Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The State of Things (a.ka pop culture today)

There was a running joke a few years back poking fun at the sudden flood of band names such as The Hives, The Editors, The Subways etc. – the joke went that if the band had a name that started with ”The” and a plural ”Somethings”, it was a pretty safe bet that you were in for a ride of late 1970’s/early 1980’s new waveish rock á la Joy Division.

In the Indie Rock scene, that name trend may have subsided, but the New Wave ”disco rock” sound is stronger than ever with bands like Interpol and We Are Scientists. Ironically the indie scene should be a trendsetter and show a way forward, yet it’s busy aping the past like there’s no yesterday (no pun intended).

And if that’s the case in the supposedly spearheading indie scene, surely things must be all kinds of wrong in the stuff that dominates the charts?

And if you ask me, they are. Personally, I can’t remember a time when ”mainstream” pop/rock music was this bland, uninspired, calculated and formulaic.

What was the point in time when mainstream music stopped being, you know, good? Personal tastes aside, there was a time when Duke Ellington was mainstream. James Brown. Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, The Stones… When the so called ”pop music” used to be on the level of, say, Michael Jackson’s ”Off The Wall” or ”Thriller”, instead of mindless fluff like let’s say, Hilary Duff. Hey, that rhymes.

What was the point in time when the music being put out started being dictated by the tastes of Disney tweens (and/or their parents), and clueless people who always listen to the music that’s ”popular”? Case in point: adults literally camping out to buy Hannah Montana tickets for themselves, not for their kids.

In 1973, Madison Square Garden was sold out by a little band called Led Zeppelin. In 2008, it was the Jonas Brothers.

In an MTV comedy show the writers wanted to make a reference to Bob Dylan. The producers were against it, because according to them the MTV audience wouldn’t have a clue who Bob Dylan is. The fact that most of MTV’s daily lineup consists of various ”reality” type TV shows might have something to do with it.

In general as well, you have to be actively seeking ”good music” (whatever that is), because it sure doesn’t dominate the charts anymore. Sometimes I feel people’s behavior these days resembles that of a group of lemmings, who will watch ”Sneezing Panda” on Youtube for 24 million times (literally, and growing) because there’s a common mindset that it’s funny and something that keeps us entertained for the few seconds it lasts. Or maybe it’s just another form of being lazy. Instead of spending the energy to actively seek something for yourself, enjoying the joy of discovery in the process, it’s easier when Seth MacFarlane offers it to you on a silver platter in a Family Guy episode.

It’s easy not to think anymore. Thinking is overrated, the way to operate in today’s world is coming up with a right combination of words to google with. You don’t even have to bother spelling, Google corrects you if you were just in the ballpark.

YouTube has gained an unexpected role of an educator in matters of all pop culture. Without it, teens might never know that the catchy horn riff Kanye West used a few years back is actually from a Curtis Mayfield song, or that the main hook of that Gym Class Heroes track is actually straight from a Supertramp song. This sometimes results in hilarious confrontations in the Comments section of the site, when advocates of the sampling artist come marching in somehow claiming that the new version – which wouldn’t exist, hadn’t it been for the original song - somehow outweighs the song it borrows from. The site is also filled with a worryingly large number of kids’ cover versions of such classics as the ”Angry Video Game Nerd” theme.

One outfit in particular has been busy showcasing almost a complete lack of any creativity whatsoever, the already mentioned Gym Class Heroes. Sampling is hardly anything new, but when your only creative thing to do is changing the lyrics from ”we don’t have to take our clothes off” (a 80’s single by Jermaine Stewart) to ”we just have to take our clothes off” – with chart success - there’s something seriously wrong.

Hollywood’s hardly any better. The movie industry is busy putting out movies that are either re-living the past (currently the 1960’s and 1980’s it seems), the mistakes of the very present (countless movies chronicling the build-up to the still ongoing war in Iraq, like “In The Loop”, or quite a few about American soldiers’ actions in Baghdad); and perhaps the most obvious example: the numerous remakes (latest offenders: The Day The Earth Stood Still starring Keanu; the forthcoming Karate Kid starring Will Smith’s son; The Graduate remake possibly with Demi Moore and Justin Timberlake).

The point of all this? I think I’m just mad at myself for spending another five minutes watching “laughing baby” or “Chocolate Rain” on YouTube once again, and not doing anything creative.


ruxton said...

Recently it was revealed that the RIAA has decided to give up on piracy lawsuits. It is no doubt fueled by the diminishing returns and extraneous costs to prosecute some college freshman who studied Kazaa instead of Western History, but is still relevant. Perhaps Hollywood will recognize soon that what it is producing isn't worth paying for. That is, afterall, what we're taught in high school: value is whatever someone is willing to pay for it.

Zach Wallmark said...

Thoughtful observations, Kari.

It seems to me that something profound in our popular culture shifted over during the Reagan years as our collective worship of material wealth came to eclipse all else. This grew to a fevered pitch and perhaps reached its apex during the decadent middle of the Bush years. When times are good materially speaking and the fake money is flowing, people worship the artifacts of our monetary, free market system, ie. commodified pop culture products. However, when the tables turn and the system collapses, I think (hope) that people will regain their tastes. After all, we're going to need good music and movies to help us through these hard times, not commercial schlock.