Pop Will Eat Itself...?

June 3, 2011 9:01 AM

Interesting article in yesterday's Guardian by Simon Reynolds as a kind of excerpt from his new book. Expresses in more articulate form some of my own concerns about the future of "pop" music. Discuss at will.
posted by MajorDundee (40 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

Hmm...food for thought.

Other than that, pop music is always going to be exactly that: popular music.

It's something that is pointless fighting - a hill that you don't want to be remembered for dying on.
posted by Zenabi at 12:37 PM on June 3, 2011

I used to know Simon Reynolds -- we were at Uni together -- and he was bitching about pop music way back then, too. Ironically, he then became the great post-modern analyst of pop. Now he seems to have come out the other side (like post-modernists do) and he's bemoaning the very post-modernism he used to celebrate.

I like Simon, I really do, not least for his unending passion for pop, but I'm afraid he's pissing in the wind here. Pop has always fed on itself. Even in its most revolutionary moments -- perhaps above all in its most revolutionary moments -- it's recycled its influences. Just as every other medium -- Jazz, photography, cinema -- has.

There's basically a 20-year feedback loop in pop. That's why the 80s got recycled in the 00's and the 60s in the 80s and the 70s in the 90s. Plus there's also a sort of canon -- Beatles, Motown, Zep, Sabbath, pistols and so on -- which provides the raw material for every successive musical generation.

Moreover, the most successful pop songwriters literally write new songs by pulling a hook from here, a beat from there -- whatever's working today becomes the raw material for the song tomorrow. Just as in the movies, when large amounts of money are at stake this can become a terribly conservative process. I think that's what he's really reacting to, and at bottom those sounds are really the death rattle of the major labels. Which I think is a good thing.
posted by unSane at 2:39 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I mean if you take Adele, her earlier stuff was sort of wonderful but unformed. She then got put together with brilliant songwriters who rightly regarded her as a gift from God and went balls out on the classic pop thing. If you take a song like Rolling in the Dee, which is a fantastic piece of pop writing, it has all sorts of hooky references to the past -- Bacharach, Northern Soul, even a bit of Bronski Beat in there -- but it's really it's own thing -- the syncopated vocal in the verse is borrowing from much more recent R&B. There's all sorts of stuff in there you would never have heard in a Gladys Knight track. Anyway, I agree with Zenabi that pop is what it is. Moaning about it is beside the point. There is lots of new and fresh sounding music out there if you look for it.
posted by unSane at 2:46 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Full disclosure - I'm in love with the songwriting and production on that track. The kick drum sound, whoah.
posted by unSane at 2:50 PM on June 3, 2011

unSane: That video is really good.

The song itself, and the way it was sung...not so much.

Maybe I'm getting old :-)
posted by Zenabi at 3:43 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

a lot of the music done in the 60s was recycled from earlier periods - the beatles' white album is full of parodies of much older music and the rolling stones pretty much made a career out of updating muddy waters, howling wolf and chuck berry - the pop music of the time was played by studio musicians who had learned their chops in the school of post-bop 40s and 50s jazz

one look at all the bands that covered old blues songs in the 60s is enough to make the case that they were recombining old forms of music

then, on the other hand, i'm hearing a lot of stuff on pop radio that really doesn't seem to have much precedent beyond 10 or 15 years - autotuned voices, chiptone synths and oddly swingless and accentless drum machines seem to be the sound of the teens

my view is that it's not so much a matter of whether one is taking old forms of music and updating them or inventing new ones - but whether one is being ingeniously creative while doing so - and i'm afraid that the current batch of artists can't quite match what was being done in the 60s and 70s

and majordundee - with a couple of collaborating/contrasting links, i think you ought to try posting this to the blue - it is worthy
posted by pyramid termite at 9:25 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some of what follows is probably contradictory or logically flawed. But, whatever...

I think one of Reynolds' key points perhaps doesn't quite come across in this piece. He acknowledges, as some of you readily point out, that pop music has always had a retro element. The key difference now is that there is less chance for the past to be distorted by misinterpretation or partial understanding or memory. By the passage of time, in other words. The past, primarily because of the internet, hardly exists in pop music now. Everything - whether old or "new" - is available instantly.

It's those distortions of memory - for want of a better phrase - that can trigger new developments in music. Total recall is the enemy of creativity in this sense. It means that you get endless pastiche, almost perfect recreations of, say, 60's pop (cf Amy Winehouse)rather than new stuff that's been influenced by that period but isn't a straight copy.

And it's not just the music that's subject to this absurd retrogression. People lust after obsolete recording equipment and analogue keyboards because they want to recreate exactly the sounds of the (often comparitively recent) past. Clothing etc is another area. Why can't they come up with their own thing? To paraphrase The Smiths "What's Wrong With Now?"??

The other point that Reynolds makes that distinguishes his argument from the "pop has always nicked stuff from the past" thing, is that the so-called "revivals" are happening more and more in a kind of intensifying spiral, with hardly any space between the past and the present. There'll probably be a "noughties" revival starting up right about now....

Personally, I think that there's a big difference between being influenced by something and basically ripping it off or copying it. And a great deal of what I hear (and see) now falls into the latter rather than the former category.

So what? you may say. Why give a shit, it's only throwaway pop after all. Well.....increasing reliance on secondhand (or is that the euphemistic "previously owned") ideas is a sure sign of creative decadence and bankruptcy in any art form. True innovation relies on creativity. Sure, that may be influenced by other things or even be a case of putting old things together in a new way, but it needs that innovative spark to make it happen. The ease with which plundering a readily-accessible archive of high-quality material can be achieved militates against true creativity in this sense. It appeals to our inherent laziness. At best it results in a kind of crude collage rather than something pure. The real danger is that it may ultimately mean that the evolution of pop music slows and then gradualy stops. And things that stop evolving eventually become extinct because they fail to adapt to changing circumstances.

Oh and as for posting this thread elsewhere: Bugger The Blue! I rarely visit it - it's far too cool for the likes of me.
posted by MajorDundee at 6:42 AM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with you MD. I can't even listen to pop radio for more than a minute or two because everything sounds like watered down versions of others hard work.

But Pop is Pop by design. It has to be palatable, easily consumed and easy to sell. By the time a thing goes through all of the required formulas to get it to that point it's probably been rendered soulless anyway.

Regarding "recycling" music I'm really surprised that no one has created a musical "family tree". Even an Amy Winehouse song has roots in Senegal or someplace. It would be fascinating to see and I imagine a family tree all the time but I'm still stuck with the Spanish Moors. Just like bio-evolution there aren't often cases of true mutation in music so recycling, I guess, is totally natural.
posted by snsranch at 2:34 PM on June 4, 2011

Bugger The Blue! I rarely visit it - it's far too cool for the likes of me.

Heh heh. But I'm thinking you'd do well to get over your Fear of the Blue, Major! I know you feel like you got burned over there once or twice, and it's true that people can be exasperating and/or mean sometimes, but a lot of cool stuff gets presented and discussed there, and I for one would love to see your perspective in some of those threads. There's tons of music threads, for example, and I don't see why we shouldn't be getting some of that trademark Dundee insight and humor (especially the humor!) on that blue part of the site.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:55 PM on June 4, 2011

I'm really surprised that no one has created a musical "family tree"

Very interesting idea sns and it's a kind of mental parlour game I often play when I'm browsing in record shops (do we still have record shops as such..?) - you know, "hhhmmm where have I heard that before?? Let's think....oh yessssss, it's Mott The fucking Hoople isn't it". Sometimes it takes a bit of digging, other times it's instant. Like when I heard the latest Muse album which sounded like they'd been mainlining Queen's "Sheer Heart Attack" for a couple of months. A brazen steal of the sound, which I felt was a cynical and despicable move by a band obviously desperate for success at any price.

I think one of the key differences between guys of my advanced years and the younger generation is that I was musically raised with what amounted to a jazz sensibility. One "rule" was/is that consciously ripping off other people's ideas was/is anathema. But now, people don't seem to give that much of a shit so long, I guess, as they can avoid being sued by the publishers or whoever. Shrugs...

Kind words Flapjax (thanks), but I shan't be tempted into the Blue in terms of posting. It's not really fear as such. It's partly a reluctance to have to learn and abide by a certain standard of etiquette or behaviour - to watch my "p's" and "q's" as we say this side of the pond. And partly that what I find interesting won't often coincide with what others find interesting, particularly amongst what seems to be quite an identifiable cohort (i.e. a preponderance of IT people, from what I can make out). It's just too much hassle to bother with really. I'm not condemning anyone who frequents it btw - diff'rent strokes...
posted by MajorDundee at 3:13 AM on June 5, 2011

There was this of course, which isn't the same thing at all.

I think the problem with the family tree thing is that it's ridiculously overdetermined. People have a hard enough time tracing the origin of the rock'n'roll backbeat, never mind trying to figure out which influences exactly inspired BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY.

Dr Johnsson said (something like) you have to read a library to write a book and I think the same is true for music. Obviously the Stones were obsessed by Muddy Waters and his ilk, and Gram Parsons had a big thing for Hank Williams, but it's too reductive to see things entirely in that way. Musicians are not the sum of their influences, fortunately.

Getting out from under can be really hard though. I know it has been for me. I've always had a knack of being able to hear a band a couple of times and then write a song in that style. I thought I'd finally gotten out of that recently, thank God, but yesterday I came up with with this really cool little progression and riff and was getting all happy about it when I realized it was Martha and the Muffins' ECHO BEACH, which I'd just been listening to. D'oh!
posted by unSane at 3:54 AM on June 5, 2011

Fair enough, Major. Just thought I'd try!

By the way, we say "Ps and Qs" in the States, too. Question is, what's the origin? I know, I coud Google it, but I'm too lazy.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:54 AM on June 5, 2011

[P]lease and than[Q]s
posted by unSane at 4:07 AM on June 5, 2011

posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:27 AM on June 5, 2011

p's and q's look the same when you're setting type... or maybe I ruined the joke?

really got nothing to say about pop music. i'll hafta read the article.
posted by sleepy pete at 8:47 PM on June 5, 2011

Thank you sleepy pete!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:29 PM on June 5, 2011

Or should I say sleeqy qete?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:29 PM on June 5, 2011

[P]lease and than[Q]s

Nice try unS, but perhaps a little too neat? - like Port Out, Starboard Home (the alleged derivation of posh). Nah. My money's on this simply being an exhoratation to being cautious which uses writing as a convenient metaphor i.e. not mixing up your p's with your q's given their sort of mirror-image relationship. Or something like that.

Anyway, I'm now off to invent something called qoq music. Sounds slightly unsavoury and disreputable. Splendid. It will have variants in due course called poq (very underground that is) and the more overtly commercial qop. First post coming up shortly...
posted by MajorDundee at 1:27 AM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

But Major, qoq will eat itself.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:32 AM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Straight to the naughty step for you Flapjax, and no supper. We'll call it Qoq Rock and stipulate that the frontman has to closely resemble a leathery old scrotum. A bit like Mick Jagger then....
posted by MajorDundee at 3:00 AM on June 6, 2011

Interesting unS - thanks. Anyone's guess. Given that anyone can write any old bollocks on it I'd be particularly reluctant to adduce anything via Wikithingy though. May as well cite something from a dodgy tabloid newspaper.

Apropos of nothing I just got me one of these. It's a little belter. I've wanted a guitar with P90s ever since I realised (about 30 years late) that two of my favourite guitarists as a kid (Zal Cleminson of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Pete Townshend) used SG Specials armed with P90s. "Live At Leeds" is all you need to listen to to hear what a punch these little devils can deliver. New track featuring said weaponry forthcoming (I might put it on your Facebook site for advice first though - not quite sure about structure).
posted by MajorDundee at 1:29 PM on June 6, 2011

Getting out from under can be really hard though.

The full cigar for that one I think. This is what Reynolds is really getting at. It's getting harder and harder to "get out from under" because, owing to the likes of YouTube, the musical past is now very much the musical present. Anyway - it's an intriguing pub-ready topic and one which there's no ready answer to. Fancy a pint?
posted by MajorDundee at 1:41 PM on June 6, 2011

Two dogs are out for a walk (with their owner), and they stop for a bathroom break. After they've done their business, the first dog turns around and promptly starts licking his own waste.

The second dog says "That's the grossest thing I've ever seen!"

The first dog says "Well, this poop's not going to eat itself!"

I think that answers your question.
posted by grog at 2:28 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

hmmm, I thought the printer explanation was a little off when I posted it. Interesting first link, unSane.

As for the article, Reynolds sounds like he always does... "copying this is bad, but this is good". That's a simple explanation, but pretty much what I got from it. I like his writing, but I think that's a pretty low form of criticism as well as the most overused.
posted by sleepy pete at 6:15 PM on June 6, 2011

Ooh, I've always wanted a guitar with P90s. I've never really gotten on with SGs though for some reason. But I'd love me one of these...
posted by unSane at 6:17 PM on June 6, 2011

i blame technology. i watched a bbc doc a wee while back about the British Blues boom. something that really stuck with me was that these white, usually middle class kids would travel miles just to LOOK at a sonny boy williamson record...maybe they'd get to hear it if they were lucky. and maybe they'd only hear it once, and they would try and copy it and get it wrong (eno once said something about it being a good idea to copy your heroes as long a you fail) and in the process they'd come up with something else. now everything is available everywhere the process has kind of atomised and accelerated and if you can't be bothered to learn how to copy what you've found you can just sample it and screw around with it a bit. anyways, i'm boring myself now...
posted by peterkins at 1:47 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

yeah, and get off my lawn.
posted by peterkins at 1:47 PM on June 7, 2011

Yeah but maybe Eno was wrong *gasp*.
posted by dobie at 4:48 PM on June 7, 2011

I think Peterkins has a good point BUT most musicians (or at least me) are really fucking lazy and hear a riff and and instead of playing it perfectly note-for-note, just try to blaze away at some approximation of it and thus the genetic seed is enriched.

I'm in a silly cover band right now trying to play classic Canadian songs and for the life of me I can't replicate most of the riffs *exactly*. Instead I just play something vaguely similar and it seems to work much better.
posted by unSane at 4:53 PM on June 7, 2011

I think approximations are a much better than, you know, simply stealing/borrowing the riff. Actually replace approximation with interpretation and it's a win.

Regarding Pop or any kind of music, I still always compare it with bio-evolution. There are very rarely true mutations. That said, I think it's totally OK to work out the millions of variations that can be based on what already exists.

For example and FWIW, I LOVE how Led Zeppelin took some old and otherwise unheard of (maybe, probably at the time) stuff and electrified it, stretched it out and gave it a whole new life.

Everything that comes out of a studio or garage is open to interpretation. It's all art and in my opinion, there is no "bad" art. (Unless of course it's corporate...)
posted by snsranch at 6:17 PM on June 7, 2011

It's all art and in my opinion, there is no "bad" art.

I agree. People either like it or they don't. I've had a lot of arguments over the years with my folky friends that pop is the real 'folk' music, in the sense that it's what 'folk' left to their devices will actually play. My kids, for example, left alone with guitars and a drum set and a PA, will attempt to recreate SMOKE ON THE WATER, HIGHWAY TO HELL and other songs they have learned from Rock Band I, II and III. In a sort of wonderfully tuneless way of course.

When I first picked up a guitar I attempted to play U2, REM, New Order, Orange Juice and all that stuff because it was what I knew. Nowadays I dunno but I bet if I started playing the chords to Wavin' Flag, nine out of ten kids could join in.
posted by unSane at 6:52 PM on June 7, 2011

By the way, that Wavin' Flag is another classic bit of pop writing, in the sense that you hear it once and you can sing it, but it's not a trivial progression -- in fact the verse is a full on circular progression with a diatonic descending bass (eg Air on a G String) which it (amazingly to me0 doesn't actually use. In the original K'naan version the verse chords are something like C/Em7/Am/G/F/Em7/Dm/G/ which has a lovely C-B-A-G-F-E-D descending melody that never appears. In the various remixes (young artists for Haiti, Coca Cola etc) this subtlety disappears but it's still there in the coda. If you start trying to sing a harmony I guarantee you will hit on that descending run. I don't know why they didn't use it.
posted by unSane at 7:21 PM on June 7, 2011

For example and FWIW, I LOVE how Led Zeppelin took some old and otherwise unheard of (maybe, probably at the time) stuff and electrified it, stretched it out and gave it a whole new life.

That's the entire point sns. They took something and then went to whole different place with it. They didn't all go out and buy knackered old guitars, grow beer bellies and grey their hair and record using knitting needles and hubcaps - to capture that authentic delta blues sound maaaaaaaan. Nowadays (oh God, just listen to me - like some old whinging git) they would try to replicate exactly that. And there, gentlemen, the prosecution rests before it dies of utter tedium.

Oh and don't even think about coming onto my lawn just cos Mr Peterkins has kicked you off of his. And if I do find your football I shall stick a knife in it. And no I don't care if your dad's a policeman - my dad's his boss.
posted by MajorDundee at 1:14 AM on June 8, 2011

Yeah but maybe Eno was wrong *gasp*.

please expand on this earth shattering suggestion when you've got your breath back.
posted by peterkins at 6:05 AM on June 8, 2011

But was he wrong in an interesting way?
posted by unSane at 8:19 AM on June 8, 2011

fail again. fail better. etc.
posted by peterkins at 10:20 AM on June 8, 2011

Okay, caught my breath.

The idea that we "fail" misses the mark. Led Zeppelin did not fail at imitating their blues heroes. If they were imitating, then they wouldn't have had all of that distortion, pan flute, and used violin bows on their guitars. They were never actually imitating, despite any claims they may have made. They were attempting to appropriate the authenticity of their heroes.

We do not fail unless we are trying to be impersonators. Which isn't what we're really talking about. The white British dudes who managed to perfectly imitate those blues records were never relevant outside of being basically just another source of history (maybe the youtube equivalent of their time). Because they were just impersonators, not artists (I guess you could argue that an impersonator is an artist, but whatevs).

We sing in our own voices, whether it be through our vocal chords, or on the guitar, or in lining up dots in a sequencer, or programming a robot to say "Awww shit". Everything has our grubby little hands on it. Sure you can have mathematically exact copies of music, but that's just a copy. Everything else bears the stench of interpretation. We only fail at impersonation.

Whether or not you find that interesting is up to you.
posted by dobie at 6:12 PM on June 8, 2011

i take your point. i don't think eno was being entirely serious though, and my reference to that quote was an aside rather than anything else. i certainly wouldn't have held zeppelin up as an example of such a failure. in fact, jimmy page seems to have been extremely successful at borrowing other people's material. there are a thousand points between inspiration and imitation, and what can start as one can lead to the other. (oasis, suede, editors - not the most original thinkers at times are they?).

yes, theoretically our grubby mitts will always show up but i think these days it's harder to detect their prints (do a random trawl through the hours of minimal techno on soundcloud and then honestly tell me you can hear any difference between any of them). things are being flattened out.
posted by peterkins at 5:53 AM on June 9, 2011

It's all art and in my opinion, there is no "bad" art. (Unless of course it's corporate...)

Just want to take back that parenthesized bit. No body likes that other entities ever have control over expression but that doesn't mean that everything created under a corporate flag sucks or should be ignored. My apologies.
posted by snsranch at 6:33 PM on June 14, 2011

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