clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, September 01, 2003
Mark at k-punk replies to my post (see said post for the rest of the genealogical linkage). And fair enough, I did take what was clearly idle speculation a bit farther than it should have been taken, so sorry about that.

I'm not entirely sure how to reply to this, which is why it's taken me three days, so maybe take this less as a direct response and more of a fanciful extension. Partially this is because the definition of "pop" we're working with keeps slipping--before I thought it was "Now Pop" or "Bubblegum Pop" or "Top 40 Pop," and now it appears to mean "non-art music"--which maybe means that we actually basically agree with each other. But I will say that I think there was (and is) a pretty inseparable imagistic component to classical, and you can take this from someone who's spent his share of time in the art-muse trenches (violin 2nd class, sir!). If "pop" as Mark's defining it has as a characteristic openness, inclusiveness, a possibility of anyone participating if they want, then classical is by definition exclusionary, and that which is exclusionary is that which seeks to "keep up appearances." You had to go through a lot of training, generally only available to the upper crust, and just to get your damn pieces performed you relied on the patronage of royalty and/or the rich, who of course did not want to see a bunch of unwashed "musician" types gallivanting around the palace. Many musicians made their living giving lessons to children of the rich, and so "image," as in decorum and manners and presentation, were an inseparable part of their creation of music. As a genre, it's deliberately opposed to the "folk" music of troubadours, etc. of the time.

And you see this "image thing" even today. After all, what massive percentage of "classical" performances involve people in formalwear on stage with nicely-polished instruments, an expensive venue, expensive tickets, wine, etc.? Even when classical slips this definition, it seems to inevitably fall into "the jazz image"--think Bukowski's appreciation of Mozart here, or the way Steve Reich and John Zorn seem sort of interchangeable, image-wise, despite the fact that one is ostensibly "classical" and one "jazz." There seems to be something inherent in the music itself, in the choice of instrument and in the training and in the melodies and harmonies and all the rituals that go into simply playing a piece of music that incline classical towards this image, or so it seems to me. Sure, you see old Japanese men with violins playing concertos in the subway, but you see middle-aged black men with acoustic guitars singing Beatles songs in the subway too, and I don't think that makes either of them "busker music" necessarily.

But what you do see--and this is the interesting bit--is classical being transcribed into other forms. So despite the fact that "A Fifth of Beethoven" and Switched on Bach are basically rearrangements of long-existing pieces, they're most definitely pop and electronic music, respectively. And this is precisely what I mean about the immutability and separability of the song. It can be taken out of that imagistic context, I think, and stuff like this proves it. Maybe this is because I'm coming at it from the perspective of a musician rather than a critic, but a lot of times when I hear a song, I can separate it from the arrangement (the "image") and reduce it to melody, words, a beat--something to work with. I've no doubt that it would be hard to do a performance of "Cry Me a River" with samplers or a funk band that didn't turn out referencing the JT image a bit, but do it with a string quartet or a rock band and, well, you've got something else altogether. This is evidenced by those crap "X Goes Classical!" albums wherein orchestras play Beatles or Kiss or Metallica songs, and they are subverted wholly into the classical image, sectionals with face-paint or no. So this is what I'm saying: it's impossible to separate genres from image, because this is largely what genres are. But it is highly possible, and desirable even, to separate songs from genres, and thus from image, sometimes. Because this can make people respect both the original genre and song more, in the end, and to my joycore-addled mind, that's a Good Thing.

Beyond all that--and moving here more into a free-form, unrelated-to-k-punk territory--the reason this kind of focus on image gets my humours up is because it all seems to get back to the persistent idea of pop (and from now on I'll be using that word in the top 40 sense) as something manufactured by committee, something dictated cynically from above in an attempt to manipulate the tastes of gullible young ears; Tom Ewing hisself even uses the term "'manufactured' pop." On one hand, I can kind of sympathize with this view, because after living our musical lives dealing with all the bullshit of "authenticity" and "keepin' it real," it's nice to see something that fully embraces its fakeness, and in a way, the image of being "manufactured" makes the music more pleasurable. Of course, you're talking here to a guy who really loves K-Mart and KFC for those very same imagistic reasons, but you're also talking to a guy who worked at KFC and can eat a piece of chicken and judge how well it was cooked and make a reasonable guess as to how long said cook has been working at said restaurant and whether said cook is having a good or a bad day. I get the feeling that my appreciation of something's fakeness is in no small part related to an understanding of the very real way in which is was created.

So yeah, I like the image of manufacturing, but on the other hand, I think the reality behind pop is very different from the kind of mechanistic conspiracy a lot of people seem to have in mind, and I think most folks' inability to hold these two things simultaneously in their mind is ruining their ability to enjoy pop. So OK, there are people like Amanda Latona who are the absolute apotheosis of these complaints (i.e., "Latona wasn't signed because she was an original artist...poised and pretty, Latona could be poured into various molds and carefully shaped to fit the marketplace."), although of course this portrait leaves out a number of realities: Amanda's sales actually turned out to be shit, and Amanda herself is an actual real human being with aspirations and drives not necessarily all that different from Frank Black's, and the A&R men in question are all actual real human beings with musical taste it's not unreasonable to assume were reflected in the final Latona product. But for every AT there's, well, there's a Creed. The quality of their music aside, morally speaking, they are performing music they truly love and are truly passionate about, they're writing their own songs and they built up a fanbase as big as Nirvana's Sub Pop fanbase before they went multiplatinum. (This does not change the fact that I want to beat Scott Stapp about the head and neck with a broom handle, but we all know that morality doesn't play a particularly big part in my musical tastes anyway.) Hell, even the Backstreet Boys started out as five starry-eyed young hopefuls in Orlando, and at the time signing with Lou Perlman was hardly a guarantee of success. The fact is, those people, despite the mediated image they now project, are all actual real people who had to struggle for their success the same way anyone else did, and Jive / Zomba (an indie label! An English indie label!) had no assurance that people would like BSB, especially since the whole ideal of a boyband was pretty ridiculous at the time. In fact, the Latonas of the world prove the fallacy of the cynical-manipulation argument: they can't be manipulating things very well if they're putting out $2mil for 500 units shifted, can they?

But maybe the best thing at this point would be to focus on an example I have some real experience with, and in this case that would be Khia's My Neck, My Back (Lick It). You know the one: "Right now, lick it good, suck that [censored] just like you should...lick my neck, my back, my [censored] just like that..." On the surface, this would seem like a hilariously typical record-company creation: almost a novelty song, a clear one-hit wonder, selling sex above songwriting/talent/morals, to say nothing of the racial issues. I imagine if you listened to it on the radio without any context, it would seem like a total manufactured nugget.

I can tell you with some certainty, though, that it comes to you as worked-over and conflicted as (say) any Superchunk single. Created, not unlike Beck's "Loser," as a sort of one-off lark that turned into a fruitful collaboration between two people--two people who, it must be said, had no particular connections to the biz or corporate structure--it rose through word-of-mouth and play in clubs in the South, was picked up by a lawyer in LA ("lawyer" in the music biz sense, i.e. kind of an agent) and then released by an indie label more known for its patronage of Steve Earle than anything else. (Oh, and its release of "Who Let the Dogs Out"--but that's another post entirely.) I can tell you that the radio play and MTV play we got for that song was paid for, in part, through the traditional indie promo kind of avenues, but I can also tell you that we do this for all of our artists, and this song simply got way more play than those other songs, because people liked it. The whole partnership then dissolved into acrimony and mistrust and legal wrangling. So this is why it's not manufactured: aside from the label having no particular hand in the creation of the song itself, manufacturing implies a certain reliability, automation, and interchangeability. But pop music is not made up of interchangeable parts, and the best A&R man in the world can't get a successful artist to work with a successful producer if they hate each other, and with a different producer it's very possible that it's not as good and not as successful. The individuals, for all of the admittedly-distracting focus on celebrity, do matter in Top 40, from the artist to the engineer to the label executives, fulfilling all of their various functions in ways, most of the time, it seems like only they themselves could have.

(n.b. More about Khia later, probably, although I'd actually like to write up the whole saga for an article somwhere--it'd be pretty interesting.)

So when you look at pop that's been through the label grinder, that's been presented to you in a certain way through magazines and radio and MTV, you have to try and shut all that out and remember that it all does come, at some point, from people singing in their bedroom, playing guitar in the dark, trying to impress girls, trying to get people to like them, trying to get their unique vision out there. For every careerist in music there's a true idealist, and by and large it's the idealists who succeed. And just as punk apparently showed people that anyone could do it, so has the media obsessiveness over mainstream entertainment and the process of its creation, the relentless spinning of origin myths, created the idea that anyone can do that, too, and if you need further proof of this, watch the American Idol auditions.

So keep that image of real actual human beings making real actual music for themselves in your mind, and try and listen for the song beneath all the sheen.