Friday, March 11, 2011

On Pop Music

Mikal Gilmore contributed a great article on the Clash in last week’s issue of Rolling Stone. A key passage, for me, came in the story’s closing paragraph:

“That sort of vision [of rock n’ roll as liberation music] feels like something from a long time ago, another story of death and glory,” Gilmore writes.

“Popular culture rebellions have grown smaller; popular fears loom bigger. The tragedy of the Clash isn’t about the Clash itself—that they fought for something honorable yet defeated one another. The tragedy of the Clash is that we no longer allow the room for their sort of voice.” (“The Fury and The Power of the Clash,” March 3, 2011.)

I was born too late to have experienced the Clash while the group was active, but they remain one of my favorite bands, regardless. The only rock band from my generation to have a comparable impact on popular consciousness, was Nirvana.

I am hard-pressed to identify this generation’s Clash—or, at least their next-best version. With a handful of notable exceptions, today’s music is insular, uninspired, and highly innocuous. And before you write me off as an aging, punk-rock Originalist hipster, just turn your radio on to any major commercial station, listen for about fifteen minutes and tell me differently. ‘Nuff said.

Vapid, talentless acts like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and the Killers dominate album sales and iTunes downloads. (The ubiquitous Justin Bieber is featured on the cover of the afore-cited issue of Rolling Stone.) The electro-synth beats and retro dance styles of these acts seem to harken back to the equally insipid new-wave pop of the 1980s.

Lyrically, these acts inspire little more than hedonistic pleasures and instant gratification. “Sticks and stones may break my bones,” the sultry Rihanna manipulates the rhyme on her new single, “S&M,” “But chains and whips excite me.”

Rap and hip-hop--genres previously so infused with social and political commentary—now celebrate consumer capitalism and material possessions. Rappers like Kayne West, Lil’ Wayne, and Eminem mostly rap about themselves and their celebrity identities—shallow themes compared to the radical, militant lyrics of early genre-innovators NWA and Public Enemy.

Even so-called “indie-rock” (a highly vague and misleading genre label that applies even to the most commercial of artists) bands shy away from pressing societal concerns. Indie darlings like the Decemberists trade in self-indulgently complex song-structures and highly pretentious, antebellum-inspired lyrics, about as far removed from contemporary life as one can get. Sample lyrics: “One night I overheard/The Prior exchanging words/With a penitent whaler from the sea.”

Indeed, Lady Gaga seems to sum up contemporary pop’s primary ambition with the title of one her own hits: “Just Dance.”

“Pop music is predigested,” wrote cultural critic Theodor Adorno in his polarizing 1941 essay, “On Popular Music.”

Drawing a stark contrast between popular artists and what he describes as “serious,” or classical music, Adorno attributes the differentiating factor to pop’s “standardized” song-structures (i.e. repetitive choruses, guitar riffs, or musical progressions).

“The whole structure of popular music is standardized,” he writes, “even where the attempt is made to circumvent standardization… Serious music, for comparative purposes, may be thus characterized: Every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece which, in turn, consists of the life relationship of the details and never of a mere enforcement of a musical scheme.”

Such standardized music, Adorno argues, serves as another means of oppressing individual freedom and personal choice.

He writes, “The necessary correlate of musical standardization is pseudo- individualization. By pseudo-individualization we mean endowing cultural mass production with the halo of free choice or open market on the basis of standardization itself. Standardization of song hits keeps the customers in line by doing their listening for them, as it were. Pseudo-individualization, for its part, keeps them in line by making them forget that what they listen to is already listened to for them, or ‘pre-digested’.”

Music thus becomes another form of distraction from national or global concerns of war, militarization, environmental destruction, the economy or the like. Adorno believes pop listeners become so accustomed to such standardized fare they become blind to its oppressive nature. He points to factory workers who, after spending their work day performing the same repetitive tasks over and over, unwittingly seek out the same form of repetition on the radio when they go home at night.

(Adorno, for his part, saw no room for artistic progression within pop music. He dismissed jazz and other forms of improvisational music outright and likely would have little time for contemporary art-rockers like Radiohead or Sonic Youth.)

Certainly, it is true pop has always been about escapism. But reading Gilmore’s article, it is easy to believe pop culture will never again produce a band as fiery, righteous and politically charged as the Clash.

And, once you arrive at that sad conclusion, it is easy to understand why people tune-out new music as they get older.

As Joe Strummer observes in "White Man in Hammersmith Palais":

"The new groups are not concerned
with what there is to be learned.
They've got Burton suits--you think it's funny
Turning rebellion into money."

No comments:

Post a Comment