2011-03-28

The arena of armageddon: Pop Music

I've been meaning to write about this for a while now---and I've certainly talked about it enough to write a book---but since I recently read Nick Hornby's 31 Songs, I feel more more qualified than ever to pass judgement on pop music. Here goes:

During most of 2009, I thought pop music was in fine shape. There was the usual cadre of celebrity performers in flavors both comparably good (Katy Perry, Kanye West, Taylor Swift) and bad (Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Pitbull). But then, upon returning to the U.S. in December of that year, I had what I now know to be a defining moment in my understanding of the pop music of our generation: I was riding in the car with a friend who knows his way around the radio stations, and a song came on the radio that I'd never heard before. Or, well, the tune I recognized, though it took me a few minutes to figure out that it was very similar to---but not exactly---Lady Gaga's Just Dance, particularly the refrain. I listened to the song for a little while, and the voice track in particular prompted me to ask my friend, "Is this some kind of radio competition or something?" I was sure that the radio station had posted the instrumental pop-electronic track on the internet and invited its listeners to record their own lyrics over it using their web-cam microphones. It turns out I was wrong. My friend laughed at me and said, "No, dude. That's Kesha."

Yes, he said, "Kesha", not, "Ke-dollarsign-ha". And that's when I realized that the frivolity of post-ironic amateur internet sensations was creeping into mainstream media. I call now it the YouTube Phenomenon, like a viral video but not just a video. It could be described as a selfish meme, one that knows nothing else except how, after a critical mass is met, to replicate itself on a massive scale. There are a million Ke$has out there, but the one we hear on the radio is the one who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

A couple of years ago, Ke$ha managed to get a demo recording to producer Dr. Luke, and according to the Wikipedia article on Kesha:

Two of the demos were described in a cover story for Billboard, the first "a gorgeously sung, self-penned country ballad" and the second "a gobsmackingly awful trip-hop track" where Kesha raps ad lib for a minute when she runs out of lyrics near the end. Dr. Luke stated in an interview for the story that it was the latter track that caught his attention, saying "[w]hen you're listening to 100 CDs, that kind of bravado and chutzpah stand out."

If Kesha can sing gorgeously, then why doesn't she do it? Why did Kesha and her producer choose to make "gobsmackingly awful trip-hop" instead of good music? And lastly, if submitting a horrible demo to a record company is production-worthy "chutzpah", then half of the contestants on American Idol should be making solo albums. I see no fundamental difference between Kesha and William Hung except for the extent to which they were played on the radio and television.

In case it's not obvious, I don't like Kesha's music. In fact, I am often tempted to say that it is the worst music I've ever heard on popular radio stations. The misspelled song that was my introduction to Kesha, Tik Tok, could have been made from a MIDI version of Just Dance, with the instruments changed, and lyrics written and recorded by a fifteen-year-old in fifteen minutes. Seriously, everyone at that record studio must have been smoking Jesus necklaces and eye glitter if none of them could think of a better idea than to sing this repeatedly in a monotone voice:

Don't stop, make it pop
DJ, blow my speakers up
Tonight, I'mma fight
'Til we see the sunlight
Tick tock on the clock
But the party don't stop, no

Every time I hear it, I'm reminded of the rap battles my friends and I had when we were in high school. The guy who usually won, if there was a winner, always ended one of the first few lines with "day" or "play" or "stay" so that he could tie it up a few seconds later by calling me "gay". That's basically the same as what Kesha is doing. Also, my friend, when rapping, used to fall into one of two particular rhythms no matter how hard he tried to make an original beat. The first was a standard---perhaps iambic or other standard poetic---beat with a few extra syllables here or there; the second was an emphatic staccato burst followed by a speedy waterfall of words, tone falling from high to low. Think Fresh Prince: "I.... pulled... up to a house about seven or eight and I yelled to the cabbie...", for example. Kesha falls into the same rhythms over and over on multiple songs in her recorded and produced albums almost exactly like my sixteen-year-old friend used to do during impromptu rap battles over a decade ago.

To go even further---and this may sound harsh---but I cannot think of another popular song as devoid of anything worthwhile as Tik Tok. I can usually find something of value in every song I hear, but I struggle with Kesha. Her music is "derivative" and her voice track juvenile, and the two don't fit together. I could compare the instrumental track with a hastily-made book of Mad Libs copied from an older book of Mad Libs, and then the voice track would be the word "fart" written in every blank. It's that bad, even if I admit that it's "catchy".

A few weeks after hearing Tik Tok for the first time, I continued to be baffled by Kesha's popularity. So, I decided to give her another chance by having a listen to her other works. I was immediately confronted by this gem:




The only possible explanation I have come up with so far is increasingly pervasive post-rationalist sensibilities, which eschew anything intelligent, sophisticated, or nuanced. Many people feel a separation between themselves and the purported elite, which could include highly-educated academics, scientific experts, classical musicians, theater actors, or anyone with a highly developed ability belonging traditionally to the upper or noble classes. Evidence can be found in Sarah Palin's popular idolization of "Joe the Plumber" or in the immense adult readership of children's' books such as the Harry Potter and Twilight series. In the above video, Kesha tries hard to replicate these anti-intellectual successes by having a large American flag on the stage and singing, "It only matters who I is." People listen because Kesha is basically the same as us, and her music sounds exactly like the music that we would make if we, too, were drunk and had no talent.

I could go on and about how bad I think these songs are, but I'll stop here. The only [slightly] redeeming bit of a song I've heard is part of the melody of the song We R Who We R, during the lyrics "I've got that glitter on my eyes/Stockings ripped all up the side/looking sick and sexified" (no points for lyrics). That one element of that one song was worth the time it took to write it; it's too bad the rest of the song sounds like a cheerleader chant.

I'm still harboring hope that Kesha knows how bad she is, and that she planned this whole pop-star charade as a social experiment or money-making scheme. I'm supported in this theory only by Kesha's official Twitter username: @keshasuxx. My fingers are still crossed, but until I have more evidence, I have to live m my life under the assumption that a new low point in popular music and popular culture has been reached.

We're lucky, then, that we also have a pop music savior to combat the anti-star that is Ke$ha. She is Lady Gaga. I know; it's ridiculous, right? But before you write me off as misguided or even as a hypocrite for liking Lady Gaga whilst despising Kesha, hear me out. In every measure by which Kesha fails---singing, song-writing, lyrics, originality---Lady Gaga succeeds. I'm not saying that Lady Gaga is head and shoulders above the rest of the pop world, but she's certainly the current queen of the hill.

Pop music itself is renowned for its un-originality. It's by definition a popularity contest and because of this, the winners usually end up being the least of many evils. In an area where "catchy" and "popular" are virtues, it is sometimes difficult to tell the fires from the flashes in the pan, and details can make a big difference. An artist who sings slightly better than another has a small advantage, and the same goes for the slightly better song-writers and performers, etc. A truly revolutionary artist is extremely rare. Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones come about only once every few decades. More often, someone comes along with a beautiful voice or a knack for performance---Whitney Houston and Britney Spears respectively come to mind---who must rely on others to fill in the gaps in their abilities. Lady Gaga may not be a revolutionary---though she may very well be---but she can and does do everything herself, the vast majority of it being above-average work.

From singing to song-writing to flamboyant performances and fashion idolatry, I am truly impressed with Lady Gaga, but it wasn't always so. I wrote off Pokerface after the twentieth time I'd heard it on the radio. It was cheesy, bubble-gum pop music like almost everything else I'd heard. Gaga inhabited the realm somewhere between Katy Perry and Cascada, both of whom do their job well but are not necessarily inspirational. I'd also heard Just Dance and Love Game and Paparazzi, all of which I found unannoying or pleasant at best despite the last having stolen a chunk of melody from Take My Breath Away by Berlin (and Top Gun). For some reason I found Disco Stick intriguing.

Some time after that, and after hearing a few of my friends excitedly include Lady Gaga songs on a mixtape (mix-iPod?), I came across a link that changed my opinion tremendously. The link led to a video---or a series of videos rather---showing that in addition to knowing her way around Top 40 charts, stages, and haute couture, Lady Gaga can tone it all down and produce something beautiful from raw talent alone. No recording, no post-production, and no one in the room except Lady Gaga and her keyboard. Having his much talent in its various forms is rare, especially among pop stars.

Upon re-examining Lady Gaga's music, this time with a more accepting ear, I found very little to complain about and often just the opposite. The same friend who introduced me to Kesha once upon a time once told me he'd like to dissect Bad Romance into all of its pieces because the song itself is so complex and layered. I tend to agree with him, but we both know complexity doesn't make it good. What makes the song---and others---good is that the layers, however many there are, fit together nicely and produce something more than a few instrumental tracks and a voice track glued together. Lady Gaga does not write Mad Lib music and then fill in the melody or the lyrics later; she sings music that sounds like it was planned to be a coherent, audibly-delivered feeling or idea that was then refined into an end product with meaning and intent. If you might allow me a metaphor, Lady Gaga designs her furniture herself---perhaps with some bits the scavenged from the junkyard---while Kesha just inserts tab A into slot C.

Before I leave you with the Lady Gaga videos that began to change my opinion of her, I'd like to make a prediction. In twenty or thirty years, TV shows will be snickering at the Ke$ha songs that were popular "back then" just like we laugh now at 80s hairdos, and at the same time they'll be talking about Lady Gaga's "early work" with some gravity. Tik Tok will become the butt of jokes as Bad Romance becomes a quintessential song of a pop generation. In my mind there really is no comparison between them---and no question which will stand the test of time---and it irks me a little that I felt I had to write this article, but I did.

Partially because of the following videos, I now think that Lady Gaga will eventually be bigger than Madonna. Even if you don't agree with me, if nothing else, I hope these performances provide examples of the passion, talent development, and dedication to which future [and current, Ke$ha,] pop stars can aspire. Here they are:







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EDIT: Financial Disclaimer: I have no shares of stock or other financial interest in Ke$ha or Lady Gaga, though I was Justin Bieber for Halloween.

EDIT 2: As I first posted this article, I had no idea that today is Lady Gaga's birthday. My gift to you, Mother Monster. Happy 25th!

2011-03-21

A conservative libertarian silver lining

Rand Paul has been a popular character in recent political discourse, if not for his outspokenness then for his views, which are most often described as "conservative" and "libertarian". He recently appeared on The Daily Show to discuss his views with Jon Stewart. If the national news reports weren't enough, I grew up and lived most of my life only a short drive from the state in which Paul now holds a senatorial seat, and so even more news about him has floated across the Ohio river and indirectly into my eyes and ears. I rarely liked what I saw and heard, until now.

Before any liberals write me off as being as "crazy" as they call Rand Paul himself, let me justify my partial change in opinion. On March 8th, 2011, I wrote on twitter.com, "Rand Paul @thedailyshow is who I thought all Republicans were 10 years ago, when I generally favored them. I was wrong on two accounts." In 140 characters or less, I was forced to be somewhat cryptic, and I'm sure this could easily be misconstrued. Here's what I meant:

I was wrong, first of all, to favor the Republicans ten years ago. I was young and stupid, and I based my political decisions on economic policy because that was the only political topic with which I felt comfortable. Even then, I favored the economic goals as spoken by the Republicans over those of the Democrats with no regard to whether and how they could achieve those goals. Not that I'm a Democrat or even a liberal now---I don't like labels, as I don't usually fit neatly into them---but I now see that the Republicans' case for lower government spending and unregulated markets was extremely weak, particularly in the face of escalating expenditures of government money and time for national defense and socially conservative values such as "pro-life" and anti-gay-marriage legislation. The dangers of poorly-regulated markets---not to say over- or under-regulated---should have already been obvious, and would soon provide the best reason in 80 years for the government to prevent lying, cheating, and stealing by those in privileged financial, economic, and political positions. Even more, they refuse to prohibit dishonest practices as they pocket some of the dirty money themselves---though admittedly Republicans aren't the only ones. It's one thing to take an unfair advantage lawfully, and another thing to use political power to create more opportunities to do so. Regardless of the efficiency of free markets, it lies squarely within the duties of governments to try to prevent lying, cheating, and stealing, and any politician who participates in or even allows it on a broad and obvious scale is not doing his or her job.

My second mistake was to, in these past few months, count Rand Paul amongst the other conservatives, Republicans, or even Tea Party members. Many liberals have called him "crazy", in talking with Jon Stewart, Rand Paul provided a clear, rational, and logical stance on the nation's politics. Sure, Paul wants to cut taxes and spending in any way possible, and de-regulate just about everything, but he's open and honest about that. Other conservatives want to cut spending, but not the military, or they want to de-regulate the markets but regulate who can get married and who can have an abortion. I don't see much dishonesty in Rand Paul; I think he's an intelligent and honest politician, if I may be permitted this seeming oxymoron, who has definitely tap-danced his way around a few topics and minced his words, but who generally says what he means and does what he promises. He's a million times more respectable and easier to watch than that train wreck, Sarah Palin. It's too bad that Rand Paul is an asshole with absolutely no sympathy for underprivileged people, because the country sorely needs more politicians who govern for their voters instead of themselves.

It's funny for me to think that I have so much respect now for someone who holds almost diametrically opposite views in so many cases. Financial regulation, food regulation, energy regulation, taxes, and [child] labor laws are just a few. Even though it's hard for me to imagine the circumstance that would induce me to vote for the guy, Rand Paul does make me think hard about choosing between an honest enemy and a dishonest ally.

2011-03-15

Nuclear power: Safer than you are, dude.

The recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan on March 11th has most of the world staring at a few nuclear reactors in or near the Sendai area, hoping they don't cause even greater problems than the natural disaster itself. Some people are so afraid of the power plants and in fact nuclear power in general that they are proposing to ban them altogether. This is a very uninformed response, to say the least, with which its promoters ignore the data and jump to an undeserved conclusion.

Perhaps I'm over-reacting, and the anti-nuclear-power movement is confined mainly to my place of residence, Austria, which is only a stone's throw---over the invisible but still perceptible Iron Curtain---from the Czech Republic's Temelin Nuclear Power Station. Austria gave the Czech Republic problems in joining the EU because of disagreements over the station.

These Austrian protesters are wrong for three reasons. First (and least important) of all, The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is based in Vienna. These guys probably wouldn't allow an unsafe nuclear power plant to operate so close to where they spend most of their time. Second, the modern Czech Republic is not a primitive, fascist country who would slap together a nuclear reactor like the U.S.S.R. did in Chernobyl, Ukraine. That was careless, and not something a First World country would do. Lastly, and by far most importantly, even including the Chernobyl disaster, the safety record of nuclear power is far better than that of all of the other major power sources, including coal, oil, natural gas, hydro-electric, and wind.

According to a report by the World Nuclear Association, outside of Chernobyl, not a single person has ever been killed by radiation from a nuclear power plant. And Chernobyl was an exception in more ways than one. From the report:

An OECD expert report on it concluded that "the Chernobyl accident has not brought to light any new, previously unknown phenomena or safety issues that are not resolved or otherwise covered by current reactor safety programs for commercial power reactors in OECD Member countries. In other words, the concept of 'defence in depth' was conspicuous by its absence, and tragically shown to be vitally important."

That is to say, even at the time, no one except a fascist, careless government would have built such an unsafe reactor. No nuclear power plant built anywhere else in the world has ever killed anyone with radiation. If it's the radiation you're worried about, what more evidence do you need?

But, yes, people have been killed at nuclear power plants, if not by radiation. The bottom of the WNA report includes a table comparing deaths per terawatt-year (TWy) of energy produced from various fuels between the years of 1970 and 1992. Of coal, natural gas, hydro-electricity, and nuclear, hydro-electric plants are the most dangerous at 883 deaths/TWy. Coal is second worst with 342, and natural gas third with 85. Nuclear power is the safest, with only 8 deaths/TWy. The safety of nuclear power plants is an order of magnitude better than each of the other three, and nuclear technology is improving such that new reactors are orders of magnitudes safer than those built 20 or even 10 years ago.

If that's not enough, try this fact: under normal operation, a coal power plant releases 100 times as much radiation as a nuclear plant of the same wattage. [source]

Or, the world's worst industrial catastrophe was at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India in 1984. It was far, far worse than Chernobyl.

I could go on and on pulling statistics from various sources that demonstrate that nuclear power is safer than other conventional fuels, not to mention that it's better for the environment and will be able to produce power long after the world has depleted its supplies of coal and oil. But, I'll stop here. I'd rather issue a challenge to all of those opposed to nuclear power plants: show me any data whatsoever indicating that a kilowatt-hour of nuclear power is less safe than the average kilowatt-hour from your favorite provider.

Let me start the opponents off: nuclear waste is of course much more dangerous than the same weight of waste from other fuels. However, the amount of such waste is far less. The average nuclear power plant produces 240-360 tons of radioactive waste per year [source], plus some other less toxic waste. New reactors such as the integral fast reactor would produce much less. Coal power plants, for example, produce about 240,000 tons of toxic waste per year [source]. Considering that most nuclear waste around the world can be reprocessed into safe or useful products and that radioactive waste is an extremely small portion of total waste, we would once again have to go to the data to see which is worse. I don't have more comprehensive data at the moment, but I'm happy to be pointed in the right direction.

It seems intuitively obvious to me that for us here on Earth, there is only one source of energy that can last from today until our planet becomes an icy space rock: the sun. Before power plants existed, it provided all the energy that was needed for life to live and then some. But, obviously we don't yet have the technology/money necessary to make the full transition to solar power, which could happen within a few decades if we make it a goal, or maybe in a century or two if we continue to generally ignore it. Until then, though, we have to make a careful decision about which fuel to use to power our homes and offices. Let's not jump to conclusions simply because a power-generating technology is closely related to a weapons technology, and it scares us. That's bad science and bad politics. Let the data speak.


More information:

2011-03-14

Choosing ignorance over information: the data are out there

Just now I realized the second major problem that arose as a a consequence of the Information Revolution, as it has been called by some, including me. The first problem is, of course, that there is so much information available freely on the Internet and other computer resources, that in many cases it is hard to determine what and which sources are reliable. I won't go as far to say that there is proportionally more unreliable information published today than 50 years ago---though this might be true---but there is certainly more published unreliable information, in absolute terms. If for no other reason, there is immensely more total information available, and in addition to that, the percentage of amateur (i.e. unpaid, untrained, unaccountable to a public organization) publishers whose work is widely available has increased dramatically. Thus, the problem of distinguishing the experts from the ignorant and from the snake oil salesmen requires some effort, but can usually be done.

The second problem, which is potentially much more dangerous, is that the sheer breadth of information sources a person has available gives the impression of being well informed, even if the vast majority of these sources are never consulted. One can often find and cite, say, ten sources that seem to confirm a statement, even if that statement is patently false. For example, many otherwise reputable-seeming people promoted the idea that Barack Obama is not legally an American citizen. A list of some of them can be found on this Wikipedia page. As a consequence, 51% of Republican primary voters believe Obama was born outside of the U.S.A. [article and link to poll]. Of course, the claim is false, as can be substantiated elsewhere on that same Wikipedia page.

Decades ago, citing ten such sources would have carried more weight, particularly if the sources had been published in a [semi-]permanent form such as a newspaper, magazine, or book. Today, Internet articles are permanent to the same extent as newspapers, and possibly even more so, and are much more ubiquitous. Instead of a few major newspapers per city, there are hundreds of web sites, all acting as journalistically honest as they can in order to convince their [prospective] readers. Surely it is easy to find ten of them that agree on promoting some falsehood, knowingly or not, whereas consulting ten newspapers in the 1950s would have almost without fail yielded at least two opposing arguments on a given controversial topic.

Furthermore, considering the way that publications with similar views and agendas promote and cite each other, web publishing enables and possibly even encourages readers never to leave their metaphorical street corner, though a large and diverse metropolis can be found only a few blocks away in any direction. Some people choose to stay and to learn new information from sources who only confirm what's already been said, what a person already believes to be true.

It's been obvious to me for a long time that people do not like to be wrong. They often prefer to perpetuate false beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence against it. They even attempt to convince others that they are right, as if two people with no evidence can somehow provide a better argument than one. Unfortunately, the Internet enables this. People get easily stuck in their nook or cranny of misinformation and find it hard to escape, even if they realize they should escape.

Don't get me wrong; the Internet and its accessories are great, but they give us a feeling of security in our opinions if our niche agrees with us. We have to venture off of the street corner and often directly into the hands of the opposition. It's only face-to-face that we can distinguish valid arguments from baseless propagandist horn-blowing. Remember, too, that others who refuse to leave their corners often know nothing except their own block.