Ignore The Sunday Times – Today’s Young Artists are doing Great Things

A headline surfaced in my news feed today – an article from The Sunday Times in the UK proclaiming, “Modern pop is rubbish, says Damon.”  The Blur front man says music stars of the ‘selfie generation’ should sing about politics, not just chant platitudes.

The article addressed today’s youth culture, and pictured Taylor Swift as the spokeswoman of their generation.  But The Times and Damon have got it all wrong.


Pop is relatively inconsequential – like the loudmouth in the room at a party carrying on to hear himself speak… no one cares and he is forgotten when the moment has passed.

I’ve spoken with a number of musicians from what the article dubs, “the selfie generation” and the term honestly doesn’t apply.  Nor does the term from a previous but similar article which called them “the Belieber generation.”  These kids don’t revere teen pop stars as anything relevant outside of the tiny bubble that is pop music.  They are interested in more socially and culturally significant concepts, like the role of technology in their lives and the globalization of culture.  Or any number of other values of relevance ranging from widely-demographic to simply personal.  Because that’s what the youth culture is – individual, creative people, not a swarm of mindless bodies jumping up and down to whoever Disney tells them to worship.

Certainly – Taylor Swift and Bieber were massively popular.  It’s an inevitability because they were designed to be popular – saccharine-sweet over-simplified melodies repeated ad nauseum, super-saturating every mass-media market  in the world.  But outside of those irritatingly-loud broadcast spheres, in the minds of growing teens forming their own values and opinions about the world around them, those media outlets matter less and less every day.  They blare on at full-volume 24/7, desperately begging consumers to buy their associated merchandise, but kids quickly grow out of that infinitesimal world and move on to something bigger and far more important in their lives.

In 100 years, music history won’t droll on about Bieber or Britney, any more than they would about  Frankie Avalon or Ricky Nelson.  Momentary teen pop sensations are irrelevant in the grand scheme.  Instead, they will teach the incredible impact of Cage and Glass the way they do today about Bach and Beethoven.  Rock’s brief but vibrant life will be summarized by Dylan and The Beatles.  Other than a handful of household names, the whole of teen pop will be forgotten, just as it is when it is recycled, again and again, every three to five years.

I have a lot more faith in “the selfie generation.”  They’re doing great things musically – you just have to listen to them.


The Reclamation of Pop: A Musical Manifesto

Every few days I find myself writing an impassioned and somewhat crappy music manifesto.  Here is one of them.

From at least the 1950s forward, with the popularity of the 7″ single and the commercial boom of post-war FM radio, music marketing exploded and marketers sought not to predict the future of popular music, but to direct it.

Console radios (and later their transistor offspring) moved music from the reach of the listening elite who would attend evening classical events to the masses, most of which had no particular ear or preference for music.  The consequence of democratizing music listenership was that radio was forced to pander to youth culture masses who wanted the short, simple and familiar structure of rock & roll 24 hrs a day.

The 60s were a time of great revolution, reflected in both folk music and in new experimental sounds inspired in part by the drug culture of the day.

The 1970s offered the first hint of an audience demanding more than blues-based guitar riff rock with the rise of progressive rock and kosmische musik, incorporating madrigal song, classical, elements of jazz, and complex polyrhythms and time signatures.

Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, released in 1977 was the first dance track to forego a recorded orchestra and instead consisted of entirely synthesized sounds and voice effects.  This was a warning sign on the path to the cultural “distillation” process, and was quickly gobbled up by the pop creature hungry for dancefloor rhythms and processed vocals.

By the 1980s, Video Killed the Radio Star, making popular music all about image at the expense of content and talent.

Still, a dedicated art rock and post-punk scene prevailed, with acts like Pere Ubu, Einstürzende Neubauten, Throbbing Gristle, and Wire further demonstrating the survivalism of substance in music.

By 1989, ambient music which had (ever-so-quietly) exploded onto the scene with Eno’s Music for Airports found a new audience.  After clubbers heard Dr. Alex Paterson spinning in the White Room at the Land of Oz albums like The KLF’s Chill Out, Space’s Space and The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld were released (all by the same few DJs).  This sparked an experimental ambient culture soon embraced by Aphex Twin, Biosphere, and the then-newcomers Boards of Canada who would gain international acclaim for their LP, Music Has the Right to Children.  This was the new heady music of 1990.

So-called “alternative rock” dominated the FM airwaves for the remainder of the decade with an indie sound that spoke directly to its generation of angst-riddled listeners.  Seattle grunge died gracefully with the release of Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York and rock finished out what would be the last of its 40-year life, signing off with No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom in January of 1997.  Save for a few rare exceptions in the world of pop music, there was a clear path of rotting decay which followed –

Later that year, The Prodigy released Fat of the Land, a best-selling sell-out record whereby they left the rave scene and embraced radio-friendly big beat.  Spice Girls’ Spice followed, recycling the Monkees factory-assembled-band concept for another commercial success, and the nail in the coffin was the album, …Baby One More Time released on January 30th 1999. True to form, another polished and squeaky-clean band released their third album – Backstreet Boys’ Millennium in 1999, a record which secured their super-stardom.

By 2002, rock was dead and buried and the Core Media Group rebranded popular music as a reality program – a vehicle by which to market and directly profit from manufactured acts.

Over the next ten years, pop decayed into the most distilled essence of artificiality.

– An outrageous and exaggerated Madonna-facsimile became a pop icon

– A sixteen year old boy said the word “Baby” fifty-six times becoming the most-watched video of all time on Youtube

– and Rebecca Black happened.  (Mrs. Miller is likely upset.)

f955511d5e7e1e2c650f6a706700713d_r620x349Pop Music.

In 2012, Reuters reported the results of a study which concluded, Pop Music Too Loud and All Sounds the Same: Official.

In fulfillment of The KLF’s The Manual: How to Have a Number One the Easy Way, pop has consumed hip-hop, electronic dance music, R&B, country, and everything else around it.  It has stripped itself clean of substance, fidelity (thanks to the Loudness War), character, style, and any element of unique identity it once bore.

In a now-legendary article about Jamie Wednesday in the NME, written by David Quantick, David mentioned that pop music is ever-recycling its ideas and that eventually, ‘pop will eat itself’.  We are witnessing the realization of this prophecy right before our culture’s eyes.

Pop is now a self-parodying, purely ironic, insubstantial, auto-cannibalistic animal.  It cannot sustain itself for much longer without a supply of original material to consume.

Are we due for a spontaneous generation of classically-trained musically-educated instrumentalists, manifesting in clear defiance of the education system which has long-abandoned arts education?

Instead we are left with a millennial generation who has been carefully conditioned from their earliest years to consume pop and to be collectively uncomfortable (or even repulsed) by the cerebral sounds of polyphony, afro-inspired polyrhythms, or improvisational compositions like jazz.  All they want is a hook and a four-on-the-floor synth beat.

This is the musical incarnation of the newspeak Orwell warned us about – a culture raised from birth to see and hear only vapid, formulaic, 3 minute commercials and to buy the associated line of merchandise.  This is what Clear Channel tells us that “music” means today.

I implore you to play your children classical, play them jazz, opera, experimental electronic music, and the countless micro-genres from around the world.  Maybe, just maybe some of them will pick up an instrument, (whether lute or laptop) and learn to make beautiful new music.


Published in: on March 15, 2015 at 12:09 am  Comments (3)  
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5’50” of Pop – The Sound of Muzak

5'50'' of Pop

As an archivist of historically significant recordings, I thrive on sound that is experimental, that tests the limits of and challenges the very definition of what we call music.  I’m grateful that, for most hours of the day, I have the freedom to immerse myself in cerebral and inspiring sounds.

But once upon a time, not so very long ago, I worked a job where that sort of musical luxury was the stuff of pure fantasy.  For I, like so many of my young peers, spent each day in a world of retail Muzak.

Perhaps you’ve worked a similar job at one point of your life.  Perhaps you see no problem with Muzak as you can simply, “tune it out.”  Unfortunately, we are not all so lucky.

The Sound of Muzak

The Sound of Muzak

The soundtrack of my former workplace was a Muzak station comprising 100 pop songs repeated ad infinitum for the entirety of my retail servitude.   It was eight hours a day of Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Shania Twain, Reba McEntire, Nickelback and Amy Grant… enough to drive any reasonable man insane.  But instead of succumbing to the madness, I made it a personal mission to transform my situation into something expressive and artful.

The result was 5’50” of Pop – a complex, atonal and aggressive short film effectively simulating the experience of living inside a forty-hour loop of teen pop-idols.  5’50” of Pop aims to transform formulaic, predictable, homogeneous pop music into something challenging, something arresting, and something dauntingly complex.

The film composites the music videos for every one of the songs I heard each day… played from start to finish… all at the same time.  The result is a cacophonous stream of abstract noise and an indiscernible collage of light and shadow, presenting the viewer with a visual and auditory experience completely unlike the content of which it was composed.

If you’ve never had the misfortune of working retail, please indulge me, for a mere 5’50” of Pop.

Embittered pretension aside, 5’50” is first a reactionary piece, but also serves as an honest criticism of the pop music status quo.  Contemporary pop is made to be instantly forgotten and shuffled through in a constant stream of predictability and irreverence.  More product than poetry, its cookie-cutter lyricism and melodic structure have abandoned all that made-great the genres it’s co-opted and mimicked in empty pantomime.

Thankfully, I’ve since freed myself from that terrible environment, and now spend my days soaking-in Frippertronic solos and tape music soundscapes.  So to any of my readers still-trapped in a similarly vapid and soulless work environ; take heart.  There are scores of beautiful music waiting for you.  Until then, keep tuning in.  The music will set you free.

[NOTE: Due to copyright claims from Warner Music and the Universal Music Group, this video is not available in Germany and may include advertisements.]