Poptimis! Rockisn’t! And other nonsensical dichotomies. (Part One.)

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Ah there, Pitchfork! Now You’re Talking Sense.

I had an unfamiliar experience, a little while ago: I read a piece about pop music on Pitchfork that I not only agreed with, but found stimulating and mature. Which sounds ugly and snobbish to say, but there you are. Nevertheless, I recommend reading it in full. It’s by Mike Powell, whose contributions I’ve started checking since then and, despite his avowed affection for Vampire Weekend, have overall been worth it. A relevant (to this blog’s haphazard but ongoing examination of the baffling push to create and attach profundity to pop music, the people who develop it—and its criticism) excerpt:

The boundaries between pop and rock are—and always have been—imaginary.

One of the difficulties of fully embracing pop is that when you do, you can no longer emphasize its significance. It becomes something light, a loose ribbon dazzling in the breeze about which nothing sticky can be said. You hear it, you like it, and it’s over—no mess and no remainder. Analyze it like an epic poem and it risks losing the shine that brought you to it in the first place.

Not to hamstring myself—because this album will soon be the subject of its own post here—but take Janet Jackson’s second album, Dream Street, as an example: If you analyze it and assess and review it, all of the things that detract from it—its derivative nature, its dated palette, its totally clichéd lyrics and self-referential/era-entrenched production flourishes, etc—are also all the things that make it really fun to listen to. (Like, over and over again…! For reals, I haven’t had such a blatantly superficial album exert such a perplexing but pleasurable fascination over me since rediscovering 90125 by Yes, ten years ago.)

So, by using the grown-up standards that we all agree are the best ones to apply to music we want to take seriously, you get a lousy review of record that’s actually really fun. And that’s where a great example of a piece of superficial but totally enjoyable pop fluff loses its fun and magic, as Mike Powell points out in his piece.

What some critics clearly want—and, sure, I’ll name Sasha Frere-Jones, Julianne Shepard, NPR’s Ann Powers and/or Frannie Kelly and Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz and/or Ryan Dombal by name—is to be able to discuss pop music in the same intellectual, academic and serious tones, contexts and with the same thoughtful, head-scratching, chin-in-hand, “I beg your pardon, but if I might interject—” musings that are applied to boring old classical music, jazz or, you know, politics; i.e., the serious, grown-up way of talking about things that are Very Important. They want the best of both worlds; a fun, disposable party-time anthem and then an in-depth conversation about why they’re smart for liking it, as opposed to just being party enjoyers.

Ricky Gervais (UK Office, Extras, PETA supporter, funny person) and his longtime partner Stephen Merchant had a podcast going for a while, which centered around their producer, Karl Pilkington, and his amusing (generally insipid, ill-informed and/or contrarian) views on life in general and various topics in particular. One episode has Pilkington complaining that people who are experts in some scientific field are given undue credit and acclaim, as opposed to people who might be experts on, say, Eastenders (a long-running UK soap opera). He contends that expertise and mastery of this subject is just as valid an endeavor and merits as much regard as their more hoity-toity academic counterparts.

It’s just not the case. There is substance and there is ephemera. Pop music is intrinsically ephemera. It can influence or shape substance, but by its definition/nature, it’s product for consumption. By and large (but, of course, with exceptions; we’ll come to that), what we’re talking about when we talk about pop music is: commerce. Business. Highly crafted, precisely honed metrics for deriving the greatest possible result from targeted demographics with the use of proven tools.

Which is not to denigrate pop music in the slightest. I love “Waterfalls” by TLC as much as I love, I dunno, the song “Blatant Statement” by Miles (the guy from Demdike Stare) or, say, anything from Time Fades Away by Neil Young.

Those latter two examples are intrinsically “anti-pop”; i.e., niche fare, commercially unmarketable and with no hope of coming within a mile of any pop charts, never mind the top of them. The TLC song is a catchy little number performed by one of innumerable hip-hop inflected R&B girl groups that were kicking around in the mid-90s.

The talent TLC possessed did not make them unique; the pop world is not a meritocracy.* But through good luck, good connections and good performance, they got themselves to a position where they were deemed marketable enough by someone with dough to release an album.

But here’s the thing: they’re still Eastenders; they’re not The Wire. Hanging out and singing along with “Waterfalls” just isn’t the same as actively trying to figure out where Stevie Wonder is coming from, when he releases his first “auteur,” non-Motown-machine-manufactured album.

So, where it gets interesting is in the awkward middle ground—which, I admit, is broad. Grace Jones, Chic, Stevie Wonder/Motown, Peter Gabriel, Grimes, Purity Ring, Chromeo, Scissor Sisters; i.e., artists using pop tools to make more lasting/inventive music. But I think it’s totally uninteresting to try to shoehorn grown-up concepts of art and good music into pop product like Miley Cyrus and/or Ariana Grande. What’s the point? To what end is this effort made?

Anyhow, exploring the, um, blurred lines of that middle ground is too big a task even to outline here, much less attempt. But it’s a crucial element of the discussion and it would be disingenuous (or, to be honest, asinine and/or willfully ignorant) not to admit it’s on the curriculum.

Okay, I think that’s enough for the moment. Trying to “finish” this essay/post will only result in its further delay; it’s already (at least!) four months old. But there’s obviously more ground to cover here. Hope to get back to it before another season passes. Thanks for reading this far (oh, like you have).

* I almost went with “Merrittocracy” there, just to be coy, but that’s another little can of blog-sniping worms that I’m staying the hell away from.

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A discussion between NPR writer, Evan Auerbach, and NPR listener, Carl Twocargarage.

Note:
In this discussion, Mr. Auerbach’s comments are taken verbatim from his recent piece, “Gift Ideas For The Hip-Hop Fans In Your Life,” which appears at npr.org. Mr. Twocargarage’s comments were made in his car, to no-one, while listening to NPR on his commute.

evanauerbach

Evan Auerbach of NPR and the blog, Up North Trips.

not buying it

Carl Twocargarage of suburban listenership.

Evan:
…You could go the traditional route when hunting for the hip-hop head in your life—vinyl reissues of Public Enemy and DMX albums, the “Halftime” 12-inch, to name just a few examples. But here we’ll suggest some less obvious ideas for everyone from the indie-label-budget baller all the way up to that I-woke-up-in-a-new-Bugatti paper spender.

Carl:
That last part was just gibberish. I do remember Public Enemy from back in the 1980s when hip-hop was called rap, though. But who performed “Halftime”? Should I… know that, somehow?

Evan:
2013 was a comeback year for Cam: He dropped a mixtape and a movie, and reunited with Dame Dash—even if it was only for a commercial. Killa managed all of this while reintroducing the world to his new-look Dipset clothing line.

Carl:
Okay, I asked my middle-school-aged grandson who “Cam” is and he had no idea. So I asked my son, who said that “Cam” is short for “Cam’ron” and told me I should look it up on “Pitchfork,” before making an excuse and hanging up. Guess the cat’s still in the cradle on that one.

But I didn’t catch who “Killa” is. And is Dame Dash anything like Dame Edna? Because if so, you’ve got my attention—that “lady” is hilarious (and she’s no lady, if you know what I mean)!

Evan:
For people who think 808s were invented by Kanye West, this book is an education.

Carl:
Is an 808 like an LOL? Because I know that one. I’m not totally lost, here.

Evan:
Isn’t there a rule that once you hit your 30s you can no longer refer to yourself as a Ciroc Boy? If there isn’t there should be.

Carl:
“Ciroc Boy?” Okay, look—how much homework am I supposed to be doing to keep up with you people? This feels like the time I had to go to that downtown record store to buy the new Phil Collins album because Suzy had the car and I couldn’t get to Target. I mean, they had the CD in the store, but the guy at the counter acted like he didn’t even want to touch it, much less ring it up. Made me feel like I was already a grandfather. To be honest, he was a real prick.

Evan:
DJ Paul, of Three Six Mafia, is an Oscar winner, a multiplatinum recording artist and the creator of a line of BBQ products. Perusing his site is really a gift to yourself, especially since, in true Memphis fashion, he’s put up 10 (downloadable) free recipes, too.

Carl:
“In true Memphis fashion”? Seriously: I know what recipes are, I know what downloading is and I know what “free” means. And I’ve never been anywhere near Memphis. Do you people not have editors over there because it’s radio, or something?

Evan [subliminal between-the-lines observation]:
Look, if you’re so out of touch that you don’t get my references, maybe NPR just isn’t your jam, grandpa. We have our finger on the pulse up in this m.f.—if it’s too hip, you’re too old. We’re rocking Cam’ron, yo! NPR is where youth culture lives.

Carl:
It has nothing to do with being young or old. It’s about basic journalistic practices and common goddamn courtesy. Flip your ego over and play the B-side, son.

Evan:
I’ll get down with AARP and dance on your grave. Dipset! G-g-g-g-Unit! Kendrick Lamar! Pusha T!

Carl:
Fine, fine; twerk your socks off, junior. I’ll bring your grandparents over to watch. It’ll be a time.

NPR + WSJ = HIP

A4L YO

Note: There’s no story here. For the record, I acknowledge that making fun of music coverage on NPR is like shooting fish in a barrel, where the barrel is filled with fish and made of fish.

But still, it was objectively hilarious to hear Marc Myers, of the Wall Street Journal’s music appreciation division, run through a fistful of utterly forgettable and Starbucks-primed Christmas tunes on Morning Edition today.

A Nick Lowe novelty tune—that’s not only funny but “hip”? Sold!

A “bluegrass” gal who’s—get this—in her twenties? Stop the (coffee) presses!

A sultry-voiced chanteuse singing over a cool jazz combo, sounding like Norah Jones fronting the Vince Guaraldi Trio? Oh, get out of my dreams and get into my Saab—wait, and she’s hip, too? Shut the front door!

Maybe it’s just me; I don’t know if I can explain this, if you’re not giggling already. He’s from the Wall Street Journal. He’s providing an overview of this year’s crop of holiday music. He’s using the word “hip.” Okay, hang on—he’s the author of the following books (per Wikipedia):

How to Make Luck: 7 Secrets Lucky People Use to Succeed

Affluent for Life (ghost written for Ted Ridlehuber) [Yes, the Ted Ridlehuber]

Ernst & Young’s Profit from the New Tax Law

So, you know—clearly, “hip” is his beat. (Man.)

It’s almost as goofy as mashing up* Raymond Carver and Jay-Z—where we’re all like whaaa? Oh, no, they didn’t… But they did, yo! NPR, you so cray-cray! Can you dig it? Trés clever, beaucoups pithy—implicitly challenging notions of the entrenched and the innovative! Like, the conventional/established short story form of Carver and the, um, hang on—the, uh, way edgy, super-innovative and totally not conventional musical expressions of people like Jay-Z and Drake, who are, like, definitely pushing the envelope.

(Note: The envelope is filled with money and is made of money.)

The calls are coming from inside the house.

* Never mind; it’s something the kids used to do when NPR was discussing the Beatles and listening to their grandchildren debate which was “the best Tribe album”?! (or whatever!).

Toyotas of Massachusetts: Family Values vs. Keeping it Green.

It’s hard to wrap my head around this car and what it’s saying to the world—a Prius with a smugly superfluous vanity plate and a Christian fish thing. It’s a red state/blue state paradox; like a Dr. Laura show on NPR. It’s freaking me out, but I like it.

prius christ

I appreciate the way it comes off as a more genuine, real-life, walking-the-walk embodiment of what this car (which I used to see on the way to work) is telling everyone:

triangular logic crew

The Prius comes off sort of like the clean-lines, grown up version of the Camry’s jaded, apathetic splatter, doesn’t it?

Either way, both cars are clearly tools for telling people something about their owners; at the minimum, the message seems to be: I care.

How much they care, and about what, are less clear, but one thing we can take away from these two pictures is that the owners of these cars would probably find one another irritating.

Why NPR is always picked last.

“Say, fellows, you enjoy sport, do you not?”

“But of course, Littlefield. Why do you ask?”

“A whimsical little notion just occurred to me: What say we have a regular series regarding sport on the NPR?”

“Oh, yes, let’s! We can cover Brazilian mountaineering and ladies’ hacky-sack!”

“And tennis?”

“Naturally, tennis!”

“And we can air it when nobody is listening!”

“Splendid! But what shall we name our little programme?”

“Aha; what about something delightfully puckish, such as ‘Come Along, Gents; No Need to Take It So Seriously—After All, It Is Only a Game!’ ”

“Oh, jolly good, Littlefield, jolly good. Let’s don some pantaloons and write poetry!”

“Last one to the locker room is a linebacker!”

“Why, you impish rascal, you!”

[Sound of snapping towels and high-pitched squeals of gym-teacher-infuriating glee. Fade to a lovely shade of mauve that blends nicely with the leather seats of a 1972 Saab.]