Saturday, May 01, 2010

Pop Will Starve Itself

This week I got sucked in to thinking, like Tim, about the debate Everett True has been following / stirring on print vs. web music criticism (that’s the messy blog version, there is also a professional journalist one). It all seemed to boil down to a post / comment I can’t even find now, in which The Hype Machine responded to Chris Weingarten’s accusations of mathematics by saying that there is nothing wrong with a culture in which small blogs write enthusiastically about small bands they like (actually, here it is). Everett thought that there was, that the role of tastemaker involves something like an encompassable zeitgeist, to which the critic responds in positive and negative terms, providing a narrative for people to follow. For instance: love Suede, hate Kingmaker, ran 1992’s narrative in his own paper Melody Maker. Glam is back, with a literate twist. Let every shiny thing crush every whiny thing. Then you know where you stand. You’re a pleb going with the populist flow, or you’re in the know, ahead of the curve, avant of the garde, these ones here are the best band in the world, in ways you never dreamed of! And, while that kind of dialectic can be exciting, it is polarising too.

But pop is polarising, isn’t it? In its time, it has been about kids vs. adults, amateur vs. pro, commerce vs. authenticity and authenticity vs. commerce. Above all it has been about mass media, and subverting (but still appearing in) mass media. Malcolm McLaren’s ghost should remind us of that. I remember seeing him on daytime TV last year, panicking the presenters in his inability to talk for fewer than eight minutes at a time, and saying, ‘I don’t think people listen to a lot of music these days’ – i.e. for all the explosion in coverage, the amount of time spent listening hasn’t gone up. And how could it? There are only so many hours in the day, most of them wasted at work. Pop was always about its own story, of how rock ’n’ roll became pop became psychedelia; how pop became glam; how rock ’n’ roll and glam became prog; how prog got trashed by punk; how punk led on the one hand to DIY and indie, and on the other to post-punk which led (with added glam ’n’ electronics) to new romanticism. Perhaps shoegazing to grunge to britpop in the ’90s was already less iconic, already drifting from the mass media into its own smaller world.

What I want to know is: can pop function away from the mass media? All of the progressions / reactions listed above (and any others you can think of) rely on the fame of their predecessors. Simon Reynolds wrote an interesting piece a while back about how the consensus of music critics melted away as the noughties progressed, and the output of music increased. There is more great music now than ever, ran his analysis, but none of it has the critical mass in terms of coverage that – say – The Beatles, T-Rex, The Smiths or Pulp had. He even identifies Arcade Fire, in 2004, as the last band with this kind of consensus behind them. (Weren’t they rubbish? Why aren’t the Tenniscoats as big as The Beatles?) Maybe this is a hopelessly 20th century idea, but if pop music is about recycling itself into endlessly fascinating forms and reacting to its own ludicrous excesses, then it is going to need a present moment to react to, and from which to draw ideas. If the only famous sounds are from the 1950s – 90s, and everyone keeps recycling the same ones, then is it even pop music any more?

But what might happen (at least for those who ignore the aggregators), is that the death of pop means the rebirth of folk. Not in terms of sound, but the way it propagates itself. Word of mouth recommendations replacing cover features, the slowing down of change (because a single band can no longer have the same influence), the relaxing of rigid divisions inspired by iconoclastic writers, listeners constructing their own narratives. Mass exposure via the media relies on there not being that many other things in the news, and Weingarten’s argument highlights the fact that music is way past that point now. There is no encompassable zeitgeist: what’s out there is too big. But that’s only a bad thing if mass media is a concern. It’s bad for pop, and it’s definitely bad for music journalists, but it might not be bad for music.

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