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!

3 comments:

RM said...

I just got around to reading this, and I have to, obviously, disagree with just about everything you said!! Ha!

From the first time I heard Lady Gaga's "Just Dance", I was hooked. Great record, great song, great album. That entire first album is incredibly diverse, but I wouldn't go so far as to say the lyrics are mindbogglingly different or unique. As I don't know whether you've listened to the full album, I'll just say that the other songs are representative of her former life, coming up through the NY club scene. But, they still boil down to songs about "runway models, cadillacs and liquor bottles".

Her follow up album preached quality over quantity, and the 8 tracks are amazingly different. But the parallels were drawn even then to Madonna (duh) and Ace of Base. Some of her songs were straight rip-offs, and now when I hear "Born This Way" I think Madonna should sue her.

Furthermore, it's these stupid as shit empowerment songs and it's cool to be gay or whatever Glee can copy and then turn into a storyline that are completely UNoriginal, and have really begun to tarnish her TBD legacy. Her other new song, Judas, is a rip-off of her OWN song. She has become too big for her own good, and at this point is no different than anyone else.

MEANWHILE

Ke$ha makes no apologies for her dumb songs. The lyrics are stupid, but as evidenced by Rebecca Black's "Friday" - isn't that the definition of a popular song? Something that's catchy, virtually accepted by all? We're not giving out Pulitzer's or Grammy's for best written song, and while you can have your own opinion as to whether you like Ke$ha or not, you can't dismiss her popularity.

In fact, being more exposed to it than you are in America right now, I would say that, at least by radio plays, Ke$ha is rocking Lady Gaga right now. Each has two albums out, and each has the same number of songs that have been played on the radio. But instead of trying really hard to make herself this figure of acceptance and equality and icon, Ke$ha just...is. She makes fun, playful songs, and while the jury is out on whether she can sing or not, that didn't stop Britney Spears. And, consider the fact that Britney Spears' new hit, "Till the World Ends" was written by Ke$ha. She's not untalented, she just doesn't meet your fancy.

For the record, I love both LG and Ke$ha. I went to a Gaga concert and it was insane. She is an amazingly talented singer, performer, yada yada. I don't believe that Ke$ha can do what she does. But I also don't believe she has to in order to be considered popular, talented or successful.

I may not know much about anything, but I do know one thing better than most: what's popular. I'm sure if you listened to "Blow" about fifty-eleven times, you'd start to get it. Just get the albums, blast them all day long. Come back to America, and go out - and see if you're out at Claddagh's or Stalking Horse and don't get psyched when you hear them!

fbg said...

I was wondering if you ever read this.

I understand what you're saying, but popularity isn't the issue here. I'm not denying that Ke$ha is popular, or "catchy" or whatever, but I am saying that she's not creative at all and her songs (including the ones she "wrote" for other people) sound like they were written by a computer, based on calculations of what phrases rhyme and are catchy. If I might borrow a Jon Stewart quote from an interview with Brett Baier: "I wasn't aware that ratings equals quality." And then to borrow a quote from an article about that interview: "After all, McDonald’s is the #1 restaurant in America. I don’t think that anyone interprets that to mean that they have the best food. What they have is the cheapest crap that is loaded with filler and seasoning to appeal to the largest number of consumers with the least sophisticated taste."

The only thing that Ke$ha does that's new and different is her voice quality. The manner in which she sings/raps is unique and people seem to like it right now.

I love how you used Rebecca Black to try to legitimize Ke$ha. I actually did the opposite in a tweet from those three days when Friday was popular: " Why is everyone asking whether the Rebecca Black song is a joke when relatively few asked if Ke$ha is a joke?" We can both agree that there is a fundamental similarity in how and why they both are popular, even if people are calling one "good" and one "bad". Popular is popular, and, yes, they do hand out awards for that. They also, in fact, hand out awards for "good" songs, both for writing and recording. Gaga should get them and Ke$ha shouldn't. I know it's hard to see a big difference between them now, but it's there and I know we'll see its obviousness grow in the next few years.

You think "Born This Way" is a complete Madonna rip-off? I know the song is very much in the 80s style, but there's no way Madonna could have pulled it off, not to say that the song is even particularly good. It's more similar to something from Whitney Houston or some other big-voice pop singer.

Oh, I just listened to Blow for the first time and I think that's Ke$ha's best song that I've heard, though that isn't saying much.

fbg said...

Oh yeah. I also wanted to say that I don't give a crap if lyrics "mean" something. Sure, sometimes a meaningful phrase here or there can help a song out (like the words "born this way" are really the only words in the song that matter) but more often than not they make songs sound stupid because of forced rhyming, strained rhythm, or overused catch phrases