Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Rebuttal/Continuation

So rather than write the worlds longest comment reply to Ms. Graham's earlier post and add to my first comment, I figure it's time for a proper post.

My general philosophy on popular music is that there are really just two things to really consider, the music and the artifice. Almost any band, and certainly any pop act or major label recording artist, put some time and effort into their schtick, and a lot spend much more time on style/attitude/live performance/branding than on the actual music. Before I touch on the unfortunate popstar of the earlier post, I'll take a slight different example:

Les Savy Fav v. Monotonix v. Vampire Weekend.

Montonix, is the premier rock band out of Israel that anyone has heard of. They are also the most insane live act touring the states (and boy did they tour last year, I think Rohan saw them like 6 or 7 times last year, I only caught them 3 times). Most of their shows generally involved emptied trash cans, fire, musicians standing on the bar, a drummer crowd-surfing while playing the drums, microphones places in genital areas, and often end with the whole band outside the venue. They are heavy on schtick, and while their music is amusing live, it's basically decent garage rock and nothing more. I probably wouldn't buy their album.

Vampire Weekend have a delightful debut album full of catchy songs. But they are a bunch of completely soulless Ivy League tools who dress like every day is a garden party (except at Pitchfork Fest when the drummer was wearing a Phish shirt). I hate their aesthetic, but the music is quite catchy, so I play the album from time to time.

Les Savy Fav is the complete package. Batshit crazy live shows (as Adam can confirm), for example the last time I saw them the singer ate my earplugs and wore my glasses. But beyond that they've release a number of utterly fantastic albums, and I've probably listened to Go Forth and Inches at least a hundred times each.


So back, to Ms. Gaga and her compatriot in obnoxious pop, Miss Katy Perry. I will grant Perry this, her songs are very catchy. They are hateful, homophobic and obnoxious (see "Your So Gay" and "Hot and Cold") and there's something really weird about her voice (besides the obvious studio touching up) but the songs are still very catchy. The rest of her images/lyrics/etc sucks and I'm repulsed by her in general, but the songs stick in my head. On the other hand "Poker Face" has to be the worst non-Black Eyed Peas pop song on the radio in years. And the schtick is super obnoxious, as I said in my comment. She ain't critiquing shit. She's a cog in the machine just like Perry and anyone else on a major label. To return to my mention of Lily Allen, when she says something on her blog or in her interview, I believe most of the time that she is at least saying something honest, if not something particularly intelligent. She is at least relatively tied to reality, which Gaga and Perry have departed long long ago.


Dennis said...

Go go musical elitism!

: /

Jason Heat said...

So, I'm fully aware that this is really not what Dennis meant at ALL by this, but it reminded me of something that's bothered me for awhile now - Why is elite inherently a bad thing now?

Obviously in the case of Max's and Brittany's argument this is extremely subjective, as are most things, but to use the example I've stumbled into - I know that Max sees more live shows a year than ANYONE else I'm friends with. He owns more CDs than I have comics, has written more reviews of albums than anyone in WMUC history, was the Music Director and general manager of a radio station, and interned at XM radio. In short, he knows his stuff, and while his remarks are extremely pointed his taste is actually very broad. I don't agree with everything he says but I ALWAYS respect the source because he IS an expert to the extent any of us are experts on a subject at this point in our lives.

So if he gives an opinion that something is bad, why is that inherently elitism? And why is being 'elite' bad? Elite means the best, the knowledgeable. I ASPIRE to be the elite in theatre - because I want to be that good.

This came up in the last election too - Obama was too 'elite' - I'm sorry, but I WANT the best people for the job, not the most average. As a lover of words, I'm sad to see such a powerfully positive word culturally demonized, often in the name of championing mediocrity, when mediocrity is NOTHING to aspire to.

In other news, I miss Dennis.

B.Graham said...

For the sake of argument, a rebuttal for your rebuttal:

I think the way we approach people and music is inherently different, so we're clearly never going to agree, and I like that.

Comments on the bands: I have to admit, I had to look up Les Savy Fav and Monotonix, and I had to remind myself about Vampire Weekend, so my opinion is limited to what I found on youtube, but here goes. I like the Vampire Weekend package the most (am quite the fan of bouncy nerd fashion), though I did like the other two okay. Monotonix isn't really my scene so they kind of sound like every other band I lump into that category, so you'll have to bear with me there.

That all said, I wasn't talking about the music in my post. I don't really like Poker Face either, which is why I didn't mention it. I loved the Paparazzi video and, as a costume designer, am really intrigued at the way Lady Gaga dresses and what it says about her character. The song is okay, fun to dance to, an interesting/important message. It's been done, obviously, but that doesn't bother me. Also I wasn't really talking about the song.

So there's that.

B.Graham said...

@Jason -

I think there is a huge difference between elite and elitism. It's important to strive to be the best, but it's dangerous to think you are the best, and therefore are immune to other opinions/life experiences.

Jason Heat said...

I'm not sure I agree that acknowledging your own talent/success/intelligence/or place in the hierarchy inherently means you become immune to other's life experiences or opinions. I've found that those that become the best often assimilate and learn as much as possible from as many places.

But that doesn't change that sometimes things are good or bad, and sometimes people are wrong, and that work and experience can lead people to more informed opinions than the layman - thus the role of critic or expert in society

Anne said...

Lily Allen - Track 1 of my Pop cd ... delightful :)

Matt Lindeboom said...

I would argue that Context is a third consideration that one should consider when critiquing popular music, along with the previous two, the music -- which I'll call Craft -- and Artifice, the creative packaging that stems from an artist's Brand.

So we have our three considerations: Context, Craft, and Brand.

Max touched on Context when he lamented Katy Perry and Lady Gaga's departure from reality. I would carry the point further and claim neither of them ever actually performed on reality's stage.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that Pop does away with Craft as a rule: pop beats, melodies, and motifs have been and will be packaged.

So if Craft is packaged, it leaves the artists to manipulate those packages and present them to the public through the filter of their Brands (Attitude, look, voice, publicity decisions etc).

Katy Perry is in relatively well-traversed waters with her Brand. She sings to the same crowd as Miley Cyrus, if not a few years older. She's the more cynical, post sexual awaking version of Miley Cyrus -- where poor Miley is headed if past pop examples prove good markers of how these pop artists tend to manage their brands over time.

Lady Gaga is a different case. She packaged herself as rich and famous before she was famous. Her first majorly released album in 2008 was called "The Fame." From a Pop point of view, it's as if she suddenly appeared from an alternate reality where she were already famous.

Here is where the play between Brand and Context is important. Lady Gaga is savvy in the respect that she seems to understand the context in which she's a performer. Pop is not reality. The Pop world can be manipulated if you know how. Lady Gaga performs like a seasoned pop diva in control of her sexuality, therefore she is. She's been internationally popular for a little over a year and she's already has a song about the Paparazzi? She's not just manipulating the Context, she's creating it.

Pop, it seems to me, is a kind of packaged alternate reality. One made for the purposes of entertainment and escape. The artists that play in that world seem to understand it, and if not they are awakened to it eventually. People who enjoy Pop seem aware of it as well.

But there is one immutable rule of Pop that has made it generally unassailable through time: the songs must be catchy. When an artist stops making catchy songs, they drop from that world faster than we can blink it seems.

We can consider the Context, Craft, and Brand of the music all we like. But all seem superfluous when faced with the only important question in Pop -- is it catchy?

B.Graham said...

@Jason - Exactly. Which is why one can be elite but not an elitist, or vice versa.

The word also carries a stigma of "only people just like me can be as smart/knowledgeable as me," which is unfortunately still a very real problem in the country/world.

B.Graham said...

@Matt -

What a brilliant post. Thank you.

Jason Heat said...

I'm pretty willing to call that the best comment we've had, barring personal stories.

Scotty said...

I've never gotten the sense from talking to Max that he expected his opinions to be taken as holy writ. But you can expect a lively conversation if you're informed enough to keep up with him.

And of course, "elite" isn't a bad thing, if you keep in mind that the pressure to maintain that status is part and parcel of it. But the problem is the perception that the "elite" simply rest on their laurels. And the world is quickly stripping itself of that notion. Thank god.

Matt Lindeboom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Lindeboom said...

@B. and Jason

Much obliged.

Dennis said...

Careful with the compliments, or Matt is liable to go from ELITIST!


Great responses all around. A few comments:

Brittany: I never really pay attention to fashion. Look at the clothes I wear. Your post made me really consider the subtleties of fashion, at least in the context of that video, and that's a step forward for me, I think. Like many things in life, art or otherwise, that kind of beauty is hard to notice (at least for me), but very much worth it when I do. (I'm aware that that should be on Brittany's post but I'm here now and....I'm here now.)

Jason: I agree. Elite is fine, elitist is detrimental. My point was not that Max is ill-informed, I couldn't make that point about Max and music. My point is it's *music*. Entertainment. Not everyone devotes as much time to the listening to, and analyzing of music as this social group. For some people it's just a way to escape (a topic that was eloquently discussed in Matt's comment.) If you want to get into hundreds of bands/acts and learn their albums and you get off on that, great. Calling Lady Gaga a "cog in the wheel" and saying shes detached from reality seems a little silly when you're citing bands who eat their fans earplugs and hold microphones to their genitals. (All music is ridiculous and we all use it to escape. Pop fans are no better or worse than any other music fan.)

Honestly though, I can't blame Max, I make the same kind of remarks to casual gamers about video games, so eh. Just observations.

Also I miss the 2 a.m. song and dance hour.


: D

Jason Heat said...

Dennis, reading your post just now made me realize that in a better world we would be having this conversation in realtime, with me laying on the floor of the hallway and you killing elves on the computer.

And now I am sad.

Rohan said...

Because I got name checked I’ll comment, if you want to see a lively conversation watch Max and I go at it for an hour or two.
So, I enjoy pop music more than Max. I listen to the all the pop stations, can't wait for the new Max Martin produced track, and generally understand that pop music is not supposed to be taken as high art.
I like Lady Gaga and (gasp!) even as a gay, I enjoy Katy Perry (fucking hot 'n cold was my favorite single of last year). Pop music is less complicated, most of it sounds the same, but while it seems superficial there is much to discuss. I see pop more of a producer's art rather than a singer’s, much like disco.
The reason why poker face and just dance sound the same are because they were produced by red one, and all of his shit sounds the same (see little boots - remedy). Max martin could even be called out on using the same formula (verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus), but when he mixes it up the songs gain new life.
Pop music is made to be popular and feed into emotions, and unlike indie rock it is less complicated (i mean what the fuck do Les Savy Fav sing about anyway?).
Now a case for Lady Gaga: The first time I came across Lady Gaga she was performing on TV last June, and I have to say it was the most mind blowing thing I seen. For complete unknown with no big single here (it took her almost a year before just dance got any play on these shores), she had huge set pieces and a swagger like a pop veteran. When I found out more about her, my curiosity grew. Her album leaked and I played the shit out of it. It was escapism fun from all the Times New Viking I was listening to. Something I could put on and while I’ll lose indie cred (I’ll live) it made me happy.
As Matt stated in his very well written comment, pop is its own reality. Lady Gaga can exist in the pop reality as long as she can keep up her stick, but who knows she might game change like Lily Allen and go for a different sound on record number 2. (I still don’t know how she can afford all her shit, I know she might be a trust fund kid but a custom piano that she does indeed own and a bubble dress, she invested more into her career than any other pop star.)
Now onto the subject of Lily Allen, she record a fantastic earworm of a record, but as record number 2 proves it was a producer that made Lily Allen what she is. I like the new record, but Lily Allen trying to pull herself out of obscurity, followed Katy Perry and replaced the Specials samples with buzzing synths. If any pop star should shut-up though it is Lily Allen. The only reason she opens her mouth is to stay somewhat relevant in the tabloids, but that is all stick (like the country western feel of part of the new record). So is Lily Allen more “real” than Lady Gaga, because she “knows what she is doing”? Honestly if we are taking sides based on public appearances, Lily Allen is more insufferable, but like I’ve said all over her music is great.
Enjoy the music, because that is what really matters. I could give a fuck if it changes the world, if a fast pop song makes me dance and its catchy then the job is done, I mean not everything can be Green Day.

B.Graham said...

@Dennis -
aw, Dennis :D

@everyone else -
what a great conversation this all has become