WTH, Radiohead?

Every so often, when I think about the selfless charity and noble spirit of brotherhood that moved guitarist Jonny Greenwood to wrench the H from his first name and give it to his friend and bandmate, Thom Yorke, I am so overcome with emotion that I have to stop what I’m doing to take a few quiet breaths and dry my eyes.

ThoJo

ThoJo, in happier times

Inevitably, the moment passes and I am myself again.

Critic vs. critic: Staging the set.

A multi-point agenda for a discussion of pop music.

darwin mayflower: world! domination!

Okay. I’ve been skirting the issue for long enough. In the coming days and weeks, I’m going to be digging into a lot of the things that initially inspired me to start this blog. It’s going to be a tough but enjoyable challenge to keep it light, concise, positive and entertaining—I definitely tend toward the verbose and cranky.

Among these will be posts, observations, deliberations and (ideally, even) discussions covering such topics as the following:

1. “Poptimism” vs. “rockism” and other false dichotomies.

Stipulating that music is often “product,” and that this is the case in the majority of popular/“pop” music, how do we navigate the blurred lines* between works of artistic worth and songs/albums/artists whose existence is predicated on calculated profitability? This is in or around, say, the Mountain Goats and Britney Spears (to use two examples of artists with whose work I’m only passingly familiar).

2. “If it’s popular, it can’t be good,” and other fallacies/straw men.

Get under the hood of the whole, “Listen, people wrote off the Beatles as fluff, at the time—but now we know they were geniuses,” thing and hunt around for valid and meaningful examples of this poptimist platform plank. See also: Motown…

Counterpoint: Consider, say, the Neptunes and Timbaland as examples of musical innovators whose work and influence may transcend their immediate context(s); see also: Phil Spector.

3. “Guilty pleasures” and other copouts.

Recognizing that some music we enjoy may not comfortably fit into the critical matrix we’ve cultivated—and identifying and evaluating various methods for coping with this; e.g., denial, secrecy, ironic flaunting, blatant hypocrisy, unabashed ownership, re-assessing objective/subjective critical/aesthetic standards, expansion of tolerance/perception, etc.

Establish the difference between A) reconciling a guilty pleasure to fit within (or hide behind) a set of musical preferences and B) figuring out ways to approach music we like that can accommodate a breadth of styles and sounds without requiring exceptions or explanations. This might involve taking a step back and considering the way(s) we enjoy music, first, before we get literal and bring the kinds of music we enjoy into the discussion. Whoa. (Surely this has been done before; I’ll look into it.)

4. Maintaining consistent standards of evaluation, and other challenges.

What do we expect from pop music? When we hold it up to the standards we apply to “real” music (or “authentic” music, if we apply the rockist perspective), is it acceptable/odd/irrational/unrealistic/poptimistic—even for its most ardent defenders—to be disappointed when it falls short?

Are poptimists just grasping to identify and adore the next Beatles, so as to short-circuit the period of critical disdain and get to the fun part where we all get to take it seriously while we’re dancing? Do people just want to be pre-emptively on the right side of this era’s “disco sucks” battle? If so, in whose service is this done; for whose benefit? The artists’? The labels’? The critics’? The (ugh) audience’s?

Side note: It’s always fun to feel like the opposition; like the persecuted minority. Rebellion is historically cool and intrinsically fun. Imagine if your pals on the battlefield were, like, totally hot red carpet celebs? That’s, like, win-win, right? (We’re all still fourteen, right?)

5. Do we need to talk about this?

I mean, apparently, we do. But I’d like to pose the question, just because it’s come up in conversations along the way. From my own perspective, the lines aren’t really all that blurry—it seems pretty clear to me what’s purely product (or so close as to make little difference) and what’s implicitly or inadvertently got “product” in it, but isn’t intrinsically created as or to be product.

But that’s an “I know it when I see it” viewpoint, which, as we know, is not a helpful or objective basis for judgment. So I’m curious as to why the conversation is necessary—and, I admit, I think I have to include this section to explain/justify my own pontifications on the subject. Because clearly it matters enough for me to get so worked up about it that I started this blog and wrote all this stuff. Why do I give this topic—so much of which I find to be superficial and uninteresting—so much thought?

* oh, like you wouldn’t have