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Wednesday, November 12, 2003
Man, you're just asking for it, Pitchfork...

Pop music gets off way too easily; so long as groups stick to only the shiniest and gooiest of melodies, throw in a couple of ba-ba-buh's, and sing about how much Stacey's mom "has got it goin' on," or some other such timeless verse, they're valued as somehow above the fray. Even the most venomous rock elitists can be defanged by a few simple hooks, it seems, turned endlessly forgiving by some easy harmonies. If Stalin himself had ruled with less of an iron fist and more Beach Boys-style harmonies, he might be remembered as much for his keen songwriting chops as for the wholesale slaughter of millions of his own people; such is the inexplicably titanic redemptive power of pop. That self-same blinding power is also why it takes a band as innovative as The Unicorns to throw the complacencies of pop into stark relief, finally hold it accountable for such casual abuses, and, in doing so, transcend them.

...and with the Stalin ref, I think they've managed to say something that'll annoy almost all my regular readers. I, of course, am annoyed just at the en passant, completely gratuitous Fountains of Wayne rip.

But we'll get into all that in a bit. First, let me see if I can parse the actual critical viewpoint behind this mass of opinionatedly frustrated verbiage.

Pop Techniques ("PT") are bad, clearly. They are bad because they are easy, because they make it easy for someone less talented to make something that seems good. This is bad because it allows people who are evil--like Stalin, or, um, Fountains of Wayne--to be perceived as good. Despite the fact that they are evil. Thus, although PT bring an enormous amount of pleasure to people, they should be avoided in favor of deconstructing pop songs and ahead-of-the-curve innovation, because this is more honorable and because it does not constitute abuse. (Abuse here presumably being...OK, I have no fucking idea how this constitutes abuse.)

Boy oh boy, where to start with that, huh? First off, let's try the bit about "Even the most venomous rock elitists can be defanged by a few simple hooks." Which universe is this true in? Hell, it's not even true on that particular website. The hardcore elitists will break out in hives at a single sweet harmony, and will instead cross their arms, narrow their eyes, and listen to Ssion or Matthew Herbert or something. Sure, elitists sometimes embrace poppy stuff, but this very review gives the lie to the formulation being advanced: they're not seduced to otherwise unlikable music via PTs, they're able to choke down blatant PTs because of an overriding abstraction or difficulty. Indeed, the puzzle for indie folks most of the time is how to make poppy stuff that the critics will be able to accept, because even if the songs are great and the performances is great, unless there's a Beckish lo-fi guitar line or a Nirvanaish metal/punk patina, it can't be easily embraced. Hell, the formulation doesn't even work for the more open-minded pop fan; there are loads of PTs in radio-friendly R&B, Celine Dion, Luther Vandross, etc., but you don't see, say, your typical Merge fan with a B2B CD in their discman. (More's the pity, but so it goes.)

So while it may be easy to throw in a harmony (although that's debatable), it's also easy to make an E chord or hit a snare or make a wall of feedback, and none of that guarantee that the noise you make will actually be appealing to anyone but you. If PTs were a surefire route to success, presumably we'd be seeing more of them, yes? But we don't. And as Matt points out, there's this perception that because a great indie-pop single sounds simple it must be simple to make, but if that was the case, we'd have seen much longer careers for a whole host of bands. It's just not that simple: I'll grant that subverting pop cliches might be difficult, but crafting a perfect, well-turned pop song is extraordinarily hard. (Just ask, among others, the Dismemberment Plan, who despite many efforts, never quite pulled off this trick, although the chorus of "You Are Invited" came real, real close. Travis will attest to this--see the entry on Paul Simon here.) It takes a lot of work and dedication and craftsmanship, all of which is particularly hard to concentrate on when you know that you'll come out with this perfect ball of melody and rhythm that gives many people much pleasure and some little shit will call it "too catchy." (Still haven't gotten over that one.)

So let's get down to it: why is there this continual reflexiveness down at PFHQ to rip on Fountains of Wayne? Why do they stand for all that you disdain? They're amazingly talented, hard-working guys with solid indie roots who did two albums in major-label hell and now finally have something like a breakout hit. Moreover, why is "Stacy's Mom" so horrible? It's not the best song on the album, granted, but it's a fantastic album, and that song is smart, tight, exceedingly well-constructed and enjoyable as hell. What's wrong with that? Why can't the Unicorns and Fountains of Wayne exist in the same universe? Why does one have to be bad for one to be good? Why would you try and convince people to like a pop album by ripping into what amounts to 90% of pop's catalog, from where I'm sitting?

Pop does not get off way too easily; indeed, it has as hard a time of it as most other genres. It's just kind of in reverse. Everyone listens to pop and assumes someone else must like it and that this must be bad, and so a disproportionate amount of energy is spent deriding something that sounds appealing rather than dark or difficult, even though the dark/difficult thing might actually have a wider appeal. Pop is almost universally regarded as disposable, cheap, knocked-off and worthless, whereas it can in fact be some of the most valuable art we have. Innovation is valued over craftsmanship, difficulty over pleasure, the boring but timeless over the exciting and immediate, and--to understate a bit--all these things are not necessarily true.

Most importantly, if you're reviewing something that's ostensibly a pop album, maybe you should be a little more forgiving about pop. Indeed, maybe that's one of the things this album is trying to say.