Blog 1406: Top 40 Reasons To Tune Out

All about commercial pop, and working out what gets me so worked up about it…

During my time in Sydney (where I was based during our Australia 2013 tour), I listened to more commercial radio and watched more music television than I had in years. 90% of it shits me – and, until now, I assumed that was because it just isn’t to my taste. But, now that I’ve absorbed a fair whack of it, I think I’ve worked out what gets me so worked up about it:

It’s not the style (the SHOUT SHOUT EVERYTHING MUST BURROW ITS WAY INTO YOUR SHOUT SHOUT HEAD RIGHT SHOUT SHOUT NOW ear battery), the subject matter (I guess certain folks relate to InstaSentiments), or the presentation (huge-budget videos comprising impeccable cinematography of unmemorable imagery with bad colour grading*).

No: what upsets me is its cynicism – and the implications of its commercial success.

The ingredients: every pop song element that has ever appealed ever, no matter what meaning they may once have had, regardless of the new context they’re involuntarily being dragged into.

The recipe: simply throw them together, and as arbitrarily as possible.

Perhaps most worrying of all: that consumers clearly accept the product as something that “speaks” to them – even though treating the result as a “message” is akin to reading a series of Magic 8 Ball responses aloud and calling it a cohesive speech.

And it’s really different from the collage of, say, hip-hop – because cynicism completely changes the nature and meaning of the process. And yes, pop music doesn’t have to “mean” anything – but exploiting this aspect to manipulate people is, again, cynical.

And clearly, consumers can be so easily manipulated: an alarming number of people will buy into something purely because it incorporates elements of something else, regardless of whether or not they consciously recognise those elements, or of how it does this, or even of what those elements are. Tribute? Pastiche? Commentary? Are we supposed to be asking questions?

Buttons are being pushed by cold, expert fingers – and this doesn’t seem to worry the very people whose buttons are being pushed, and who are complicit in this cycle.

The condescension of this process is matched only by its commercial success (just as with what I would argue is its TV equivalent, “reality” shows). Certain people are so happy being condescended to that they’re willing to pay for the privilege.

Top 40 Reasons To Tune Out

I know this music is not designed to appeal to me, and it wouldn’t be doing its job if it did. Perhaps my real problem is that because vastly different things are called “music”, I see all things so labelled as being fundamentally the same – and I really shouldn’t. It’s like being disappointed that your dog can’t do a better job with your taxes than your accountant, simply because both are mammals.

Clearly, there are products purpose-built for a market which accessorises – where the latest hit song replaces last week’s hottest handbag, and is in turn superseded by tomorrow’s recreational-activity-du-jour. And I’m clearly not such a consumer – I don’t want to devour my entertainment, I want to love it.

I love a good pop song – and I think what makes a pop song “good” is not just its catchiness, but how well it earns its familiarity. Sometimes it’s accidental, sometimes even arbitrary, but more often than not it’s calculated – and I guess the commercially-designed tracks I’m talking about expose this in a way that drags the process from the realm of striptease into gynecology, but still calls it “sexy”.

I guess I wish that so many people didn’t accept something as “sexy” simply because they’re told it is.

. . .

* The image above is a still from the music video for Bastille’s “Of The Night”. The music covers (samples?) Corona’s 1993 hit “Rhythm of the Night”, and the video is of a crime scene investigation with singing murder victims and dancing onlookers. It’s photographed as beautifully as an HBO drama, and the audio production is suitably commercial-radio-slick. It could be argued that Bastille’s video is no different than, say, Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got A Gun” from 25 (!) years earlier – but at least that video’s imagery had some narrative relevance to the song. I can’t help but ask: what the hell is anything (musical or visual) in the Bastille video supposed to mean?

. . .

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