The Music Club

Pop Stars Are Not M.I.A.
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 19 2008 11:23 AM

The Music Club

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Friends,

So much to chew on in your posts. But first I must defend my honor, since Bob has  accused me of being humorless and—worse—not liking T-Pain. I gave Thr33 Ringz an enthusiastic review in one of those magazines that ignored Drive-By Truckers; had I expanded my albums list to 25, it would have made the cut. "Can't Believe It" is one of the year's great singles (No. 7 on my list), in part because of its swank sound (Pain is a fine producer), but mostly because he rhymes mansion with Wiscansin. My point was simply that T-Pain doesn't use auto-tune just as a novelty fillip (not that there's anything wrong with novelty fillips). He also uses it thematically: His is the voice of a man so stupefied by longing—for pole dancers, it goes without saying—that he has become something less than human. T-Pain was doing this Love Machine 2.0 routine years before self-proclaimed "pop artist" Kanye West, and a lot less pretentiously.

Plus, he rhymes mansion with Wiscansin.

Since we're on the subject of funny music, I want to give props to the best comical-topical song I heard in 2008, Blake Shelton's "Green," in which a redneck one-ups blue-state locavores. Then there's my pick for underrated album of the year, Benji Hughes' double-CD debut A Love Extreme. Hughes is a big guy with an Allman Brothers beard, a way with words, and an ear for melody and the absurd. He's been compared to Beck—he lives in L.A., sings in a drowsy slacker's drawl, and likes lo-fi keyboard sounds. But Hughes isn't a jive-Dadaist like Beck; in addition to hooks and eccentric arrangements, his songs have discernable dramatic situations and emotions. He's at his best when his knack for the droll and the hopelessly romantic overlap, as in "All You've Got To Do Is Fall in Love," a song so tuneful and witty that you half suspect Hughes found it hidden under a trash can in Tin Pan Alley or on a lost Stephin Merritt record:

Wouldn't it be sweet
If you could be in love with me
The way that I'm in love with you?
It's so easy to do
All you've got to do is fall in love with me

Of course, Hughes is a niche artist. As is M.I.A., despite her new top-of-the-pops success. As is the indomitable TV on the Radio. But I can't join Ann in lamenting the passing of the pop gods, or the monoculture, because I think the pop gods are doing just fine, and I'm not convinced the monoculture ever existed, except maybe for 10 minutes in 1964.

It's true that Michael Jackson and Garth Brooks sold many more records than today's stars. But does anyone believe that there are fewer pop fans—that fewer people are listening to the music of Lil Wayne and Taylor Swift and Coldplay (and Beyoncé and the Jonas Brothers and Nickelback and Kenny Chesney and …)? Have you had a gander at the song-play stats on their MySpace pages? I just did. Total number of songs streamed on MySpace for the seven artists listed above: 767,612,724. If I'm not mistaken, that's three-quarters of a billion—not quite Henry Paulson bailout numbers, but not too shabby. Throw in the zillion other Internet outlets for streaming audio; and MP3 downloads, legal and not-so; and YouTube; and Gossip Girl; and radio; and the seven extant record stores; and the songs that are piped into restaurants and cafes, like the one where I am currently sitting in Brooklyn (shocker: They're playing Bon Iver)—I'd wager that more people are listening to popular music now than ever before. Record companies are doomed, for sure. But let's not confuse the twilight of Tommy Mottola with the twilight of Mariah Carey.

Today's stars have to be nimbler than in the past, relying not just on records and live performances and videos, but ring tones and sketch-comedy cameos and carefully managed "Stars—They're Just like Us!" appearances and, yes, Guitar Hero and Rock Band. (Video games aren't competition for musicians—they're new promotional venues and revenue streams.) These multiple platforms make the average pop idol's fame bigger than in the past—stardom is writ larger, and spread wider.

As for monoculture: The freaky new modes of music production and consumption merely highlight the balkanization and regionalism that have always existed in the pop audience. And yet: Even though today's teenagers are armed to the teeth with iMachines and space-phones, most of them are having the same old-fashioned Top 40-centric young adulthood we did back in the 20th century. Go ask a bar mitzvah DJ if he isn't sick of playing T-Pain records.

Meanwhile, have you seen this week's Billboard Hot 100? Four performers—Beyoncé, Britney, T.I., and Kanye—have two songs each in the Top 10. Monoculture, anyone? The No. 1 song in the country, Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" is a genuine phenomenon. Hate to get all Web-utopian on you again, but enter "Single Ladies" into the YouTube search field and check out the thousands of dance routines, mashups, and bedroom cover versions that pop up. (My favorite, by far, is this one. Get 'em started young!) And these videos offer just a hint of the arms-around-shoulders (and arms-around-other-places) delirium that is touched off every night of the week in dance clubs around the world, when the DJ fires up that preposterously peppy "Single Ladies" beat.

Speaking of dancing: Like Bob, I was touched when M.I.A. invited the women to storm the stage at her show. Powerful tableau. But also, a shtick. She did it at the McCarren Pool show that Bob saw; she did it at the Terminal 5 show that I saw in October of the previous year; she does it at every show. In fact, this is becoming an indie-concert staple. At Girl Talk's New York City show last month, dancing girls swarmed onstage during the first song and stayed there the whole concert, right up through the final strains of Journey's "Faithfully" (video here). I guess this trend makes sense. As Ann put it: the transference of cultural power from the few to the many. And all that. My favorite variation is Arcade Fire's: They end their concerts by descending from the stage into the audience, to play a final encore in the middle of the scrum. Smash that fourth wall.

Anyway, I've gone on too long. I'll get into my country faves and the music of the Great Recession in the next round.

Over and out,
J.

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