In hard times, pop ditches depth

elegant song-writer Country singer Taylor Swift

Lately, I’ve been having a recurring sinking sensation. A hit on the radio gets my attention and doesn’t repay it; it adds up to little more than a dull, thumping Eurodisco beat and a robo-tuned voice repeating an inane hook, something like the Ay-oh, gotta let go, in Taio Cruz’s Dynamite, or Justin Bieber piping, Baby, baby, baby, oh or the Black Eyed Peas chanting Imma Be more than 100 times (although at least that song goes through some rhythm changes).

OK, I shrug, that’s just pop radio. Predictable catchiness is all that matters, nobody’s looking for much content, and current audience research tells radio stations that robo-voices and simple beats are the bubble gum du jour. No big deal.

So I head for an alternative: indie-rock, realm of the self-conscious, self-guided maverick. Standing at some club alongside earnest music fans awaiting blog-anointed artistes, what do I hear but a beat straight out of an old girl-group record, some familiar doo-wop chords and songs like Best Coast’s rudimentary (but enjoyable) I Want To, which repeatedly declares, without fear of ambiguity, I want you so much.

Hey, wait a minute, this is starting to sound like bubble gum, too. And I start to wonder: Is everybody dumbing down?

Well, strictly speaking, not everyone. The grand album-length statement and the rhapsodic, convoluted song lived on in 2010 releases by Arcade Fire, Titus Andronicus, Joanna Newsom, Erykah Badu, Ne-Yo and, dopey as some of his lyrics can be, Kanye West. But musicians like those come across now as holdouts against the dominance of three-minute, two-idea tracks — of the pop song as little more than a sound effect and a sound bite.

The pressures on musicians to keep things simple are obvious. What have become all-too-familiar 21st-century refrains — too much information, too little time and the diminished attention spans that result from trying to cope — have only grown more insistent through the decade. The recording technology of loops and samples encourages unimaginative producers to repeat something merely adequate for the length of a song rather than developing or enriching it. Playback from MP3s through cheap earbuds rewards the brittle and tinny, not the lush and subtle. And as sales of recorded music dwindle, the incentives only increase to write songs around nuggets and generic sentiments that can be repurposed as ad jingles, ring tones and soundtrack backgrounds.

Brevity and digestibility make a song more functional, at least in the short run.
On a larger scale, these are rough economic times. Consciously or not, pop has been reverting to precedents from past downturns. Depression-era swing and 1970s disco responded to listeners’ yearning for a danceable beat and an uncomplicated, upbeat message to propel them through hard times. Yet, we’re not getting a 21st-century Duke Ellington out of this recessionary phase. Instead, we’re getting warmed-over Giorgio Moroder electronics and voice processing, although it’s now more digital than analog. It’s an austerity program, demonstrating how to get by while scrimping.

Concision, admittedly, is the essence of pop: its discipline, its challenge, its genius. To tell a story or sum up an attitude in a handful of sung verses or a salvo of hip-hop rhymes, and to unite them with music that lodges those words in memory — and, at best, also summons the feeling behind them — is a songwriter’s job description. And it doesn’t have to mean sacrificing ambition. A brief time frame can hold a lot: all the chorda transformations of Tin Pan Alley or 1970s R&B, all the vocal fireworks of Aretha Franklin, all the rhythmic intensity of James Brown, all the electroacoustic metamorphoses of Radiohead, all the colliding samples of Public Enemy, all the internal rhymes, comedy and psychodrama of Eminem in his prime.

Yet, musical or verbal complexity can easily add clutter rather than depth, not to mention idle pretension. That’s why popular music regularly goes through back-to-basics purges like punk (both the 1970s and 1990s editions), electro (with iterations in every decade since the 1970s) and, for that matter, rock ‘n’ roll itself.

Minimalism can be a corrective and a clarification, a reminder of primal pleasures and impulses, a knowing rejuvenation. The New York Times critic Jon Caramanica sees that spirit in the approach of Best Coast and kindred stripped-down bands, a strategy he has labelled the New Simplicity. It’s true that if that style doesn’t generate its own orthodoxy, it could turn out to be endearing. Too often, however, less is merely less.

In a twisted throwback to the 1950s and 1960s, pop songwriting has been partly returned to backstage hired guns: producers (and teams) like Dr Luke, Max Martin, Stargate, Polow Da Don and David Guetta. They send digital files that bounce around the world for tinkering, and their singers supply some portion of lyrics or personality. But all the songwriting by committee inevitably leads to homogenisation, and it’s also constricting pop’s subject matter.

Romance, as always, is the main topic, but the lyrics of radio-ready pop often pretend that the only relevant zone of human interaction outside the bedroom, the only place that matters, is “the club,” and even more claustrophobic, the VIP room, where the main options are drinking brand-name booze, bragging about sexual conquests and enumerating designer accessories.

Kesha, the biggest breakthrough pop act of 2010 (abetted by Dr Luke), has devoted herself to songs about partying: seduction and rejection, hooking up, getting drunk and getting wild. They’re trashy, selfish, catchy and often hilarious — smart pop storytelling in a circumscribed realm.

In recent years, indie-rock has been open to a stampede of possibilities: sculptured noise, vertiginously layered counterpoint, progressive rock, metal, African rhythms, vintage and ultramodern electronics, various generations of rediscovered funk and hip-hop, lyrics that are cryptic or hectically clever and dozens of strategies all described as psychedelic.

But indie-rock is second-guessing itself yet again, busily justifying dumb fun as if it’s unavailable elsewhere. Bands that used to bristle with cacophony — like Deerhunter and No Age — cut back on it last year, reflecting either a newfound serenity or a longing for accessibility (or both). Meanwhile, the revivalism that’s always part of indie-rock is surging again. So-called “chillwave” bands that emerged in 2009 and gained momentum in 2010, like Neon Indian and Washed Out, set their synthesiser for, retro tones and repetition — musically not all that different, despite what they may be mumbling in their lyrics, from more mainstream pop and hip-hop.

In hip-hop, which reached its anti-in-tellectual trough in the mid-2000s when crunk was king, there are still club boasts and drug-trade chronicles, but largely thanks to West’s best-selling example, other subjects are re-emerging from the sidelines: complex thoughts on celebrity, stray political observations, personal confessions and a psychological complexity that hip-hop’s old cartoon personas would rarely allow.

And the pop mainstream hasn’t ruled out craftsmanship entirely. Taylor Swift, 20 years old and now writing her own songs on albums that — rare in the 21st century — sell millions of copies, comes up with natural melodies and moments of elegance. The sweet-voiced Bruno Mars deftly embraces the four-minute, four-chord economies of doo-wop, Motown and reggae songwriting and he plays the nicest of nice guys, without getting too sappy, in most of the songs on his album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans. In Grenade, his latest hit, he slings imagery like a younger Smokey Robinson. And then, tucked near the end of the album, in The Other Side, he offers a warning: Truth of the matter is, I’m complicated.
That’s a promise to live up to.

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