Friday, February 08, 2019

Guardian "Pop 2.0" piece on how Anglo-American pop may stop being the dominant pop paradigm

In a recent episode of the New York Times Popcast, the paper’s critic, Jon Caramanica, recalled the week in August where K-pop seven-piece BTS and Puerto Rican star Ozuna’s respective albums debuted inside the US Top 10. “I remember looking at that and being, like, oh, this is it – this is the new pop order. This is not seven sub-genres ascending: this is pop.”

Here were two acts who had vaulted western pop’s language barrier: BTS are currently the world’s biggest boyband; Ozuna sings and raps, tackles reggaeton, bachata, Latin trap and plain old pop with equal ease, and was YouTube’s most streamed artist in the world in 2018. Numbers two and three in YouTube’s list were J Balvin and Bad Bunny, two more singer-rappers who primarily perform in Spanish. And, incidentally, eight of the 10 most viewed songs of 2018 were by Spanish-speaking acts.
What Caramanica noticed was a fundamental change to the idea that English is pop’s lingua franca. This development has been accompanied by a remarkable shift in the pop-star system itself. While bilingual artists surge into charts and playlists, joining the American rappers who have profoundly reshaped popular music in the last 20 years (the five most listened-to tracks on Spotify in 2018 were by US hip-hop acts), it’s a different story for the stars who emerged during the era we might call Pop 1.0. “The massive pop stars of yesteryear – Katy PerryJustin Timberlake – are fading from the public consciousness,” wrote New Yorker critic Amanda Petrusich in a review of a Taylor Swift concert film, premiered by Netflix on New Year’s Eve. [emphasis added]
Though the review is broadly sympathetic toward Swift, Petrusich suggests that despite the singer’s continuing immense popularity as a live act, she’s pushing an aesthetic that is outdated. Moreover, Petrusich seems to imply, so are the other superstars – Perry, Justin Bieber,Britney SpearsMadonna – who stage similarly alpha tours.

These “massive pop stars of yesteryear” adhere to a model established in the early 80s. The industry infrastructure – radio, MTV, record shops, press, awards ceremonies – created an unprecedented level of fame for the top artists, especially the trinity of Madonna, Prince andMichael Jackson. They were the unassailable pantechnicons around whom the idea of pop stardom revolved, establishing the template for Mariah Carey, Timberlake, Spears and Jennifer Lopez – right up to today’s Perry, Swift, Bieber and Lady Gaga. The latter might be the final Pop 1.0 star to have owned the zeitgeist while at her peak, and it says much about her prescience today that she has dissociated from the aloof figure she cut in her imperial phase.

The music was vocally driven, melody prevailing over beats, verses almost always leading to choruses. It could be pensive or euphoric; it might toy with exotica or exhibit social awareness; it was open to advances in technology (Carey’s wholly traditional-sounding All I Want for Christmas Is You, for instance, was made entirely with computers – sleigh bells and all). The main thing, whether it was a frothy Madonna bop, an oily Prince sex romp or Gaga making like a shard of Auto-Tuned ice, was that the artist’s presence was all over it. You knew who you were listening to: the song was in the service of the singer – not, as is often the case today with fluid genres such as trap, the other way around.

As we approach the end of the decade, streaming, which skews heavily toward hip-hop, is the most popular way of hearing music. The average 12-year-old has never known genre boundaries and is likely to be listening to everyone from Cardi B to BTS to platinum-selling American singer Becky G, who has only returned to singing in English after three years of exclusively Spanish releases. Against that, the once omnipresent 1.0 acts represent a mindset that feels outmoded. A bit hubristic and mainly white, that mentality is battling the fluidity of the new guard. Led by rappers and global acts, the 2.0 cohort are oblivious to genre rules [emphasis added]: they pop up on each other’s records, singing in Spanish or Korean or French, and they speak directly to fans via social media. Balvin, Drake, BTS and fellow K-pop hunks Monsta X, Cardi B, the currently ubiquitous Post Malone, Bad Bunny – all have their own styles, yet are adaptable; they’re enormously popular, but by the rules of the old music business, ungovernable. The old riot grrrl slogan, “This is happening without your permission”, feels apt.

While they’re as ambitious as any old-guard star (“we want everybody to love the album, even though they don’t understand what I’m saying,” Balvin said (in English) last year), they’re achieving their aims by being relatable. To audiences whose entry-level pop star was Cardi B or Drake, artists are supposed to be relatable, and to meet them halfway by exposing their lives on Instagram and putting out new music as it’s ready rather than sticking to rigid release schedules. The artificial star/fan distinctions that made Madonna and Jackson feel unreachable no longer exist.

"Oblivious to the rules" would mean more if I never, ever heard I-V-vi-IV chord progressions in any of these newer songs. If the songs were about fiscal policies or patent law or something, anything, besides generally being love songs, then maybe I'd believe Pop. 2.0 is really casting off conventions of Pop 1.0.  It's not even clear to me that there's no trace of any Millenial Whoop in the newer songs, either.  12 year olds listening to Cardi B ... okay.

Polylinguistic song goes back centuries in the Western traditions so if pop music has belatedly caught up to a trend that permeated choral music in the Renaissance and Baroque practices then, okay.

The idea that Timberlake could be pop 1.0 seems like a journalistic absurdity.  But these things are probably unavoidable.  It's probably also easier to say Pop 1.0 and Pop 2.0 than to say Pop 20.1 and Pop 21.5.

Not that I have any problems with non-anglophone pop thriving in the new ecosystem.  The K-pop I've heard is livelier than many of the four-chord power ballads I'm hearing from guitar-slinging dudes the last few years.  Taylor Swift may be easy for some journalists to declare a Nazi Barbie ... until this last year, perhaps, but Swift doesn't seem any more annoying to me than the Eagles and, frankly, is probably less annoying than the Eagles.

But ... If genre has been transcended then what does "genre" mean?  Genres within what is broadly known as popular song?  I've contended among my social circles that a great deal of what passes for "genre" distinctives in popular music have little to do with the music as music and a great deal more to do with the cultures that musical styles are associated with.  If someone were to say in days gone by that you should only play country on a Fender Telecaster those days have passed.  The extra-musical cues and associations of various genres of popular song have been breaking down and I don't see that as being bad at all.

But in some respects there's less variety in radio playlists.  I can hear five songs in a row on the radio that are built around I-V-vi-IV.  I can hear song after song that is built around statistical accumulation of detail as a kind of sonic ramp-up song.  I intend to write about this crescendo tendency in pop because it goes beyond what some music journalists resentfully call crescendo rock.  The roots of this crescendo/statistical accumulation approach to musical form goes back to the 19th century and I'll try to get around to the Leonard B. Meyer writing on that topic some other time.  Yes, timbrel effects and signal processing is diversifying and it's nice that many a song is out there that's not the same old Brit rocker or coastal Americana stuff of whatever genre.  But in other ways the changes seem minimal.  If Spears and even Swift can be referred to as in some sense "has been" in pop star terms perhaps pop stardom isn't really worth the trouble?

This might be where some sour invective from Adorno about the culture industry's capacity to endlessly repackage what is ever the same as if it were actually new might remain relevant.  Adorno's contention was that all popular music (and that ranged from popular song to some light classics) predigested the emotional content of the music.  It was music that felt for the listener.  People who listened to popular songs and actually enjoyed them were in some sense lesser people, lesser in the sense of being subjects capable of making free decisions.  In that sense a Justin E H Smith taking a comparison to Adorno as a good thing may have misunderstood that such a comparison in 2018-2019 would not be a song of praise.

There are some genres that are going to be absent from any variants of Pop, whether Pop 1.0 or Pop 128 and two thirds.  The genres include jazz and classical but can also include traditional musical styles from all over the world.  Nobody is likely to start demanding constant radio airplay of Nootka traditional songs, for instance.   The string quartets of Haba aren't going to be getting a lot of play on the pop stations for lots of reasons.

A post-genre pop that is so simply because stereotyped extra-musical associations between timbre and style are breaking down is not really a sign that contemporary popular music is "post-genre".  That the stars of Pop 2.0 can jump back and forth signals a basic cohesion to the style that signals the genre boundaries may shift but certain fundamentals such as structuring processes and musical elements are not changing that much.  

A counterstudy may be the failures of various forms of "crossover" classical music over the last twenty-five years to gain any traction.  Is the failure because popular music and what is colloquially thought of as classical have no potential points of overlap and correspondence?  That seems improbable.  First of all, the majority of popular and classical music we can download or order relies on instruments built around the equal-tempered tuning system.  Maybe you groove to microtonal Turkish guitar duets and want to break beyond the twelve-tones of the piano.  That's cool, but point is that if we wanted to invoke old lefty type polemics from Dwight Macdonald or Adorno, the new pop is oblivious to genre because the pop song genres have boiled everything down more and more to the point where everyone can recognize that changing the timbre isn't changing the fundamental nature of what the song is as a product of a culture industry.  

In a sense it's good if people begin to recognize that there's less distance between a traditional pop song from a musical and something from our century.  It's good in the sense that there are ultimately so many ways songs are songs.  That opens pathways to fusions and syntheses that I think are worth exploring.  But at another level, the idea that pop is post-genre ignores a number of styles that are defined out.  The irony of this is that jazz and classical get defined out of pop in a way that excludes them from consideration.  It's the kind of "meta" irony about music and music pedagogy I was riffing on a bit when I wrote "hegemony may be in the eye of the complainer." I also wrote a postlude to that inspired by watching the film Crazy Rich Asians.  Some memorable complaints about that movie was that it was about the one percent in some place that's not full of white people at the upper crust levels.  Well, exactly.  That presents the conundrum of a Pop 2.0 compared to a Pop 1.0.  This is still going to be the one percent in terms of what some call a winner-take-all paradigm in global popular music as mediated by Anglo-American industry and associated journalism.  

But to partisans of pop the musical one percent isn't going to be seen as Beyonce or Michael Jackson or Taylor Swift or Drake or Kendrick Lamar or other successful popular music artists.  The one percent tends to be thought of in terms of prestige and educational regimes so ... the one percent is thought of as being genres like classical music and jazz.  There's a paradox at play there because jazz and classical music can be thought of as the music of the "one percent" or the "two percent" in terms of actual sales ratios compared to hip hop, pop, country, rock and other styles of popular song.  Were the wares of corporate backed music made into the pedagogical mainstream jazz and classical would be the outliers and the genres that would be outside the mainstream, pop. 

why are jazz and classical at the bottom of the sales charts compared to whichever version of pop, whether Pop 2.0 or Pop 20.14, is on the charts?

Timbre is probably still a sacred element defining pop music.  I've mentioned writing by Kyle Gann in the past and Ian Pace and I won't do more than allude to that writing I've done in this post, which is already getting long enough.  I just don't think people on the pop and classical divides are as post-genre as a contributor to The Guardian may say merely because today's pop stars have a different set of checklists for personae compared to pop stars from really just ten or twenty years ago.  That the controversies around America's first explosion of popular song and instrumental music, ragtime, paralleled debates about the textual and musical merits of rap wouldn't come up in contemporary pop music journalism in Anglo-American contexts.  

There are so many genres and subgenres of popular song that ragtime is forgotten or even treated as a rarified niche of classical music.  It ... has become that in a lot of ways.   There may be people on either side of the pop/classical divide who really want the boundaries zealously guarded.  A pop song can be full of multiple languages but if it's still amplified instruments and electronic signals grooving over something like I-V-vi-IV or i, VI, III, VII, or longer and shorter variations of those chord changes then Pop 2.0 isn't different from Pop 1.0 when it comes to the music so much as it differs on issues of branding.  If I'm hearing song in which "J. Lo" is rhymed with "halo" I'm not feeling like I'm hearing things changing as much in popular song as a Guardian contributor.  T

here may be some real changes but in terms of the ways songs are structured and presented they are  cosmetic changes.  I don't think we need to improve songform as such.  We've had almost a century in which song has reclaimed a central role in Western musical art.  I think theory and practice in music education could do more to catch up with that century of shift.  But, ,at the same time, pop music as an industry seems too eager to congratulate itself on what are generally cosmetic shifts in taste.  Just because I personally find Taylor Swift songs less annoying than songs by Don Henley doesn't mean the craft of songwriting has changed that much. John Dowland played the lute and wrote emo goth songs centuries before emo or goth were things in Anglo-American popular music.  If you want to take a listen and read to the sixth book of madrigals by Gesualdo there were other ways to be kind of goth and emo back in the day.  Songs are still about the hopes and fears people have, about their joys and sources of anger.  

My concern as a composer who has written instrumental music and a few songs over the years is that song and instrumental idioms have balkanized in the last century, partly due to technological and cultural changes and partly due, I think, to some ideological shifts that I simply disagree with. Instrumental idioms are not necessarily going to have a "comeback".  I don't foresee the symphony regaining its place of prestige in Western music from two centuries ago. Why should it?  There's movie soundtracks for the orchestra and it's not that I don't like orchestral works.  i went and hears Samuel Jones' Tuba Concerto twice the year it came out.  I'm more, I'm trying to express this idea that as each generation of popular song gets covered by journalists who don't seem to know or care how far back this tradition of popular song really goes, there's a countervailing insularity in the realm of instrumental and chamber music.  I'm neither an academic nor a professional musician so it may be my hobby time gives me a chance to skate back and forth between journalism about pop music and journalism about classical music.  My feeling is that the problem is both tracks have gotten into trenches, both pop and classical have separated in ways that I think are to the detriment of both traditions.  I love music in both these traditions and would like them to interact more.  Pop 2.0 is still pop as it has been in the last twenty years.  The "Song Machine" is still more or less what it is.  The kleinmeister factories are ... also still what they are!   

My thinking and feeling is that the foundation for a kleinmeister mentality on either side of the pop/classical divide stems from a mentality that is first and foremost concerned with purity codes about what is legitimately "pop" or "classical" and doing so in a way that often doesn't emerge until someone transgresses a purity code, often not just a purity code regarding music.  While I can appreciate there are historical reasons behind concerns about cultural appropriation, the reflex is still something that attempts to enforce a purity code, not altogether unlike the purity of "real" art that gets enforced by kleinmeisters on the other side of the pop/classical divide.  I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the actual masters of pop or classical could and did shift over to the other genre from time to time.  Don't we recall that Aretha Franklin sang something when a certain famous tenor couldn't make it?  Didn't Bela Bartok write something for Benny Goodman to play?  Didn't Schoenberg and Gershwin at some point play tennis?  

A person could hope that after a century of these kinds of case studies that people who insist upon hard and impermeable boundaries between "high" and "low", art and pop, and so on could immerse themselves more carefully in the musical histories and legacies they purport to defend.  One way of putting this is to say that corporate interests scrambled to pigeonhole and then market music as quickly as possible in ways that segregated musical styles in ways that reflected other forms of segregation.  Another way of putting it is to say that academics and journalists, even those who regarded themselves as thoroughly enlightened and liberal and with an eye toward promoting the best and greatest that humanity could be, were often the most virulent enforcers of these sorts of kleinmeister orthodoxies. The boundaries between classical and pop as they tend to be called, these boundaries get enforced for all kinds of reasons, some good, some bad, but I think the boundaries need to be detonated.  

I suppose the theme of the kleinmeister gets me back to thinking about something I used to hear, that you can't "really" teach composition or that you can't "really" teach jazz or this or that style of music that is too pure or raw or real to be mediated by formal education.  At one level I regard that entire line of thought as idiotic because it presupposes that something that can be learned can, somehow, by some alchemy, never be taught, as if nobody apprenticed with established musicians over thousands of years, as if nobody wrote things down to pass along knowledge and, still more obviously, music by way of chord charts and head melodies and counterpoint treatises.  My own convictions at the moment are that the kinds of musicians and music teachers who would say for some rhetorical purpose that this or that music can't be taught even though they somehow learned it have probably given you a tell that they are kleinmeisters. 

But maybe there's a way to reformulate these bromides so many bros like to hand down to say what they may be trying to say in a less patently idiotic way.  

The art of composition involves thousands of big and small decisions and there is no music teacher in the world who can make those decisions for you

What a capable music teacher can teach you is what kinds of decisions you can make and what the historically informed cases are in existing music that can help you understand the range of possible decisions you can make for any given piece of music you are composing or performing. 

Another way to put this is that there are teachers who will tell you what the rules for a given style of music are who may seek to enforce them; there are other teachers who may tell you what the rules of a given style are with a proviso that you can break any or all of them if you want but you should know that a number of these rules are informed by generations of practical experience and if a choral teacher tells you to avoid perfect parallel fifths in descending lines the reason for that is how fast the pitch of the chorus is likely to nosedive--what you thought was going to end up being a luminous C major chord might be a muddy, throaty A flat because the tenors and altos chunked those perfect parallel intervals that sounded so amazing to you when you were testing them out on a keyboard.   Or you could write the passage and just hope that The Sixteen or maybe the chamber choir for a music academy in Lithuania are just magically already on your contacts list already ... but you've probably inferred the dry humor there.  

One of my music teachers said that it's fine to break "the rules" as long as you show you know what they are to begin with.  

Which ever side of the pop/classical divide it is ... my understanding of music history in the last century is that there have always been musicians interested in melting down, detonating and ignoring what are often extra-musical proprietary codes about what music represents in what context, and there have been musicians and academics and journalists interested in vigorously and vehemently enforcing whatever those codes are that are felt to be in danger of being breached by the musically impure.  We all have these ideals.  I can't stand country music written by people born after about 1960, for instance.  So I can love songs by Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr. or maybe some Merle Haggard and I can appreciate Patsy Cline but Garth Brooks annoys me and I cannot stand Toby Keith.  New country is just old rockabilly that broke a knee to me!  Roy Rogers?  Oh, sure.  :)

But then I'm also not an academic so I'm not in a position in an institution in which I could wield my authority to tell people what is or isn't "legit" country.  I'm sure the world is better off for that.  But then here I am writing thousands of words about music at a blog on a weekend ... so maybe that's a pretty academic thing to do on a Friday night ... .  a paradox maybe? 

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