This Week in the Mercury


Monday, January 3, 2011

Two Solid (& Wonky) Critiques of Modern Pop

Posted by Andrew R Tonry on Mon, Jan 3, 2011 at 11:47 PM

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My Dark Twisted Fantasy got its share of hyped up, eardrum-bursting spins at my house in recent weeks. But already I feel the magic wearing off. When you go for everything all at once in a blast of pure orgasmic pop as Kanye did on most every track, there's nowhere to go but down. These songs are tremendous on first listen, and seem to lose a little something each time. Still digging it, but I can't imagine caring a year from now. Same thing happened with Late Registration.

And while it didn't make my list (Sam Quinn topped it) My Dark Twisted Fantasy was a near-consensus pick for Album of the Year among critics. But I argue that the only reason Kanye's latest topped so many lists is because it was still fresh in our ears. There was no time to age.

New York Times critic Jon Caramanica agrees, at least about Kanye's benefitting on the timing of his release. For those who enjoy a bit of wonky criticism, Caramnica's piece on the album is a solid read, good for at least burning a few minutes now that you're back at the office.

Its reign has been tyrannical — surprisingly, less because of Mr. West’s maniacal and loud sense of self-importance than because of the unimaginative group-think the album has spawned...

But consensus is less a measure of greatness than of social climate. And when the year-end lists of several prominent outlets with different demographics and agendas — the magazines Rolling Stone, Vibe and Spin; the Web sites Pitchfork and Stereogum — share the same winner, it almost certainly indicates intangibles at play. Blessedly there was no consensus on No. 2: the Black Keys, Rick Ross, Deerhunter, LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire each got a nod. But that reflected a lack of other widely agreed upon ambitious albums; maybe Mr. West was a titan in an off year.

Across the way at the Times, the very smart Jon Pareles recently penned this terrific treatise on the state of modern pop and indie rock. His conclusion: we're in a cycle of simplicity.

Lately I’ve been having a recurring sinking sensation. A hit on the radio gets my attention and doesn’t repay it; it adds up to little more than a dull thumping Eurodisco beat and a robo-tuned voice repeating an inane hook, something like the “Ay-oh, gotta let go,” in Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” or Justin Bieber piping, “Baby, baby, baby, oh” or the Black Eyed Peas chanting “Imma Be” more than 100 times (though at least that song goes through some rhythm changes).
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O.K., I shrug, that’s just pop radio. Predictable catchiness is all that matters, nobody’s looking for much content, and current audience research tells radio stations that robo-voices and simple beats are the bubble gum du jour. No big deal.

So I head for an alternative: indie-rock, realm of the self-conscious, self-guided maverick. Standing at some club alongside earnest music fans awaiting blog-anointed artistes, what do I hear but a beat straight out of an old girl-group record, some familiar doo-wop chords and songs like Best Coast’s rudimentary (but enjoyable) “I Want To,” which repeatedly declares, without fear of ambiguity, “I want you so much.”

Hey, wait a minute. this is starting to sound like bubble gum too. And I start to wonder: Is everybody dumbing down?

Pareles proposes a lot of great stuff here, tying the movement to the economy and more. It'd be wrong of me to quote the whole thing, so just get on over there and read it. But I got to add one point, which flipped like a light switch in my head:

In a twisted throwback to the 1950s and 1960s pop songwriting has been partly returned to backstage hired guns: producers (and teams) like Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Stargate, Polow Da Don and David Guetta. They’re not concentrated geographically in places like Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building though, and they’re not the total Svengalis of the old days. Instead they send digital files that bounce around the world for tinkering, and their singers supply some portion of lyrics or personality. But all the songwriting by committee inevitably leads to homogenization, and it’s also constricting pop’s subject matter.

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