Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Pop's 'trancey keyboard autopilot'*

The ’00s won’t be remembered as a classic for the mainstream of popular music. A flood of sexed up r&b (Miss E and co will have a legacy but hard to remember why crunk et al was given any credence), the last years of the tedious bling of hip-hop, landfill indie so much of a dirge its place only could ever be the charts courtesy of major label marketing (with figureheads from the last two scenes collaborating in a worthy music hell), polysexual placeholders such as Scissor Sisters and Beth Ditto, lingering 90s icons such as Take That and Kylie and the rest the result of the now highly over-televised talent spot route. Laugh at the talentless twats; then choose the cream in your very own hex factor.

But as a new decade approaches pop continues to renew itself. We have this pop-urban-electrohouse/trance mutant now, where London’s grime/funky/garage mans and American r&b heads spit fewer but more catchy and inane lyrics, add synth patterns from Tiesto and Guetta and wrap it over a slightly digital, occasionally glitchy/mnml house backbeat. Get a false emoter such as Taio Cruz or Autotune in for the chorus. Have some birds in the video. Job done. Number one, bruv. Bluetooth me that because I like it but don’t want to buy it.

As an older music consumer, an amateur who never opted out of pop (before we were all obliged to opt back in sometime around Britpop), I don’t get it. The innovations only serve to highlight my alienation at a time when ‘going out’ is increasingly becoming an abstract concept because my London network is thinning out, in itself making one more reticent to try new options. But this isn’t about my sob story. These highly miscegenated novelties, they don’t work for me. Every part is diluted, there is not enough drive from any of the major components, nothing to feel really passionate about, certainly not an 80s-style manifesto in sight. This also has no relation to the late 70s, early 80s shift when popular disco was infused with trance-inducing sounds for truly minimal payoff such as I Feel Love (today it would be I Feel You Up or something similarly crude). It isn’t quite lacklustre enough to have a feeling of ‘will this do?’ but does carry with it a sense of canny exploitation on everybody’s part. As someone who always did ‘high street’ and the med holiday route, however reluctantly, as well as have one foot in ravier scenes, the changes in pop make much less sense than the continuous cross-pollination of garage/dubstep/funky/whatever it is this week.

But I do understand really. They are pop at its most impure. Synths have been a la mode since electroclash and the 80s are such a popular pilfering source that even dour indies such as Snow Patrol and Editors are now foregrounding their sound with synthetic lines. I can understand why grime talents wanted to broaden their appeal, why ultimately everything always comes back to the 4/4 (or souped up US garage variants) as the format of most unifying appeal (rhythmic experimentation is strictly an underground preserve), why in the dying days of New Labour consolidation it makes perfect sense to have a road man like Skepta roll over ‘white’ forms of dance. This is a dance that knows half the game now in our modern discos is the good old sharking of the opposite sex, not ‘losing it’ or being ‘lost in’ the music (that is so dreadfully 90s). It has to be showy. And – cheer up mate it might never happen – it has to be up for a laugh. In the game.

So none of these developments are gambles – just as DJ Hell’s collab with P Diddy is calculated to appeal to an ‘adventurous’ audience, these are calculated to appeal to every impulse of a youth population who are told to go and enjoy themselves on the first ladders of easy credit, preferably via the higher education route. Over-indulgence is our modern day national service these days. Sex, drugs and brock and roll, yea we dun these by the Tuesday how are we going to fill out the rest of the week? More of the same. Repeat the spectacle, then watch the representations on phones and laptops, and fill the rest of the rest of the time with music channels, pumping out the audio-visual dreck.

It may be true that the pop charts are dying as a relevant exercise, but ‘pop music’ itself is not going away, the youth still huddle round well crafted products with mass appeal. And this could be ‘their’ sound they take with them for later curation. And like any other era with their treasured artefacts most will be dead proud they were there for it too.

*a term used in guardian guide's review of Chipmunk's Oopsy Daisy
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