant melodies, creating enough room for breathless readings of Gaga’s ‘art’ certainly, but failing on the more basic level as engaging pop music. One of her early statements was that ‘pop will never be low-brow’, a suggested understanding that the simple pleasures of pop songs like (for example) Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe or Gaga’s own Poker Face were a powerful and admirable art form in themselves. With ARTPOP, however, it instead seems that Gaga thinks pop needs to be smothered in the language and aesthetics of more traditional art forms in order to have ‘value’.

It strikes me that this manifestation of Poptimism, wherein there’s a significant audience which requires its pop to be heavily signposted before they take it seriously, has gone turbo, feeding directly into the arms race of works which drape themselves in signifier after signifier that they are a ‘cut above’ your usual pop. It’s instructive that, for a mass audience, Carly Rae Jepsen is a semi-ironic one-hit-wonder to be enjoyed alongside Gangham Style. For a relatively small but vocal group, however, E•MO•TION marked her out as a pop artist in the most classic sense – someone who takes pop seriously enough to let it do the talking. From that plaintive sax which opens Run Away With Me, E•MO•TION grabs the heart with a charming sincerity atypical of the current pop scene: there is no overarching conceit tacked on, the music is not hinged on ‘Carly Rae Jepsen’ as a personality or cipher and for all the involvement of cool hitmakers like Sia and Blood Orange, it feels like an artist’s labour of love. It’s telling that in an article ostensibly praising the record, Vice still feels the need to observe that “maybe being marketed as a leftfield-leaning pop artist in the vein of Robyn is what Carly Rae Jepsen should be striving for”. It feels like we are increasingly unable to parse pop which doesn’t either make clear that it is SERIOUS AND CREDIBLE or allow itself to be framed as something apart from ‘real music’ which you are very broad-minded for enjoying. We expect the artist, and the marketing, to do a lot of the work for us.  Hence Madonna recently distinguishing herself from ‘pop acts’ and labelling herself as an ‘artist’ – the people have to be told!

This is a large part of why Glory feels like an album out of time. I think it’s largely going for the latter kind of appreciation, relying on Britney as the kind of popstar many will like in a performative way without any real belief that she is an ‘artist’, yet it was preceded by an atypically ‘mature’ single and advance word labelling it a ‘new era’. It’s a mish-mash which feels like it doesn’t understand the current scene or its dominant strain of Poptimism and it will probably struggle to make much impact as a result. If you want commercial success and critical acclaim in the arms race of 2016 pop, you gotta work, bitch.

Rebel Heart

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Madonna is a 56 year old woman. It’s important to mention this fact at the beginning because it’s the dominant prism through which her career (and indeed her life) is viewed these days. After the already infamous wardrobe malfunction at the BRIT Awards, social media was awash with terrible jokes and easy slights all premised on her being a frail elderly woman while her refusal to ‘cover up’ inevitably leads to demands that she ‘puts it away’. She is called a ‘cougar’ (a woman I was discussing Madonna with the other day disparagingly called her ‘cougaresque’ before stating with no hint of irony that she was ‘opposed’ to the ageism she faces) and mocked for her efforts to appear ‘young’ while photos where she ‘looks her age’ regularly form sneering tabloid stories. She is labelled ‘vampiric’ for daring to work with younger, on-trend producers and even ostensibly positive articles about her invariably buy into the notion that she is desperately clinging onto youth and/or relevance.

‘Desperate’ is not an adjective you will often hear thrown at legendary male musicians. When Prince, also 56, returned last year with a band made up of younger women and singing songs you could easily imagine someone half his age performing, he was met with unbridled praise. Yet the sexism behind this double standard operates in ways more subtle than the ‘mere’ fact that men face far fewer constraints on who they are expected to be as they age. If we look at Kate Bush, for example, we see a 56 year old female who is massively respected and praised; if we look at Joni Mitchell or Stevie Nicks, we see artists 10 years older who are similarly admired. The opprobrium Madonna faces, then, is not solely because she is an ageing woman but rather because she is an ageing woman making contemporary pop/dance music.

1983, when Madonna released her debut album, was “an era where disco was anathema to the mainstream pop, and she had a huge role in popularizing dance music as a popular music again”. Madonna’s roots lay in a music scene which belonged to the queers, the blacks, the latinos, the drag queens and yes, the women. The infamous ‘Disco Sucks!’ movement typifies the sexist, racist and homophobic opposition which this music met with and it was in this context Madonna released a debut where she solely wrote 5 of the 8 tracks. As Michael Rosenblatt (A&R of Sire Records at the time) puts it, even Warner Bros dismissed her as “just a little dance girl.”

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It seems fair to say that Madonna has faced variations on this attitude in her career since, whether it be accusations that she slept her way to success, assertions that her ‘real talent’ is marketing and self-promotion or the attribution of her successes to the men she has collaborated with. It’s not an accident that her most respected albums, Like A Prayer and Ray of Light, are the ones where she most ostentatiously seemed like a musical auteur while, for example, the high concept brilliance of Erotica or the cleverness of MDNA as her second divorce album were generally lost in the midst of dance beats, Sex books and Super Bowls. Over the years ‘rockism’ has, of course, been chipped away and Madonna has won a begrudging respect from many. In the past decade or so, however, she’s faced another set of prejudices under the guise of ‘poptimism’, an approach which sees the rejection of ‘authenticity’ and the ‘rock canon’ as its liberating raison d’être. This is fine up to a point but (as I’ve written about many times before) it has led to orthodoxies as facile and constraining as rockism at its worst: a fetishising of and supplication to youth; a hyper-sensitive rejection of sincerity and earnestness; a deep suspicion of ‘traditional’ markers of musical talent (ie the endless whining over guitars) and an irreverence which frequently tips over into petulance. It’s this approach which led us to the absurdity of a pop album where the ‘artist’ doesn’t necessarily even sing entire verses attributed to her: poptimism has, ironically, a contempt for pop music at its core.

Madonna, on the other hand, has always taken pop music seriously and approached it sincerely. How could she not? Disco and its aftermath wasn’t about empty, half-understood post-modernist; rather it was about life. A celebration, yes, but at its most basic level it was about the survival and defiance of those the mainstream rejected. Madonna came to music knowing that it mattered and knowing that her self-expression as a pop artist was one of the most powerful statements she could ever make. Her famous statement that she wanted ‘to rule the world’ was not (just) hubris but a statement of intent that she could make things better – not for nothing does her debut single command ‘Everybody’ to “dance and sing, get up and do your thing”.

In 2015, then, we have rockist relics forever suspicious of Madonna making pop music and poptimists who can’t understand why she should warrant any respect or even attention unless she’s delivering instant gratification. She’s at least double the age of your average pop singer on the charts yet hasn’t ‘toned it down’ and gone the route expected of her  (witness the contrasting responses to Annie Lennox’s ‘graceful’ ageing at the Grammys vs Madonna’s ass-baring.) She is quite unique in being a middle-aged female pop artist who refuses to go quietly into the night or become her own tribute act, a move which I’m certain would quickly gratify her to many detractors who want little more than nostalgia from their ageing musicians.

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This latter approach was exactly the one taken David Bowie in 2002 with Heathen (when he was 55), and by Bob Dylan in 1997 with Time Out of Mind (when he was 57). Both, of course, tick a lot more of the boxes warranting ‘respect’ than Madonna but by recording albums which harked back to their heydays, firmly met expectations of what they should be doing and nodded towards the fact of their ageing, they were greeted by an avalanche of acclaim. Madonna’s not an idiot. Coming from the commercial disappointment of MDNA (though two million sales these days is nothing to be sniffed at) and facing an uphill battle to ever have a hit single again, she surely knows that if she were to reunite with, say, Pat Leonard, dye her hair black, put on some conservative clothes and sing some ballads about how awful it was getting old before knocking around singing Like A Prayer, she’d have a much easier time of it. Yet Rebel Heart is, in its way, as much a restatement of values as Time Out of Mind or Heather were. It is also just as much about ageing.

Ever since Madonna stridently sang “Unlike the others I’d do anything, I’m not the same, I have no shame” on Burning Up, she’s done a good line in ‘nothing’s gonna stop me!” songs. Yet given Madonna’s current position there’s something poignant in hearing her sing ‘Now that it’s over/I’m gonna carry on’ over a throwback 90s house track in Rebel Heart’s opener Living For Love. The proposed concept of Rebel Heart, abandoned after leakageddon, was apparently a double-album comprised of two ‘sides’: rebel and heart. This isn’t particularly different from the stated theme of Hard Candy, which was to juxtapose Madonna’s toughness with her ‘soft centre’ and, like HC, Rebel Heart is an album which looks backwards a lot. Yet while Hard Candy sonically revisited the r&b-inflected pop of Madonna’s early years (her debut was allegedly the template), Rebel Heart is possibly the most musically diverse album she’s ever released. It’s also one very much about taking stock and moving onwards into an uncertain future.

The album is littered with obvious references to Madonna’s past – the Vogue sample on Holy Water, the Justify My Love lyrics on Best Night, the cavalcade of song titles which make up Veni Vidi Vici; the title track’s moving reflection on her life; it’s also packed with allusions to Madonna’s status as an ageing pop icon. On electro-folk tour de force Devil Prey she sings “Holding on, but I’m getting weaker/watch me disappear.” Ghosttown, a Ryan Tedder-esque anthem which is probably the album’s best chance of a hit, depicts a barren post-apocalyptic world and finds Madonna musing that “Everything’s bound to break sooner or later.” In the gorgeous Joan of Arc she sings “Even when the world turns its back on me/There could be a war, but I’m not going down.” Album closer (standard version) Wash All Over Me is an elegiac ballad which seems self-explanatory given what I’ve written above:

In a world that’s changing
I’m a stranger in a strange land
There’s a contradiction
And I’m stuck here in between
Life is like a desert
An oasis to confuse me
So I walk this razor’s edge
Will I stand or will I fall?
…If this is the end then let it come
Let it come
Let it rain
…Gonna watch the sun going down
I’m not gonna run from all this sadness

I remember reading a review of Bedtime Stories in Q Magazine which ended by posing the question “Is it too soon to say that it was fun while it lasted?” Now, over 20 years later, Madonna seems to be posing the question to herself. The most fascinating song in this regard is, ironically, one which seems to have been removed from the track listing at the last minute: Queen is an astounding dirge quite unlike anything she’s ever recorded before and finds the Queen of Pop addressing indirectly addressing her listeners:

We’re at the end of days
For heaven’s sake
The queen’s been slain
She’ll never rule again
…Black parade, motorcade
Destiny sings farewell, church bells
Is anyone listening?
…Who will take her place?
Its written on everyone’s face
The truth is slowly dawning
I hear tomorrow calling
Some things can’t be replaced
The realization of a new generation
On the eve of imitation
All gone, overthrown

She is, in effect, saying ‘you fuckers will miss me when I’m gone’. In fact, ‘some things can’t be replaced’ could fairly be described as the over-arching theme of the album or, to put it another way – Bitch I’m Madonna. The ‘rebel’ songs are less concerned with considering Madonna’s demise (metaphorical or otherwise) than with reminding us that she can do thrilling pop in her sleep. Given her origins and the more subtle versions of ‘Disco Sucks!’ which she’s faced throughout her career, it’s quite apropos that it’s the adventurous, brash and fun electronic pop of Bitch I’m Madonna, Unapologetic Bitch and Holy Water which have been vexing the straight white male critics. Indeed, the fact that Madonna had to point out that the latter song, with lyrics like “Kiss it better, kiss it better (don’t it taste like holy water)”, was meant to be funny speaks volumes about how some perceive her. The heart songs let us know that she’s perfectly self-aware regarding her age and her position – the rebel songs tell us she’s not our bitch, don’t hang our shit on her. She’ll be singing songs like S.E.X. (featuring a ‘lesson in sexology’ which includes “chopsticks, underwear, barber soap, dental chair, fish nets, satin sheets, garter belt, raw meat” – it’s like she felt sorry for the Daily Mail) as long as people keep telling her to stop and tossing off the kind of mercurial melodies found in Hold Tight and Inside Out while her detractors scramble around blowing up photos of her hands. As she puts it in Borrowed Time, she wants to ‘live each moment like our time is only borrowed’.

Taken in one go the ‘Super Deluxe’ version is certainly too long (23 songs, if Queen is indeed missing) but this largely seems to reflect a) the changed nature of ‘albums’ in an mp3/Spotify world and b) the need to get fans to buy multiple copies to shore up Madonna’s commercial fortunes. Presumably because the leaks meant that the songs finished at the time were rush-released, the pacing is a bit off too. Nonetheless this is certainly Madonna’s best album since Confessions On A Dance Floor and, as her public appearances have underlined, she seems more engaged in the music than she has done in a while.

For all the reasons discussed above, Madonna isn’t going to be respected as the preternaturally brilliant talent she is any time soon. The criticism isn’t going to stop being about the same superficial things it’s always about (as opposed to serious discussion of her sometimes problematic and sometimes plain godawful politics.)We’ll do this all again in a few years when she’s 60 and pissing even more people off by showing her ass but, by God, she’s right about one thing:

We’ll miss her when she’s gone.

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.

Pop Deserves the ‘Social Justice Warriors’

taylor-swift-shake-it-off-video-3-2014-billboard-650Don’t worry, I’m not really going to write about the racism/appropriation in the new Taylor Swift video. This widely shared post says most of what there is to say (and, importantly, what needed to be said). Instead I want to write briefly another aspect of this mini storm.

Being a Taylor Swift fan (maybe not for much longer considering how things are going) I actually watched her Yahoo live announcement thingy…live. It was painful. Jesus Christ it was painful. Taylor was doing her ‘I’m just a normal gal and we’re all hanging out!’ schtick in front of an audience seemingly made-up of people who had been pumped full of uppers prior to broadcast. Her every utterance was greeted with hysteria. I don’t cope well with over-the-top “I like this more than anyone else ever and I’m going to prove it by screaming the most” displays of fandom (watching the Doctor Who 50th special in the cinema last year was hellish for this very reason). It did not put me in a good place, people. Then she debuted the song and this also did not put me in a good place. It’s a very on-trend Max Martin number which you could easily imagine being released by Little Mix or Cheryl Cole or Cher Lloyd or countless other current pop stars. Sure, it’s efficient enough at what it does but I’m not sure anyone particularly needs it (and if it wasn’t by the already-massively popular Swift, I’m not sure many would particularly pay attention to it). Given the really rather interesting and even astonishing places Swift has been taking her music, it’s a crushing disappointment to see her cheerfully announcing that she’s gone ‘pop’ and offering up generic pop hit no. 5694. You were already pop, Taylor, and you were doing it in a way no other major pop artist was. There’s always the possibility that the album will be more interesting but given the apparent presence of Max Martin on most tracks, I’m not optimistic.

Anyway, back to the live thingy. After dancing around to her song and announcing details of her album (inspired by ‘late-80s pop’ apparently – hello Jive Bunny) she premiered the video. As soon as I saw the scenes from which the above cap comes from, my heart sank. I actually thought of this line. Why does this shit keep happening? Well, a big part of it is that most pop listeners just pretend it’s not, as we saw with the really-quite-obviously-racist Lily Allen video. In a pretty classic demonstration of the ‘Bad Feeling’ thesis (yeah, I keep returning to that because it’s so right) people see the problematic thing and, rather than thinking ‘oh dear, this is a bit bad’, try to anticipate and undermine the discussions labelling it as problematic. And so:

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Notice the references to the ‘social justice warriors of the internet’ and ‘blogs’. There are usually liberal references to Tumblr thrown in for good measure. It’s always those people on the internet who pick holes in this stuff, who can’t just enjoy it for what it is. That last tweet is actually from a Guardian writer who ‘writes about film, TV and music’. Yes, someone who writes about culture for a living throws out ‘fucking earnest columns’ as an insult. If such responses are woefully inevitable it’s because, as I’ve written about quite a few times before, pop criticism is in a really fucking terrible place. It’s dominated by the misguided idea that patronisingly faux-positive responses (I covered it with regards to One Direction but clearly Taylor also receives the same treatment) show you really get this stuff and are really open-minded and aren’t a snob and blah blah blah! There will be lots of barely-formed sneering at ‘authenticity’ and anything associated with it, even guitars (notice that Taylor’s cultural power has risen in tandem with her move away from country). Most importantly, everything must be FUN! and IRONIC! and SARCASTIC! and SILLY! and nothing is worth taking too seriously or thinking about too much. The Alex Niven quote I used when previously writing about this is worth wheeling out again:

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. 

That brief paragraph perfectly captures where criticism and, unfortunately, much fandom is right now. It’s been that way for a while but the rise of link-bait is making it even worse. Which sites that profess to love pop music write about it with any insight or depth? They all instead seem terrified of being ‘fucking earnest’ and losing readers who they think mustn’t be challenged in any way. Just whack out another list, keep the press releases flowing and write some shite about what Madonna’s daughter might be doing and they’re sorted.

You’ll notice that the piece I linked to at the start is a personal blog. It’s an absolutely sublime bit of writing but it drives home just how rarely you read anything like that in mainstream journalism. Yet rather than being some poxy angry internet social justice warrior thing that can be easily dismissed, it’s gone viral, been picked up by Vice and Time, and (along with some high-profile Twitter criticism) inspired much critical coverage of the video on sites which would have otherwise have stayed well away from the subject. The do-it-yourself internet has led the way here, just as it did with the Lily Allen video and just as it does with the vast majority of pop criticism. DIY internet is where the best writing on pop is found these days, whether that be the fiercely intelligent analysis found in personal blogs like One Of Those Faces or the beguiling passion found in One Week One Band (overwhelmingly written, it should be noted, by people who blog and/or tweet rather than ‘professional’ writers). These people know that pop matters. They know that it not only deserves and is deserving of serious appraisal but that it requires it: it shapes culture and it shapes lives. They are ‘fucking earnest’ about it because they fucking care about it. The ones who roll their eyes at the ‘internet’ people who write about pop ‘in politico-cultural terms’ are, ironically, the ones who display their sheer contempt for pop in their ostentatious efforts to look like they respect it. To them, it’s just a silly Taylor Swift song and video that doesn’t mean anything and will be forgotten soon after they’ve made sure to loudly show their appreciation. It’s lazy, it’s cheap and it’s tired. Pop deserves better.

 

Nostalgia and Futurology

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Modern pop music came to prominence at the same time as the invention and rise of the teenager, a concept (and grouping) with which it has had a long, sweaty symbiosis. While pop may be at least 70 years old, it still carries associations with, and connotations of, youth and modernity. Yet while the dawn of the teenager is inextricably linked to guitar-based rock and roll music, the past 20-odd years has seen the rise of poptimism, which seeks to paint guitar-based ‘rock’ as conservative and backwards against the futuristic-leanings of a self-consciously ‘artificial’ dance-oriented chart pop. I’ve always found this attempted delineation to be weak and messy, a position which I feel has been vindicated the more dominant poptimism has become in the media. Shows like The Big Reunion and acts like One Direction (one of whose biggest hits was widely viewed as being an…homage…to The Who) have shown that conservatism and nostalgia are by no means solely confined to rock music.

The sway of poptimism is such, however, that the latter examples aren’t seen as retrospective. The Big Reunion may explictly involve reforming pop acts who were briefly popular in the 90s but, when placed against the mythical bogeyman of conservative rock, it’s viewed as an open-minded celebration. One Direction may make derivative music but their talent show origins, their youth and their appeal to young girls conspire to present them as exciting and modern. Nostalgia, then, is elided to the point where it becomes meaningless: little more than a tool to bash already-disliked acts with rather than any considered and/or sincere aversion to conservatism. It is enough to be heard as loudly opposed to conservatism, no matter how incoherent this may be upon examination. What matters is perception.

This warping of ‘nostalgia’ from meaning a sentimental yearning for ‘the good old days’ to a largely-empty signifier to be deployed against acceptable targets has permeated music criticism. You can view it in how acts like Prince and David Bowie were warmly welcomed when they stopped messing about (trying new things) and instead delivered albums which played to their archetypal images. Again, this was very clearly playing to nostalgia but in aligning themselves with audience expectations they opened a space for fluid, unforced perceptions. We don’t want to be seen to be conservative but we also don’t like it when acts make things hard for us by not being what we want them to  be; so, when they oblige us in the latter, we tell ourselves that they have ‘returned to form’ rather than ‘allowed us to love our own idea of them again’. It’s noticeable that this rationalisation is very rarely wheeled out for acts who haven’t deviated from who we want them to be – acts who conversely can end up as whipping posts for faux anti-conservatism because there has been no disruption there, nothing for them to return to us from.

The genius of Bowie’s The Next Day, one I still don’t think is widely appreciated, is how it completely understood this state of affairs and made it integral to the album and its campaign. The actual music wasn’t particularly different from Bowie’s previous few albums and I’ve no doubt that had it been released a decade previous, it would have quickly faded from view. Yet there was the ten year disruption and it was this Bowie made use of. It wasn’t just nostalgia presented as modernity – it artfully used the listener’s expectations to make it the first post-nostalgic album.

Manics_Futurology_Art_600This brings me to Futurology, the new Manic Street Preachers album which is providing them with the best reviews they’ve had in almost 20 years. It’s a very good album but I find it curious that most of these reviews have been focusing on the band’s ‘reinvention’, their ability to take the ostentatious trappings of Krautrock, Berlin-era Bowie and early-Simple Minds and craft their own ‘masterpiece‘ from the ruins. I find it curious because despite all the advance word, Futurology isn’t a musical reinvention at all – there’s almost nothing on there that a Manics fan won’t have heard from them before. In fact, from the moment the melodic opening title track riff recalls the band’s commercial peak through the post-punk blast of Sex, Power, Love and Money, the Know Your Enemy-jangle of The Next Jet to Leave Moscow and the energised Lifeblood-sheen of Walk Me To The Bridge, it’s a record which feels steeped in the Manics’ history. The same is true lyrically – the latter song’s clear references to Richey (despite the band’s denials) have already been noted while TNJTLM finds them renouncing their Know Your Enemy jaunt to Cuba (everything must go, indeed!). Let’s Go To War, meanwhile, is presented as the final part of a newly-formulated trilogy and its line ‘don’t forget we love you still’ harks back to both previous instalments (You Love Us/Masses Against the Classes). There are also, as noted in The Quietus review, several nods to particular aspects of working-class Welsh history threaded throughout the album.

It’s been noted that Futurology is the sister album of last year’s Rewind The Film. Less noted is the clear contrast in the album titles – the past and the future, or rather an idea of the future. The title track of RTW was an ode to the comfort of nostalgia: “rewind the film once more/turn back the pages of my post/rewind the film once more/I want the world to see it all.” The video for this and that album’s other two singles formed a short film about working-class Wales and the impact of the Miners’ Strike. The mood of Rewind The Film meant that critics easily identified its obsession with the past, with nostalgia. It also had a sense of anxiety for an unknown future which seemed certain to be warped and alien, irrevocably broken from the comforting myths of the past.

The aesthetic and publicity of Futurology seems to have blinded many to the fact that it’s a continuation of these themes – and one which draws far more heavily on the Manics’ musical past. In its way, then, it also understands and plays with this post-nostalgia age. It offers a frictionless return to previous highs, mixing nods to a more aggressive and radical past with a distancing from (and sometimes apologising for) it (this distancing has been crucial to the Manics’ success with a particular kind of critic, who could never have stomached their early belligerence without that gap). It offers nostalgia under the guise of modernity, drawing on the past to present a comforting, easily-digestible image of a future. “We’ll come back one day… we never really went away. ” This is Futurology.

 

Reactions to Lily

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God knows I don’t need to write anything further in terms of parsing the Lily Allen video, so I’ll largely refrain. Instead I want to note a few things about the reaction to it.

The response of the white ‘faux-feminists’ of the broadsheets has largely been a textbook example of the issues discussed here. They have been perfectly willing to throw questions of race and class under the bus because this privileged private school woman has poked fun at ‘misogyny’ in pop/hip-hop music. It’s interesting that Russell Brand’s recent foray into politics was met with many furious blogs and tweets about his sexism and how this discounted his opinions while these same people are defending Allen against accusations of sexism/racism/classism on the basis that ‘her heart was in the right place’. If this doesn’t underline the self-interest at play here, what does?

The discussions around misogyny in pop tend to be absolutely woeful, going no deeper than ‘women take their clothes off, waaah!’ Certainly sexism is a thing in pop but it’s far more complex that this and, indeed, exists in responses which condemn women for showing flesh while having absolutely nothing to say about the litany of boy bands and Biebers who are permanently semi-naked. Pop music itself is sexualised – any discussion of women in pop has to start from this point. It also has to note that the genre is particularly dominated by female singers while ‘rock’ is dominated by men. Questioning why this may be and even understanding that someone like Allen is in a position of huge power (not least over her dancers) leads to difficult, but far more illuminating, discussions.

Another aspect of the response which has been interesting has been the wailing from the kind of POP FAN who endlessly bemoans ‘snobbery’. They’re known as Poptimists and you’ll find them on most pop forums or reviewing albums in The Guardian. I’ve long noted the very peculiar brand of self-loathing exhibited by this type, who will follow Lady Gaga in insisting that ‘pop will never be low brow’ and insist that it deserves to be taken seriously while adopting a corrosive irony about the thing they ostensibly love. So they will celebrate the insincere mocking tone of The Big Reunion or self-consciously rejoice at dancing to Eternal b-sides. It’s all surface, all a posture – any earnest appreciation for pop as an art form is absent, any serious analysis of it is off-limits. We recently saw this with Lady Gaga’s appalling Aura song which made ‘Burqa Swag’ a thing. You can read a great commentary on the problems behind the track here but such serious reasoning seemed to be almost entirely absent from the outlets which routinely celebrate and discuss pop music. Instead, the only acknowledgement of these issues was a loud chorus of snide mocking that anyone would possibly think that it could be racist. Racist?! It’s a POP SONG! It’s fun! It’s POSITIVE! We see this exact response with Lily Allen’s video, where anyone advancing a critical opinion of its problematic content is dismissed as ‘reading too much into it’, ‘taking it too seriously’ or ‘not getting it’. This reveals the curious contempt for pop-as-art which seems to lie beneath the surface of so much Poptimism, which is shown to mean banal and ostentatious applause for pop and not sincere appreciation. Pop isn’t to be taken seriously, the deployment of ‘fun’ an assertion that it simply lacks the weight to carry serious socio-political impact. It’s a joke. Rather than acknowledge this, of course, the issue is projected onto the critic: it is Sara Ahmed’s ‘Bad Feeling’ writ large.

This blaming of ‘the dissenting voice’ for interrupting the bland, ‘happy’ consensus has been particularly notable with white, gay, male pop fans shouting down black females who have advanced an opinion that Allen’s video is racist. Clearly there is a lot going on here in terms of the overlaps between sexism, racism and the gay community and it’s interesting that a lot of gay men have adopted the ‘faux-feminism’ of the twee commentariat. In their eyes, then, it’s a great thing that Allen has ‘raised the issue’ and those who find problems in the video are bitter try-hards who are ruining the liberal love-in. Of course, as I noted in the ‘Dig Deep’ piece, modern Gay Politics has much in common with ‘faux-feminism’, more concerned with a self-serving victimisation than with intersectional solidarity. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the voice of the privileged white pop singer instantly wins out. Allen’s video flatters the ego of these viewers, assuring them of their moral superiority without asking them to consider more complex interactions of power or, indeed, their own position with regards to race, class and gender. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Teenage Kicks

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I didn’t watch Channel 4’s ‘Crazy About One Direction’ last week. I didn’t watch it because I’m 33 years old and, ya know, One Direction. We’re apparently not supposed to say that these days. Instead we’re meant to encourage the notion that we’re really down with what pop kids like, that people enjoying something is reason enough for its existence, that the fandom you experience when you’re an adolescent is this pure, undiluted, beautiful fandom that becomes corrupted by the horrors of adulthood. It’s typical of that ‘cloying positivity’ which I’ve previously written about and is also tackled well here:

We all know the types; they’ve just discovered memes, they earnestly listen to shit pop music designed for children, they watch TV talents shows with a genuine excitement – they are people whose cultural interests are almost exclusively based in novelty. Everything is ‘amazing’ not because it’s exceptional or out of the ordinary, but because amazing is now the go-to word to describe most anything, ironically or otherwise. 

It should be emphasised (because some will deliberately try and avoid it) that this is aimed at the overwhelmingly 25 year old and over ‘critics’ who write reams defending 1D fans and their ilk, not the 1D fans themselves. No-one is surprised when teenagers get hugely excited by pop music. Indeed, the 1D documentary was nothing new – in my time I’ve seen similar shows on obsessive fans of Britney Spears, Take That, Madonna. Interestingly enough, several of these previous shows featured many male fans, something which I gather was missing from the 1D documentary. This is important because the response to the 1D documentary has overwhelmingly rested on two things: a sentimental, banal appeal to feminism and Poptimism. Two things which, of course, are catnip for much of our modern media and certainly current music journalism.

Let’s look at the Poptimism first. Of course we’ve had the ‘oh people are making fun of these fans because it’s pop music’ response and corresponding attack on people who obsess over guitars, ‘authenticity’ blah blah blah oh God not this again. We won’t dwell on the fact that this ‘Rockist’ attitude is so ridiculed and unfashionable that anyone sincerely making it (and more often than not you don’t actually find many people making it, it’s just this floating spectre) may as well be standing up and saying ‘I’M A PAEDOPHILE’. Instead we’ll take it at face value and agree – of course loving pop is no less valid than loving rock or indie or whatever. Great. What this argument always does however is to conflate all pop music and all pop fans. You may love Taylor Swift and Rihanna but as soon as you say that you think One Direction are pretty terrible, you become this snobbish archetype. Indeed, even on the fans’ ‘side’ there’s no recognition that pop fans love a myriad of different acts (pop and otherwise) and that loads of 1D fans think The Wanted are shit, and vice-versa, and wider still. No, rock music is not inherently superior to pop music. Running with this to the point where we refuse to acknowledge that some rock is better than some pop (and of course the reverse is true) or more importantly, that there is a lot of dreadful pop music out there is absurd and doesn’t suggest that anyone making the argument takes pop music all that seriously themselves. Current pop music journalism does seem built on this extremely shaky bedrock, a cheapness which elevates dreck and kitsch as celebratory and refuses to sincerely consider pop in any social/political/cultural terms as an important art form. We can see this right now in the response to Lady Gaga’s ‘ArtPop’ project where she is very loudly and ostentatiously banging on about bringing ‘art’ and ‘pop’ together. I’ve yet to see a single pop writer say, ‘hold on – pop already is art and we don’t need these very obvious signifiers taken from the ‘art world’ to tell us otherwise’. If you constantly treat pop music as some big cheap joke where no-one can make any critical judgements without being ‘the enemy’, you cannot turn around and complain that other people then think of it as cheap.

Of course, the ‘pop’ we’re discussing here is very much of a type. Spend any length of time on a British pop music site and you’ll find sneering references to artists like Jake Bugg, Mumford & Sons, Coldplay. Matt Cardle was torn apart on these sites when he won X Factor, seemingly because he played guitar and didn’t want to make dance-pop. It doesn’t matter that these acts may have legions of teenage (female) fans – they’re acceptable targets and no-one is going to devote any time to writing columns defending them. If the documentary last week had been called ‘Crazy About Coldplay’ the Twittersphere would have been united in its derision. This may seem a rather trite point but it’s an important one. The photo at the top of this depicts some ‘crazy’ fans of The Beatles. The impulse now is to slot One Direction and their fans alongside this yet there is a clear demarcation in how obsessive fans of The Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Michael Jackson are viewed as compared to obsessive fans of pop acts which pretty much no-one expects to be around in 3 years’ time. The former could all easily be labelled ‘pop acts’ but that instantly makes the Poptimist defence of 1D look very silly indeed.

The feminist arguments being wheeled out are also fascinating, suggesting that there is a nasty strain of misogyny infecting the ridicule which these extreme examples of 1D fans are subjected to. They’re particularly fascinating coming so soon after the ‘internet troll’ hysteria which gripped the media during the fallow Summer months. When (it seems overwhelmingly) young men have been seen to send abuse and threats on Twitter, there has been a mass outcry. There have been hand-wringing debates about ‘the crisis of masculinity’. There have even been arrests. When One Direction fans sent abuse and death threats, however, many leapt to their defence. I previously wrote about a similar response re: Paris Brown’s tweets. In short, young men sending abuse online are pathologised and even criminalised. When young women do it, however, there is a significant movement to at least understand their actions, at most actually excuse them and present them as the victims. Why the double-standards?! Especially when the vast majority of One Direction fans are clearly not going to be people who send death threats and virulently defending those that do makes no such distinction. It’s also notable that, as mentioned, previous comparable documentaries have featured obsessive male fans. It’s curious that when some of the largely young, male fanbase of Lady Gaga took to attacking Adele’s weight no-one was making any effort to excuse them. Yet the peculiar blend of Poptimism and an uncritical strand of feminism meant that when Lady Gaga turned her own weight into a cause célèbre, this behaviour was erased and Gaga became the victim of horrid men online.

It’s no big shakes that teenagers in the throes of adolescence may act rather…strangely over things. Most of us have been there. What’s different now is that we have social media and so behaviour which previously might have been confined to our bedrooms is easily transmitted around the world for all to see. There are also studies tentatively suggesting that social media is making people more narcissistic and less able to empathise with others. This is toxic when added to a stage of life where you already have an entire universe exploding inside your head. What shouldn’t have changed, though, is the realisation (and expectation) that it’s a period of life which you grow out of. I’ve seen so much written in the past week presenting obsessive teenage fandom as some idealised state of being that I’ve wondered if I’m going a bit ‘crazy’ myself. At 14 you’re not living through some magical period of ‘real’ emotion. You’re growing up. It’s a formative time, certainly, and a lot of great stuff happens but it’s not being horrific for the older people writing about this to acknowledge that yeah, your personality, intellect and emotional state mature and you look back at when you wanted nothing more than to touch a pop star with a mixture of fondness, confusion and embarrassment. Suggesting that it’s somehow a good thing to hold onto that state is idiotic and even harmful. It’s another thing we’re apparently not supposed to say. We’re not supposed to acknowledge that adolescence play a huge part in phenomenon like One Direction – we’re being ‘patronising’ if we do. I rather think that if you’re not a teenage fan yourself, you’re being patronising in pretending that things don’t change, that your relationship with music and its creators develops and that fandom can endure and develop alongside that.

Springsteen and I

It occurred to me while reading these thoughts on One Direction and fandom from Lucy Robinson that one of the greatest aspects of Springsteen & I (which I saw last night) is that it openly celebrates unadulterated fandom from the kind of music listener who is commonly presented as a ‘snob’ these days. Bruce Springsteen is pretty much the archetypal ‘old man with a guitar’ of our age, held up as emblematic of ‘rockism’ and beloved of the kind of people who could never listen to Ke$ha. Yet the fans in the film (ranging from kids through to pensioners) are as excitable, as enthusiastic and as devoted as the most hysterical One Directioner, It’s a very sweet and heart-warming depiction of the profound importance which music plays in the lives of those of us who’ve let the magic in; it’s also a moving tribute to the relationships which this can lead to. A mother proudly watches as her 10 year old son shows off the close-up photo of Bruce he managed to take after they both attended his concert; a couple reminisce about how they initially bonded over their mutual fandom and dance around their kitchen to a tinny stereo, lamenting that they’ve never been able to see Bruce live; a middle-aged woman explains how her first Bruce concert changed her, awakening a previously-dormant sexuality and a newfound appreciation for rock ‘n’ roll. In one of the loveliest moments a woman who could be a grandmother films herself alone in some woods (her first ever video, apparently) as she speaks about how Bruce is one of her oldest friends even though he’s never met her.

What the film offers which a One Direction equivalent couldn’t possibly duplicate is an appreciation of the musical relationships which endure and which sustain us. More than acting as a soundtrack to their lives, these people speak time and again of how Bruce’s songs are part of their being and how they offer the kind of intimacy which allows them to feel that they are seeing some kind of truth regarding life. One man speaks of how the lyrics are such that he feels he can smell Bruce’s coffee and share in Bruce’s failures and triumphs, an observation which reduces him to tears. A woman in her 20s speaks about her job and how Bruce’s music has helped her to accept that it’s ok to have a degree that she doesn’t use in her job as a truck-driver. It’s fandom but it’s also didactic and transformational. Bruce himself gets this in an after-credits scene where he meets some of the fans from the film. Asked what motivates him to get on stage every night, he explains simply that music changed his life for the better and he wants to be able to give that gift to other people. This is pretty much exactly what I meant when I wrote previously that caring about what they did was the most fundamental thing an artist could offer. The intense, ephemeral love for a short-lived pop act is something many of us experience and it’s great while it lasts but we’re kinda not supposed to acknowledge that it’s a temporary rush which probably has more to do with our own adolescent states than anything else.  It’s seen as patronising to say that and preferable to pretend that we don’t ever change . Yet we do and the music which speaks to us evolves and changes in turn. If we’re lucky, the artists whom we love at 13 will change us, inspire us to check out more music, books etc, If we’re lucky, they’ll develop as we do and we’ll have a hell of a journey together. One Direction are clearly aimed at children and no doubt speak to their experiences but their music would be pretty useless at capturing the peaks and troughs of a 33-year old (unless it’s a particularly stunted one). Maybe they’ll progress, as (the far superior) Take That did but there’s nothing wrong with recognising that acts being loved by lots of kids isn’t a huge virtue in and of itself. What we rather should acknowledge is that our love for music doesn’t diminish with age. It’s no less ‘pure’ just because you have a life, responsibilities, problems and passions which take you away from it. Rather our relationship with music deepens and it permeates us in ways we couldn’t possibly begin to quantify or adequately describe. It’s a great thing and it should be celebrated.

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.

Taking Pop Music Seriously Again – Bowie, Timberlake and Roger Scruton

So apparently Justin Timberlake and Destiny’s Child are going to ‘save pop’, The Saturdays are returning via a new reality show and Will.I.Am & Britney Spears are set to hit number one with one of the worst pop songs in recent memory. Pop music, in that most narrow of senses meaning the Top 40 chart, seems to be up shit creek. The one thing which seems to unite all of these happenings is the triumph of celebrity over music: it should never be the case that a mediocre group like The Saturdays resort to debasing their personal lives on television in order to sell pop records. That they are doing so is instructive as to where much of the pop music audience is at these days – they want to like the artist almost as you would like a friend first and foremost and the music comes later. They are aspiring to that “strange celebrity where viewers/readers feel they know them and what they actually do is secondary so exemplified by Cheryl Cole. Britney offers a slightly different take on it – people may not feel that they know her, exactly, but she long ago ceased to exist in the public consciousness as a person and instead became a pliable brand – and people love their brands.

I think this has driven much of the hysterical response to Justin Timberlake returning. He’s had two albums, the first of which was pretty dreadful. Yet his return was viewed as The Great Hope for pop in 2013. Timberlake has long affected a chilled ‘guy next door’ cool – I say affected because it really seems so transparent to me that I’m amazed anyone buys into it, but buy into it they do – which led to him being one of the few mass pop artists it was ‘permissible’ to like if you were the kind of person who worries about such things. No less an arbiter of hipster tastes than Pitchfork adore him, hilariously placing him in their ‘Best Albums of the 2000s’ list and panting with excitement over this return. Destiny’s Child and Beyonce achieved similar, albeit with a much higher standard of output. It’s instructive that contemporaries like Nelly Furtado and Christina Aguilera released strong albums far removed from the Will.I.Am/Guetta chart stranglehold to deafening silence last year. Indeed, Furtado’s fate caused me to write last year about how “major pop albums which show such a messy but clear artistic impulse seem to be getting rarer and pop listeners were largely abandoning albums as ‘Rockist’ conceits. The response to Timberlake is a strong illustration of this – looking past his personality, his pop status rests on a handful of strong singles.

The sense that pop’s drive downwards is in large part fuelled by the low expectations of many pop listeners was further charged by the rather common response that Timberlake’s return was ‘pop’s Bowie moment’, referring to the latter’s unexpected appearance on Tuesday. Some undoubtedly meant this tongue-in-cheek but many clearly did not, taking the time to emphasise that they didn’t give a shit about David Bowie. Once again, the tired Rockist/Poptimist dichotomy was in play, with Bowie seen as the former and Timberlake the latter. I can think of nothing which better highlights the short-sighted stupidity of extreme Poptimism. There is definitely a case to be made for David Bowie being the greatest pop star of the past 100 years – certainly his influence is writ large in artists ranging from Madonna and Prince to Lady Gaga and, yes, Justin Timberlake. The idea that pop listeners should be encouraged to dismiss him as ‘not one of theirs’ because he’s too old, too respected, too ‘classic’, too artistic even, is very sad. Pathetic, even. As always, this attitude reinforces the idea that notions of wild creativity, of artistic involvement, of music-above-all-else, are tried old tropes obsessed over by ‘snobs’ while pop fans merrily destroy pretence and hierarchies. This attitude has , in fact, ended up in pop bands resorting to soul-destroying reality television in order to get noticed and pop fans celebrating One Direction being nominated for a ‘Best Group’ Brit award because it would ‘annoy fans of ‘credible’ music’. It’s idiotic.

I found the perfect summation of this attitude in a rather unexpected place – an OpenDemocracy piece on Melvyn Bragg’s Radio 4 series on ‘culture’. In a paragraph dealing with the ancient debate over ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture the author writes:

…nobody today believes that entire genres can be either defended or dismissed in toto, while only fanatical neoliberals actually believe that all preferences are of equal value.

The dismissal of entire genres was of course a central trait of Rockism. The irony is that, while Poptimists would claim to hold the second view that ‘all preferences are of equal value’ (which certainly is fanatically neoliberal) they actually tend to hold the first, dismissing most music which falls outside a narrow idea of what ‘pop’ is. What any music fan should aspire to is the piece’s description of Roger Scruton’s notion that “there is a case to be made for critical and informed discrimination within any genre of creative work.” This means being open to music wherever it may come from, certainly, but the ‘critical and informed discrimination’ point is key. We should not abandon our faculties in pursuit of the misguided notion that a critical approach to music is a pointless, even negative, exercise. The idea that ‘all music is equal, but some music is more equal than others’ is the idea which is more than anything responsible for the identikit dreck littering the charts at the moment. We need more people like Bowie, artists who sincerely and seriously care about what they do and do not aspire to be all things to all people. We need to demand more and that begins when we start taking pop seriously again.