We’re approaching the end of the decade. It’s pretty terrifying. This is going to be the fourth decade I’ve lived in. How is that even possible? Good God, I’m going to be middle aged so so soon – As you can see, as we reach the close of the aughts othere is an enormous temptation, especially among point-headed types, to discuss What It All Means, other than the fact that we’re changing the second to last digit in the last part of the date. I shouldn’t actually scoff, because periodization is important for criticism, and decades are convenient signifiers. Now, that doesn’t mean that most of what’s been written about the decade in pop music is anything but crap (general maxim: 80 percent of everything is crap) – a lot of writers have discovered to their shock and amazement that indie went mainstream. But Simon Reynolds, one of the best working music critics (and author of one of my favorite books, Rip It Up And Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 – read it and get smart) has written an interesting analysis of what just happened. He’s also wrong as shit.
If you didn’t click that link, I’ll summarize. Essentially Reynolds makes the point that pop music has become more and more fragmented over the course the last ten years. He points out that music fans aren’t as united behind big acts the way they once were. He argues, correctly in my view, that this stems from the fact that we now experience music online while we sit alone at computers rather than in public settings, that blogs and message boards encourage extreme contentiousness so that its hard to create a canon, and that music scenes have become more insular. He’s wrong because he thinks this is a bad thing.
[youtube src= “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lc3e_xN_JNc”]
Reynolds bemoans the lack sonic unity and of big tentpole acts that everyone in the aughts could agree on. But I think he’s off base. Sure, some acts, like Bruce Springsteen or Jay-Z are generally acknowledged to be great because they obviously are great. But sometimes we anoint musical heroes because we’re stupid, like when White people flocked to Nirvana so we could delay taking hip-hop seriously for a few years, or when everyone shat themselves over The White Stripes because they were a rock band with songs. I think fragmentation has served us well, and to prove it, I want to draw attention to the U.K., a place much less Balkanized than the U.S.
Think about the big British acts of the new millennium (and Radiohead doesn’t count. They were born of a different age), and what do you think? Probably trad-rock. As Americans and Canadians have embraced samplers and accordions, British indie bands remain, in the words of one commentator, “sweaty boys with guitars.” I think The Libertines, The Arctic Monkeys, and Editors are all fun, but no one is going to trick me into thinking they have any interesting ideas. Meanwhile, look at the Americans that get embraced back in Albion: totally straightforward (and frankly, kind of boring), rockers from The Strokes to The Kings of Leon to MGMT.
[youtube src= “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8lTyYlQ-Wg&feature=related”]
Now, on the whole, I think out former oppressors have pretty okay taste. They worship tasteful, tuneful rock, and they don’t squeeze out anything too shitty (except Kasabian). But a nation that can’t produce a Creed also can’t produce an Animal Collective. Innovation in America has usually stemmed from people who get disgusted with the atrociousness of mainstream music and turn to little incestuous underground scenes, where they develop radically new ideas. Eventually, the music have a tendency to bursts out of scene, and spills a bunch of new ideas which get appropriated in a million different ways. This has happened a few times before: with jazz, with country, with rock, with punk, with hip hop, with techno, and in the 90s and aughts, with indie. But the problem with Britain is that Oasis (my signifier of all that is fine but bland) isn’t quite bad enough to drive 14 years olds into the hardcore scene and initiate the process.
Or at least that’s what I thought. Then a couple of weeks ago I found myself on Albion’s shores (I meant to write this entry a few weeks ago, but you know how it is). And I outlined my theory to my girlfriend. She had been there seeing the sights and hearing the radio for a semester, and she thought I was giving the British mainstream way too much credit. She asked me if I actually knew what’s popular over there. Turns out I didn’t. Behold the horror of what is actually Big In England:
[youtube src= “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1XozitRXSQ”]
Didn’t think that was too painful. Fine, let’s move on, setting our Bland-rays to kill:
[youtube src= “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=US8cgUq_XBY”]
I defy you to find something blander. In conversation with some of the natives, I raised the issue of the differences between American and British pop music. The response I got was an interesting one: I was told we don’t really have pop music over here. I was incredulous at first. What about Rihanna? She’s R&B. Taylor Swift? Country. Drake? Hip-hop. Lady Gaga? Who even knows what that is. While Britain still has a distinct genres of pop and rock that are distinct from other musical traditions, American pop is a mess of different styles and personalities, with a whole bunch of pop art insanity layered on top. Por ejemplo:
[youtube src= “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPqTO50mbdQ”]
Sure, there’s some relatively straightforward pop music in America. But the music made by white people without guitars is usually the worst thing on the radio (and look, Poptimists, it’s fine to value catchiness and fun and everything, but we can’t just go around pretending that “Party In The U.S.A.” is acceptable). Now, I’m just a simple country music columnist, so I’m not going to attempt to explain why English music is more homogenous (probs some combination of smaller size, greater racial and ethnic homogeneity, narrower wealth disparities, and a general lack of American Liberty, but really who knows). All I know is that America is nuts: Jay-Z talks about taking inspiration from Grizzly Bear while Lady Gaga references Baudrillard and guys in indie-pop bands talk about their love for Black Metal and Steve Reich. There’s no mainstream, and everything’s chaos. And in that chaos is beauty.
ADDENDUM: Before anyone comments angrily, I want to make it clear that I’m not stupid. There are self-conscious scenes in the U.K., mostly in the world of electronic music (I won’t go on about dubstep again here, but it’s great, I promise). There are also great great young acts that buck trends and end up being really interesting: The xx, Los Campesinos!, Future Of The Left, These New Puritans, Bat For Lashes. Sorry if I am accidentally shitting on some good bands I’m speaking in generalities, and when one generalizes, some oversights are inevitable. But generally speaking, God Bless America.
Oh, and because I stole their lyrics for the title:
[youtube src= “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeP220xx7Bs&feature=PlayList&p=0189022BE77C5451&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=2”]