January 6, 2006

"A year for unheroic, unambitious pop with little more to say than 'Play me on the radio.'"

Writes Jon Pareles.

I haven't read his article yet, but I'm feeling chastened, because lately, I've had a crush on XMU, channel 43 on the XM Satelliite Radio dial. I know it's utterly cheesy and lightweight, but it's so damned pleasant.

So let's see what Pareles is dogging us about:
Compare 2005 with 2004, which yielded albums like U2's "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" - full of compassionate songs that grappled with faith and science, fame and family - and Green Day's "American Idiot," which was nothing less than a rock opera about 21st-century alienation. Those albums continued to sell through 2005 because there was little to supplant them.

A war is still on, but mass-market pop is steadfastly ignoring it. ...

There are ample reasons for pop's narrowed ambitions in 2005. For one thing, 2004 was an election year in the United States, which clearly prompted some thoughts about the wider political and social situation, while 2005 was its aftermath, full of unhealed divisions. Singing about private lives - love affairs, individual longings or the local beefs and exploits of hip-hop - was the safest route to a mass audience.
Oh, so it's the lyrics? Singing about private lives... yeah, no path to greatness there. Just the same old drivel that was spooned out 80 years ago.

But Pareles sees other problems. Record companies are losing money, so they're afraid to take chances. And:
Popular music now competes in a digital din of cable television, DVD's, video games and Web surfing. Separate songs, not sweeping album statements, are the currency of radio, MTV, iTunes, self-promotional sites like Myspace and the shuffled playlists of countless portable MP3 gizmos. Why devote attention to a big statement when there's another great groove just a click away?
But if these tech-y things are the problem, they are also the solution:
Independent companies, small and large, are claiming an ever larger part of the music market, bypassing radio to apply the old do-it-yourself strategies of touring and noncommercial media, and the newer ones of file-sharing and word-of-blog.

Paradoxically, though, far-reaching ambitions are re-emerging on the do-it-yourself scale. Where indie-rock was once a realm of self-conscious modesty - a refuge from the arrogant blare of Top 10 rock - acts like Bright Eyes, Animal Collective and Sufjan Stevens used their 2005 albums to make the kind of grand statements that bigger stars shied away from. They orchestrated elaborate sound worlds and grappled with big ideas rather than petty concerns, and they found audiences that made up in devotion what they lack in numbers.
Back to the plea for more opinions from musicians about the war and how "George Bush doesn't care about black people." It's okay with me if the vocal sounds they make to go along with the instrumental notes are words about petty concerns. Go ahead and tell us something about your love affairs, individual longings and local beefs and exploits. You don't have to freight your songs with political opinions.


Icepick said...

Althouse Theme of the Day: The professional critics are missing the mark, badly. Correct?

pondering princess said...

Are you arguing that artists should only venture into "private" territory and deal with "local concerns" rather than with global issues?" If so, does this apply to all artists...writers, filmmakers, etc.?

I remember growing up in the 60's/70's and listening to songs like Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Ohio" (I think that's the official name). Those types of songs pushed me out of my sheltered, suburban bubble and helped me to realize that there was a whole world out there that I needed to think and care about.

Ricardo said...


Oh, so it's okay if you do it, but not if others do it?

Why don't you just consider their song, their blog?

Ann Althouse said...

PP: No. Just that it isn't necessary. I like a lot of the old political songs, but I don't want every pop artist to feel they have to use that kind of material to be respected. They should write about what they are interested in.

SippicanCottage said...
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AlbieNYC said...

Let's see...there wasn't enough liberal wailing in pop this year, so the Gray Lady must call for more. Typical NYT slant. Snore...

Pogo said...

I am amazed that Green Day and U2 are taken seriously by anyone. Not their music, which I've long abandoned, but their political preening.

What's the matter? Being multimillionaires isn't fulfilling enough? You've discovered the world is filled with suffering, and not the cotton candy and free ice cream you expected? You figured out war kills people? Poverty persists even though you are rich? Despite eyeliner and really expensive sunglasses, you are getting old?

Give me Kate Bush any day. She can make a simple song about dirty clothes seem like a dream.

Icepick said...

An additional problem with doing political songs is that they can become dated quickly. The Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song "Ohio" isn't going to have much relevance to people who were born after Noxin had left office, I would imagine. Personal matters, OTOH, are somewhat timeless, or at least don't date themselves quite so quickly.

There are timeless politically themed songs - U2's "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" holds up pretty well in my opinion. Anyone else got any?

AMB said...

I actually take the easy way out. I don't listen to the lyrics. So, while I know Greenday is "anti-W", I liked a few of their songs from their last album just because they had a catchy beat. I have no idea what the "message" was.

I guess I'm too shallow to appreciate music like the Times writer.

What I do know is that when a musician pours their passion into a song, be it about their love life or their thoughts on the war, the combination of their music and voice move me.

It's the passion, not the message.

But again, I'm not a music critic. I'm just a music buying consumer from Ohio, so what do I know.

Why don't I like pop music? No passion. There is not an artist pourhearing their heart and soul into the product. Big time pop music has become about marketing a product to a niche...boring.

Independent artists are usually that. Artists doing what they love. They may find a smaller audiance, but the audiance they find loves that passion.

So perhaps pop music should stop trying to package an "experience" and just find good musicians who love what they are doing.

Suddenly I feel the shudder of the Foutainhead. Yikes, how did I get Ms. Rand into a musical post?

paulfrommpls said...
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paulfrommpls said...

"The Times They Are A-Changin'" always seemed timeless. People who say it's dated are imposing their own datedness on it.

jimmac said...

"I've got a crush on you" by the Gershwin boys will stand the test of time infinitely better than the songs being discussed, and it has a simple and personal message.

The quest for larger relevance is a hang over from the 60's generation for whom "meaning" is a perpetual, selfish, and emotional entitlement.

Art may or may not have political resonance, according to its creator, but to suggest that it is necessary is to eliminate much music that has come before, and will be here milennia from now.

miklos rosza said...

I was good friends for a while with a couple of prominent rock critics, and they were obsessed by the words, in fact they defined the songs by their lyrics (which for one thing is much easier to write about than "the noise").

Lester Bangs, on the other hand, heard rock much more viscerally, which is one reason he responded so positively to the Velvet Underground -- and "Woolly Bully" as well.

Good lyrics can really make the experience more intense, but often just "no no no" or "oh yeah" can be very emotional at times.

When bands in the 1970s thought they had to make "heavy" philosophical statements some extraordinary drivel was the result. "Spinal Tap" shows us this.

I thought it was hilarious when Green Day played in Berlin for LiveAid in front of a huge backdrop of the numbers "88" while they talked in between songs and led cheers against America -- 88 is short for HH (8th letter of the alphabet) which of course stands for "Heil Hitler!"

It's a very common tattoo on skinheads and members of the Aryan Brotherhood.

Ann Althouse said...

jimmac: I was thinking of the Gershwins when I wrote the original post.

miklos: What can you expect from writers? They notice words. And it's damned hard to write about the muisc itself.