clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, December 08, 2003
Picked up the Colder album, Again, this weekend. It's OK, pretty good background music, although I haven't gotten a chance to investigate more than one video yet, which I understand is the actual focus.

What I wanted to talk about, though, is the sticker. The sticker on the album contained a quote that referred to this album as "pop." It is very, very wrong. And, as a matter of fact, it demonstrates a phenomenon, which I will capitalize to make it more important and maybe Newsweek will pick up on it: The Debasement Of "Pop" Amongst The Upper Classes (especially as une term criticale).

I've seen this happening a lot lately, electronic artists getting called "pop" despite having little to no relation thereto. Colder, Manitoba, M83 and the Notwist have all had this adjective applied to them[1], and while I've sampled them all the only one that's vaguely stuck has been Manitoba, and even then it's only a fraction of the interest I have in, say, Jay-Z, or even electronic music like Kid 606's Down With The Scene, an album arguably far more informed by actual pop music than any of these artists.

The problem, basically, is that when you think of "electronic pop," you think of things like Erasure, the Cocteau Twins, New Order, like that. The artists above sound nothing like that. At all. They sound like...well, here's the problem. Those artists were all coming from a tradition of pop songwriting that grew from Elvis through the Beatles and the great pop bands of the 70's, and then applied those lessons and songs to new equipment. The new technology genuinely created a new sound, but it didn't necessarily create new songwriting.[3] What these "electro-pop" artists are coming from is a dance songwriting tradition that starts with funk, goes through disco, and then becomes techno and house and so forth. They're then trying to take this training and apply the pop tradition to it, and it's just not working, because they don't seem to have a real understanding of pop or pop songwriting. Sure, there are guitars and vocals there, but that just means they're microhouse that happens to use guitars and vocals, not pop, but it seems to be that the mere presence of these elements has been enough for most people to label it "pop."

Well, no. For instance, I listened to about half of the songs on the Colder album, and there doesn't seem to be a single chord change on it. Not a one. Now, far be it for me to dictate terms of a genre, and while it's fine to try and do a song with no chord changes (though even the Beatles couldn't manage to keep a straight face with "Tomorrow Never Knows") but if I can go through half your album and not identify a single change, I'm sorry, you're just not pop. I don't want to do that thing where I'm defining a genre as "only things I like," but I genuinely think that a definition of pop which requires chord changes will still incorporate a lot of crap. Seriously, if you can point out what in these artists makes them pop besides the guitar and vocals, please do so.

To my ears, I just hear the same dancey pile-loops-on-top-of-one-another thing, all centering around roughly the same tones. Which is not to say that this is a bad technique--hell, something as recent as the new LCD Soundstem single basically stays on the same chord all the way through for 9 minutes, and it's fucking fantastic. The problem is that when artists like this are being labeled pop while being critiqued with the handicapped attitude toward pop that we grant electronic acts, it's weakening legitimate attempts at the genre. (In fact, many great examples of this "new phenomenon" are arguably being overlooked because they're actually pop--that Girls Aloud cover of "Jump (For My Love)" that Manchester posted a while back is far more compelling[4] than anything on the Notwist album to me.)

So let's just watch ourselves here--it's OK to call stuff pop, but let's try not to make it sound like modern primitivism, and let's try not to be fooled by the obscurism and apply the same terms to it that you would to up-front pop, eh?

[1] Also the Postal Service, which I hate, but which I'll admit is genuinely poppy.[2]
[2] Max Tundra has also been called pop, but it is pop and I like it, so again, different story. It's still not very poppy, it's just kinda poppy and could be better if it was more poppy, I think.
[3] I mean, it had, had been since the first synth, but this new songwriting didn't become widely recognized until the late 80's.
[4] Let me not damn with false praise here: actually, I just listened to it again, and it is fucking fantastic. Making a genteel pop song agressive as hell without actually making it punk, a real nice trick.