clap clap blog: we have moved

Friday, July 11, 2003
Like the shameless trendhopper I am, I read Pitchfork's review of Evolution Control Committee and was intrigued enough to visit their website and download two tracks PF touted: Chart Sweep, part one and Chart Sweep, part two (very large MP3s). PF describes it thusly:

This unreal sequence of brief (legally inconsequential) clips from every #1 song up to Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" is a must-download, available from ECC's site. Didn't Nirvana knock Whitney's tyrannic single off the charts? What's the implication in ending just before that happened?

Eh. What really interested me was what seems more directly relevant to the track: the sound of all these specifically #1 songs, and what that says about pop music. Now, these MP3s are 192k, so there's no reason for them to sound crappy, but there's a certain washed-out quality to all of them, like they are coming out of or recorded off of the radio, and while one of the interesting things about the tracks is hearing the sonic signature change as time passes, it's also interesting to notice how much of the sound stays the same. From early derivations from R&B and hillbilly music to early 60's girl groups to psychedelia to 70's stadium rockers to 80's synthpop to hairbands to more crappy soul than you can shake a stick at, it's like there's a filter at the #2 spot that prevents anything from getting through that doesn't sound kind of samey, with a very similar wash of sound and dynamics throughout. It's a big noise, like a blatt or a stream, like the "machine" that Andrew WK talks about, a big batch of ballads or mid-tempo semi-rockers. And, again, maybe this is just the result of the aesthetic choice ECC made for the song, but it's still pretty amazing that he could pull out enough clips to give me (at least) that impression.

Sure, there are some exceptions, some standouts that break through the "#1 hit song" setting on the EQ. "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," for one, maybe because it sounds like such a break with the ballads that dominate for the five minutes before or so (such as "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore--who knew that was a fucking #1 single?!); and, oddly, George Michael's "Faith," with its proto-Timbaland start-stop sound, cuts right through. (Some of Prince's do, too, but most of them fade back into the sound which he almost invented.) You notice songs, but not because the sound is different, just because you know them already. "Nothing Compares 2 U" jumped out at me, for instance, but, let's be honest, it sure sounds like the rest of the stuff there.

Which is not to say that there aren't some great, great songs there, but I guess the reason they sound great in other contexts to music fans like me is the way that sound contrasts with, say, the sound of Lightning Bolt or Donna Summer or Fountains of Wayne. So it's sometimes hard to appreciate, say, "Every Rose Has its Thorn" in the context of a shitty classic rock station (although very easy in the context of a good classic rock station, i.e. one that just played "Civil War" and "Bad Medicine") or, God forbid, the rest of Poison's catalog, but it's a lot easier to get into when you sandwich it between Royal Trux's "Inside Game" and Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees." And maybe this, more than bootlegs or mashups which have a questionable level of sincerity toward the artists they're working with by and large, is a model for appreciating pop music.

But back to "the sound." What does that say about my beloved pop music? (And what does it say about The Timelords' golden rules? Well, that's another post entirely.) They say that every critical system has to have limits, so is mine a simple box drawn around the #1 spot on the charts? Is pop music really, ultimately, about shitty ballads?

Or--more positively now--does it mean that there is an angle here for the indie kids I always seem to be trying so hard to convert? Is there, in other words, crap and not-crap among pop itself? Well, of course there is--every time I choose to highlight one song from Beyonce's album instead of just sending you out to buy Evanesce, that's what I'm trying to imply. But it's not always as explicit as maybe everyone wants it. So there you go: shitty ballads that hit #1 are the kind of soul-deadening, mind-numbing mass-appeal pap that we should morally condemn and throw in the deepest pit of hell, like the hipsters are always telling us. A good Britney single, though--let's sing that shit from on high.