Anyone who subscribes to Simon Reynolds’ view that pop culture’s obsession with the past has become unhealthy must hate December. The year just gone is reviewed and rated, then catalogued and carefully archived in the libraries of rock history. When appropriate, this is also the time for history to be rewritten. December 2001, for example, saw the 'NME' define the year around two albums by the Strokes and the White Stripes. Entirely forgotten, from that moment on, were the band most featured on the cover that year - Starsailor (cover stars on three occasion, once more than the Strokes’ two appearances).
And yet, December’s focus on what has just happened is quickly followed by January’s equally frenzied search for the hot new thing. As soon as the album of this year’s polls close, work began on the BBC’s ‘Sound of 2013’ poll – and most of 2012’s critically acclaimed albums will never be mentioned again. Expectations on the new acts are raised to near impossible levels – look back at how many bands once tipped for great things sink without trace. Modern bands aren’t just competing with each other for attention – they are also pitted against the great bands of the past. And they aren’t just judged on the respective merits of individual songs – critics like Simon Reynolds expect them to inspire a ‘revolution’ as well.
This concurrent hunger for novelty and the obsession with the past can be ascribed to the same historical accident – although it is relatively easy to replicate the great rock music of the past, ithe original recordings are ‘definitive’, tablets set in stone for the ages. That means that we’re constantly on the lookout for the next instant classic, but it also means the Rolling Stones can charge £250 for a single live show, while a box set of remastered Beatles albums on vinyl will set record collectors back £300.
The albums prized most are the ones that ‘influenced’ other later albums. ‘Revolutionary’ albums from the Sex Pistols and the Velvet Underground have been reissued in elaborate box sets this year, presented as historical artefacts to be respected as much for how they shaped the music scene as for the quality of the music. Simon Reynolds puts this trend down – accurately - to ‘Retromania’, an abundance of the past in the present’s culture. Reynolds argues that this has stifled the present, with musicians having become so respectful of the past that they are incapable of genuine innovation. His assumption is that there will never be a repeat of the ‘Year Zero’ moments when musicians created something entirely new – either a totally new way of performing and thinking about music (punk or reggae) or an entirely new sound (rap and rave).
I think ‘Retromania’ is correct in its analysis of what the modern music scene looks like, but fails to convince me that the interest in pop’s past is unhealthy. The 50s, 60s and 70s might be more properly seen as an anomaly in the broader history of music – where music was targeted directly at young people, and art critics judged it for its effect on youth culture. As those young people grew up, they took pop music with them – completing the revolution where pop replaced classical as the planet’s dominant musical form. Just as Mozart remains the benchmark of classical music, and Miles Davis the benchmark of jazz, so too the Beatles remain the benchmark of pop. That hasn’t stopped people dedicating their lives to playing in orchestras, and it doesn’t have to stop people dedicating their lives to playing in rock bands.
I believe fans and critics can be comfortable with the idea that pop music has value beyond its links to youth culture. We can stop searching for movements and scenes – we can enjoy music without obsessing what future historians will think of it. This has an added benefit – if we stop demanding that music shape the world, we can comfortably ignore mainstream pop music. The generally diabolical shape of Top 40 pop music is given too easy a ride by music critics. Partly, that comes partly from inverse snobbery – not wanting to be ridiculed for preferring Radiohead’s middle-class angst to Girls Aloud’s high street pop – but also from a fear of missing out on the next great youth culture movement.
Rock critics, relax. You will never again find youth culture expressing itself through the pop charts. Historians of 21st century youth culture will talk about video games and the internet – and they might talk about the surprising durability of 19th/20th century youth culture trends (sport, guitars and stand-up comedy, for example), but they won’t talk about pop music as the unique expression of pop culture. Pop music’s intentions have simply become too corrupted to facilitate such a movement. A Sex Pistols style sensation is simply unimaginable.
As I write, Gabrielle Aplin sits at number 5 in the charts with a cover of ‘The Power of Love’ commissioned specifically for the John Lewis advert. It’s quite pretty - though the syrupy strings towards the end spoil it – and I see nothing ethically wrong with an associate with employee-owned John Lewis. Indeed, Aplin is part of a long line of advert-driven pop stars (Mr. Oizo and Leftfield can both take a bow here). Yet, the brazen openness of recording a song simply because someone paid you kills the romance and mystery that should make pop music special.
Major label pop acts today are rarely anything more than walking brands – music is just what they do so that they can endorse wristwatches and perfumes. You might argue that endorsements are just a fact of life – and that if sports stars and actors can be in ads, why shouldn’t music stars? The difference, though, is that Kevin Pietersen tries to sell me hair gel in his time off from playing cricket. His twenty two test centuries remain the product of an admirable work ethic and an amazing natural talent.
Beyonce does not do brand endorsements in her spare time. Everything she does is calculated to make her product endorsements valuable. He songs sell Brand Beyonce – the all-conquering face of female empowerment performing dance routines designed to show how impossibly fit and healthy she is and all with plenty of flesh on show. Her formula has been aped - and arguably bettered - by Rihanna, who adds a disturbing dose of graphic sexual imagery. Their personas have been so carefully crafted, it is impossible to find out anything about them as human beings. Talented, they may be, in the sense of technical singing and dancing ability, but I find it impossible to have any empathy with their music.
The commercial imperatives under which Beyonce and Rihanna operate change how their music sounds. Just look at the slushy ballads with which they pad out their albums – clearly it is too expensive to pay for twelve top level songwriters on each album, so they buy a few surefire hits and pad the rest out with slushy ballads, available ten-a-penny to any X Factor wannabe. Those hits, meanwhile, never break out of the accepted formula. The hooks come early and the choruses come loudly. What some critics mistook for innovative song structures are in fact devices to ensure the recognisable bits are easily sourced – then chopped down for use in thirty second snippets on perfume adverts. This isn’t just an American phenomenon – in the UK, Kylie Minogue is the ‘face’ of Lexus, John Lydon flogs butter and Cheryl Cole sells you shampoo. There is nothing evil about this – but it does fundamentally change the relationship between musician and audience.
Cheryl’s band, Girls Aloud, are regularly cited in the case for the defence – their production team ‘Xenomania’ depicted as a modern day Lieber/Stoller, conjuring up a new form of pop genius. I can’t hear it,. ‘Biology’ – commonly cited as Xenomania’s peak - has too much of everything, a huge riff, massive drums, glaring harmonies and a chorus that is a textbook definition of catchy. ‘Xenomania’ seem to do little more than splice together other people’s ideas – and like Beyonce’s, these songs scream brazenly for attention.
Modern pop music presents a depiction of life with at the extremes – sexual tension, jealousy and heartbreak, money and power – stripped entirely of the details that can make pop music great (wit, subtle imagery, shared cultural memories) and thus wholly unlike the day-to-day lives most of us lead. I’d compare it to watching those football DVDs which don’t show whole matches, just an endless succession of great goals – a glorious strike looks impressive, but it loses its their resonance without the misplaced passes, badly times tackles and dodgy offside calls that go alongside them. Eventually, even thirty yard screamers start to get boring.
Clearly this music is popular. It may even be good, albeit measured on a different yardstick to mine. But it is just entertainment – for all the family – and bares no relation to the pop music as we commonly understand it – a single culture operating through a range of genres, which come together for ‘shared’ experiences like Glastonbury, the Brit Awards and the race to Christmas #1. Instead, we have pop music as ‘entertainment’, with the politics of brand endorsements and television schedules more significant than the quality of the music; then pop music as ‘heritage’, keeping alive the traditions established in the 60s and 70s; and finally pop music as ‘art’, with a huge number of artists composing variations on the song format, without any hope of either fame or fortune.
That latter group look especially vulnerable to closing record shops and illegal music streams. The lack of secure revenue streams makes music as a career option increasingly untenable. Many of the trends I have described above are caused by the destruction of traditional business models. Unfortunately, however, you can’t dream of a musical revolution while also hoping to uninvent the internet. We have to hope that true artists find a way through the mess – but we have to also accept that those artists will be modest and dedicated. They won’t be the new Sex Pistols.
This would be more worrying if there wasn’t an abundance of great music. Every month, there are many albums released that I know I would enjoy, but I simply don’t have the time to listen to – in November, 'Mojo' gave four-star reviews to thirty six new albums. On top of those, there were surely plenty of worthy albums they never found time to review – a trend exacerbated by the fact that it is now relatively easy to make professional sounding recordings at home. No one, no matter how dedicated, could possibly keep up with all that, though some of the albums 'Mojo' couldn’t find space for will hopefully return in future decades as lost classics. My conclusion, then, is that while ‘pop music’ as a singular entity is coming to its end, with almost no hope that a ‘new Beatles’ or ‘new Sex Pistols’ will come along and fundamentally shape society, that shouldn’t be seen as a problem, just a fact.