The Will of the People (Debunking the Vox in Pop)

A friend of mine once made a comment along the lines of, “pop music is dead, but people just don’t know it yet”. He was referring to the constantly diluting quality of popular, mainstream music (for convenience, let’s say Top 40 radio music) over the past few decades. Line up classic Motown against any modern hip-hop/r&b label and you see the difference. Or put The Beatles, The Who or Hendrix against any modern rock/pop group. But this dilapidation isn’t surprising, as “pop” indicates the presence of the lowest common denominator of critical analysis or artistic taste. Pop music is for people who don’t really like music. And as the internet and population have expanded, pop has become far less about writing remotely decent music. It’s fairly safe to say there will not be any more huge pop hits that are cultural staples.

Pop music, more than any other kind of music, absolutely requires vocals. There have been only a handful of popular (lucrative) mainstream instrumental songs in the past 40-50 years. For me the ones that spring to mind are Jan Hammer‘s (amazingly cheesy and uninteresting) Theme from Miami Vice and… maybe that’s it. Pop icons are marketed as sex objects. An unattractive pop musician is about as lucrative to record labels as an instrumental single. The masses absolutely need a face to associate with the music. A pretty face is a manipulative marketing device and today is perhaps the most important part of pop music. Hence the prevalence of plastic/cosmetic surgery among celebrities.

Lyrics themselves are rather unimportant in most popular music too. The rule is that they be as bland as possible, often relating to vague romantic notions. Modern themes also include talking about the most lustful, taboo and strong/weak drives (sex, violence and sex). This is in contrast to folk music, that olde tyme music for the people, which attributes quite a deal of importance to cleverness or insight in lyrical schemata.

So pop music is entirely about image over substance. The elemental hierarchy of producing pop music is something like:

(1) pretty/intimidating face –>

(2) engineering/production/airbrushing –>

(3) technical vocal ability –>

(4) the music itself.

It’s been pushing in this direction over time, to the point where absolutely nobody on MTV or VH1 or Top 40 radio is promoted who isn’t sexually marketable.

I point out that hierarchy in comparison to folk music which goes something like:

(1) lyrics –>

(2) music and composition –>

(3) vocal ability.

Folk isn’t really harmed by amateur vocals because they can add to the signature sound, especially if the message/transmission is genuine and the lyrics are good and the music is tolerable. A lot of modern “catchy indie-pop gems” are in fact taking influence from folk probably as much as any pop music. If Indie Rock and post-punk claim any descent from pop music, it’s from the Beatles. Blah blah, greatest band on earth apparently. Whatever.

I remember watching a Leonard Bernstein DVD showing him give this special children’s concert in New York City in the 1960s. He explains the dynamics of the classical pieces he conducts and breaks down certain movements to show how just a small section of Brahms or whomever features the same chord progression used in pop songs like The Beatles’ “Help!”. Amusingly, this is the one portion of the concert during which the crowd is visibly impressed.

But Bernstein features this example in order to point out exactly what pop music consists of. His claim is that it hits you over the head with a hook — an isolated section of music — repeatedly until it is stuck in your head. It takes you prisoner in some sense, because having something stuck in your head is not necessarily pleasurable. A good pop song works almost like propaganda, in that it consists of a simple hook or phrase that is easy to remember.

Ah, what’s this? I just happen to have Hitler’s Mein Kampf on hand for quotes about propaganda?! How convenient!

All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently, the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be. (from War Propaganda)

Good stuff. But gosh, there’s even more!!

It is a mistake to make propaganda many-sided, like scientific instruction, for instance. The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan. (War Propaganda)

Okay, maybe Hitler’s aims were a little more malicious than record labels and current big organizations. Maybe… But the psychology is still pretty similar. The simplicity and yet subtlety of messages in pop music/culture today is very scheming! I don’t think the message is in the lyrics, but in the blatant celebration of that idea of audience participation and “free choice”. That whole, “you determine who wins!” or “you get to vote for the best contestant!” type of crap. All that does is tell them what we’d like marketed to us most aggressively. It’s just consumer feedback. That’s the problem with myspace/facebook: it’s just a more aggressive marketing campaign under the guise of social networking (news flash: that stuff makes your social skills worse).

So today, more than ever before, I see pop music as an exclusive business venture (duh…). At some point culture itself separated from pop culture. Or culture became exclusively business and technology. Did pop culture kill culture? Did pop culture emerge as the final last legs of culture? I mean, surely it’s still there somewhere buried under all the corporate industrial crap, but… for how much longer?

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~ by chaosrexmachinae on April 25, 2008.

2 Responses to “The Will of the People (Debunking the Vox in Pop)”

  1. hah that nazi analogy isn’t too far off, marketing people are fucked up.

    the thing about the 60s is that’s sorta when the music industry as we know it was invented. it wasn’t a fraction of its size when the bands you mentioned sprung up. then those records took off through the roof thanks mainly to the teenage baby boomers and their lust for mass produced status symbols and the industry ballooned with it. all of a sudden there’s so much money involved and people that know how to manage money took over the industry. not that they didn’t have businessmen before, but suddenly there was so much money that an interest in music wasn’t so much a necessary reason to become involved with it as an interest in money. hey, it’s one more thing we can blame hippies for right?

    I don’t know how I would describe the indie scene anymore. it’s sorta like the same situation all over again. there’s so much money in that word and it’s weird for me to think about it that wy because I’m still hung up on classic ‘doh concert fuckups on youtube. I feel that there’s several styles of music in any period that fulfill the same roles but shift their name periodically and what’s indie now was what was called alternative, college rock, new wave, etc. so the indie name these days is less “takin’ inspiration from husker du” and more “hey, I read that michael azzerad book too!”

    don’t use the radio as a judgement call for anything. radio is dead, those greedy fucks at clear channel killed it. the major labels took over the fcc and the radio plays whatever they get the most payola for. people stopped listening and went to the internet. now the internet has money and it’s the 60s all over again. ted stevens will have the tubes tied as soon as there’s enough money coming out. which there will be. I give us 3 more years at best of free internet. but y’know what? somewhere in a basement in russia or scandinavia or india or china, there’s a gorgeously anachronistic programming geek devoting his life to developing a new medium of pure communication. he’ll unleash it when it’s indie that has the fcc on a leash and that putz from the arcade fire will show up on your tv wiping his tears with a hundred dollar bill and crying “UNFAIR!”

    oops, I went off on a rant there…

  2. You’re definitely correct about the radio (and for the most part, television) being dead. I was just using those mediums to iterate what passes as “pop” music these days. Because… most stuff on the internet is so separated into niches that they can’t be considered mainstream.

    I agree with your prognosis that a free-wheeling internet is short-lived. But it’s hard to say how it would go down. There are a bunch of possible outcomes here. Pure communication, eh? That sounds like a Matrix-esque trap more than a liberation! I wager the big guns will muster that one up. The little geniuses in the basements might just be the only ones who can survive the onslaught with any modicum of freedom. Ha!

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