from a discussion (circa 2012) with someone about the connection between retro and standardisation
- Baring in mind the fundamental characteristic of popular music: standardisation, what’s your opinion on the current state of popular music?
I’m not sure I totally agree that the fundamental characteristic of pop music is standardization, that is something that it’s been accused of certainly by often Marxist thinkers like Theodor Adorno, as well as conservative critics who just think it is all mindless, repetitive garbage degrading the minds of the youth!
There have been phases in the history of pop when there’s a flood of new voices, quirky artists, strange sounds and a great premium on novelty and eccentricity. If you think of the Sixties, with psychedelia, or the postpunk late Seventies and early Eighties when you had all kinds of oddballs and freaks – Ian Dury, Adam Ant, Kevin Rowland from Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
But it’s true that there are long phases, and great swathes of pop, that are quite homogenous and assembly-line in their construction, when the music industry seems to be in control. Although equally it can be done by independent labels: think of Motown in the Sixties, or Stock Aitken Waterman in the 80s and 90s.
Certainly a lot of recent R&B and club dance pop is quite interchangeable. We seem to going through a phase when there aren’t many novelty singles or wacky characters in pop, it’s all machine-built beats and almost an identical palette of textures and sounds, based on the kind of equipment that’s being used. And something like AutoTune is a form of vocal standardization, so that even singers who have quite distinct voices, like Britney Spears, whose main virtue is her great husky voice, she has been fed through AutoTune and now just sounds like any other fembot pop star.
That said, I think part of the strength of pop music can be it’s same-ness, when a hot sound is dominant, you kind of want endless iterations of the same sound. Especially in black music and in dance scenes, the sameyness isn’t a bad thing particularly – in Jamaica, or in house music, or R&B at particular pointa, a certain rhythm is running things so all the producers copy it. That happened with Timbaland in the late 90s, everybody copied his innovations.
Pop does seem to be going through a particularly characterless period-- in a literal sense: there are no equivalents in the charts, as far as I can see, to figures like Ian Dury, or Madness or Morrissey or Jarvis Cocker or Mike Skinner... That was one of the great things about UK pop, that you could have these eccentric figures, who didn’t necessarily have good voices in the conventional, Pop Idol sense, but who had character, and something to say. Now, under the influence of Cowell-ism and also the rise of this international club oriented sound that everyone from Taio Cruz to Flo Rida and Pitbull has, you have a lot of music that seems very impersonal, lyrically inane, and that also lacks any kind of national characteristics. It’s music designed to sell on the global market.
- Music today works on seizing a moment by sticking to a formula. With this in mind, what sort of future do you think pop music has?
I enjoy a lot of the club oriented radio pop, I live in Los Angeles it’s a good adrenalin buzz to hear in the car as you’re whizzing around town and some of the sounds are quite exciting, in so far as they are basically banging techno and house of the sort that I would go hear at raves in the 90s but now they are right in the heart of the American mainstream.
But at the same time, too much of anything is boring and dispiriting, so I am hoping there will be a counter-reaction to this pop that’s based around an unholy merger of bling and banging. I don’t know what form it will take, but music that has some kind of played musicality to it, but isn’t retro, would be nice. It was very refreshing to hear things like Foster the People “pumped up kicks” on the radio, because it had a lightness of touch and a certain kind of melody and wistful emotion that was a bit more subtle than the primary-color, celebratory, sexed-up pop that dominates.
I think people will get tired of the current formula, it stands to reason. Hip hop will probably go back to slower tempos and more of a black feel, as opposed to this Euro sound it’s adopted. I think as long as people want to dance, they’ll always demand some kind of new beat every so often, and producers are competing to supply that demand.
- If standardisation and ‘Retromania’ of pop music is here to stay, what do you feel lies beyond it?
I don’t know. I think something has to break in this pattern of recycling and revivalism, though, because in a few years time people will be talking about 2000s revivalism or the Noughties revival – and they won’t find anything there to revive, because the period was dominated by revivals – the 80s revival, the postpunk revival, the garage punk revival, the sixties soul chanteuse thing that amy winehouse and duffy and adelle did, the late 60s folk rock revival with fleet foxes and all the bearded young men. How can these things be revived? You can’t have a re-revival, surely.
- What do you think it will take to change this repetitive cycle within popular music?
A new sound-making machine that’s as radical as the synth, or sampler was, or indeed as electric guitar was in its original heyday. And possibly a new rhythm or sound from outside the West. Maybe China or India or Africa has the answer.
- Do you think this change is possible?
Totally. Change is the only constant. We just seem to be in a weird holding pattern, caused in part by the archiving power of digital culture and the Internet, filesharing, YouTube. Those things arrived at a point when there was such an accumulation of rock and pop history behind us, four or five decades worth, so the technology enabled people to revisit and recombine and mash-up all the old music. I am hoping that retromania of the last decade or so is a historical phase and that we will get past it. But certainly that process could be sped up by promoting impatience and dissatisfaction, which is what I’m trying to do with Retromania. Sow seeds of discontent!
I ‘m a bit bemused by the range of reactions to it . Some people have averred on twitter that it’s the most captivating music book they’ve read but others seethe with rage and hostility towards it, and to me! One reviewer described the book itself as full of bitterness and negativity and self-loathing -- which even in the more neutral and objective historical section of the book “lingers like smoke from an explosion”. I couldn’t recognize that at all. But certain people do seem to have bizarrely low tolerance for negativity and pessimism. This is usually Americans, I guess they just didn’t grow up on the UK music press, to me that it is the norm, violently polarized late/hate, this is God/this is shit responses. (as I was saying in the Critical Beats thing). It struck me how much optimism and positivity are considered obligatory these days when it comes to pop culture analysis. A book about the economy, or the environment, that was negative and alarmist or talked about a decline of some kind or other, that would be considered a completely legitimate intervention, but in music/pop cult you’re supposed to be always emphasizing the bright side. I always used to enjoy “Death of...” type pieces – Death of Art, Death of Rock, etc. Ah well, it takes all sorts.