Toppermost Of The Poppermost
One thing that always nags at me is a sense that I should have *some* idea of what is going on in the pop-cultural world. This is one of the reasons I watch new Doctor Who, despite everything — a way of keeping in touch with the culture.
Because even before the internet, I’ve always created my own separate cultural world, rather different from that of my peers — I was the only kid at my primary school in the late 1980s to own an eight-album Glenn Miller box set, for example. And over the years, I’ve cut myself off more and more from the mainstream. Not, I hasten to add, in a hipper-than-thou way — I have no feelings of superiority about it. It’s just that I live in a major city with access to a lot of stuff, and I have the internet, and so I just gravitate towards stuff that interests me.
But it means that in a cultural sense, I have literally no idea what’s going on. I listened to some popularish bands in the mid-90s, and even bought the NME until about 1997, but the last time I actively *chose* to be exposed to any currently popular music was in 2001, I haven’t ever owned a TV in my adult life and haven’t shared a house with someone who did since 2004, and I haven’t been in a job where I get exposed to any popular music or the TV in five years. I’ve also not read a full newspaper — as opposed to just the sections that interest me, online — in several years. Some of the music I’ve bought since then may have also been popular, and I’ve heard bits of Radio 2 and Radio 6 because my wife likes Radcliffe and Maconie, but I’ve been completely disconnected from popular culture to the point where I have no idea what’s going on in the worlds of TV or music at all.
That’s not to say I don’t listen to new stuff — it’s just that the most exciting new albums of the year so far for me have been the ones by Nelson Bragg and Stew, neither of which I think have had much rotation on MTV (is MTV still a thing?)
This was brought home to me a bit when watching this year’s Grammys, in order to see the Beach Boys’ reunion performance. Other than Coldplay, who I’d rather not think about, I’d not heard of any of the other people during the section I saw. Not just not heard — not heard *of*. And that’s probably not a good thing — a shared culture is something that aids communication, and I don’t actively want to be cut of from any mutual comprehension with the rest of humanity.
So I thought I’d put that at least slightly right by listening to the current top 10, and liveblogging my results here. Either I’ll find something new and exciting I like (and you can all laugh at me for thinking that this decade’s equivalent of Jive Bunny is new and exciting) or I’ll be completely bemused and wonder why all the young persons like this skiffle music.
I emphasise here that I have *NO* context for any of this. I’ve just looked at the names of the artists in the top ten, and of them I remember Rhianna as a name of one of the people on the Grammys this year, I’m told that Adele is someone my father-in-law likes, and I’ve seen references online to Gangnam Style but thought it was a meme of some description. I’ve not even vaguely heard of any of the rest. If I sound clueless, it’s because I’m genuinely clueless, not because I’m being condescending — I suspect that rather a lot of these songs will be things I literally can’t comprehend, in much the same way that someone in 1967 who hadn’t listened to the charts since Here In My Heart by Al Martino was number one wouldn’t have been able to cope with Strawberry Fields…
I’ll listen to all of these through Spotify or, if I have to, YouTube.
Anyway, at number ten is HALL OF FAME by SCRIPT FT WILL I AM. This sounds unpleasant. It actually sounds like a combination of several different, separately unpleasant, styles of music. The looped piano part sounds like something that bad indie bands used to do to sound meaningful, when I used to listen to bad indie bands. The sampled drum sound — this horrible gated snare — was probably horrible on the original record it was on. And I have no real way to judge the rapping, knowing almost nothing of hip-hop (the only rapper I can say I’ve actually enjoyed is Baba Brinkman, and that probably discounts me from ever having an opinion), but I am told that it’s a genre that has some great writers with profound things to say, so I’m assuming these dull platitudes are not an example of rapping at its best.
And to top it off the vocals are heavily autotuned, an effect which sets off various sensory problems for me (it wrecked the otherwise lovely Beach Boys track From Here To Back Again for me this year, for example). This just sounds unpleasant and I can’t imagine ever wanting to hear it again.
At number nine is I CRY by FLORIDA. The backing music sounds vaguely like the sort of stuff my sister used to listen to in 1994 — Whigfield and all that kind of thing — except that the vocals, again, are horribly processed. There is a rapper on this, too, but I can’t actually hear what he’s saying because there is a hugely distorted rhythmic bass noise that drowns out every second syllable. He seems to be better at rapping than the last bloke though.
There’s also nowhere near enough musical material here for its 3:44 running time. Horribly repetitive. Even if I liked this sort of thing, I wouldn’t need to hear the chorus *nearly* that many times.
At number eight is TURN AROUND by CONOR MAYNARD FT NE-YO. This has the same synth-electric-piano sound everything used to have in 1990, and the same overbearing four-on-the-floor bass drum that all bad pop-dance music used to have. The lead singer sounds like he’s doing a Michael Jackson impression, but again is slathered in autotune. What’s going on with the autotune on all of these? When you couple together the way that the vocal tracks are spliced together phrase-by-phrase it’s like listening to a Speak And Spell machine. Is this what people like now?
And again, you could cut at least three choruses off this without losing anything.
At number 7 is TROUBLE by LEONA LEWIS / CHILDISH GAMBINO, which is at least promising as Childish Gambino is a great name. Not quite up there with Pornsak Pongthong or Wade Von Grawbadger, but definitely a good name.
This is more Intense Indie-Band Piano, but the singer sounds more like Mariah Carey or someone, very melismatic. And then it turns into something vaguely disco-y instead. And more autotune on the chorus. I dislike that melismatic vocal style, but this Lewis woman clearly has a decent voice, and it seems a terrible idea to slather the autotune all over it. And then there’s the horrible Phil Collins gated-reverb snare drum sound. This is the second song so far with that sound, which I hoped had died with the eighties.
At least this one doesn’t repeat the chorus over and over and over again — structurally it’s perfectly sound.
At number six is LIVE WHILE WE’RE YOUNG by ONE DIRECTION This is completely unexceptionable pop music of a kind that could have been a hit at any time in the last forty years. Sonically it’s clearly ‘now’ — those autotuned backing vocals, for example — but with the appropriate production changes the song could have been recorded by the Archies or the Knack or the Bay City Rollers. The guitar riff actually reminds me of Should I Stay Or Should I Go by The Clash.
This does absolutely nothing for me, but I at least see what it is that people are liking about it. This track’s mostly selling to teenage girls, right?
At five is ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN by ELLIE GOULDING. Now this makes sense to me. There’s a sort of Kate Bush/Bjork/Joanna Newsom thing going on with her voice, and musically it sounds almost late-70s McCartney in the verses, albeit on a bad day.
Don’t like the backing track — too clean for me, too synthy — but this is a *very* impressive vocal performance on a technical level, going from the Bjorky stuff to a quite raspy pseudo-soul thing. I imagine this Goulding person is one of those self-consciously quirky singer-songwriter types who probably thinks she’s an elf or something, and I doubt I would ever want to listen to an entire album by her, but this is the first track where if you told me that person had done some stuff I’d like that I’d believe you.
At four is DIAMONDS by RIHANNA. I have heard at least one song by Rhianna before, as I remember the name from the Grammy awards. I don’t remember being impressed.
And immediately we get the same piano sound we’ve had all over half the tracks so far, a drum that sounds like a piece of machinery, an autotuned backing vocal part, a lead vocal pieced together phrase-by-phrase with no emotion behind the vocal and lyrics that are mostly about self-aggrandisement, and endless repetition of the chorus at the end. I’ve only heard seven songs in the chart at the moment and I could already make one of these records, I think. Am I actually missing something, or is this all really bad? I’m genuinely curious here — I know I don’t have any context at all for this stuff, but at the same time I can’t imagine what context would make this sound good…
At three is GANGNAM STYLE by PSY, which I’d thought was an internet meme rather than a song, but apparently not.
Or maybe it is. The backing track is Eurodance, and there’s someone rapping in some East Asian language, while the backing vocals sing “Hey sexy lady”. This is the kind of thing Clive James used to make fun of on his show. Is this some sort of cruel joke against whatever country this comes from, because this isn’t remotely good or even interesting as a piece of music?
At two is SKYFALL by ADELE. Given that the new Bond film is called Skyfall, and that Adele is apparently someone acceptable to sixty-year-old Midwestern men, I’m guessing this is the new Bond theme, and will be exactly like every other Bond theme.
It’s also not on Spotify, so I’ll have to watch the video…
Yep, it’s a Bond theme. Slightly worse lyrics than normal (the scansion’s all to cock in the first verse, streSSES allo-VER THE place, and there’s no way to make “sky fall” rhyme with “crumble” no matter how hard you try), and the vocalist has a *REALLY WEIRD* accent — her vowel sounds are all over the place — but otherwise pretty much exactly how you’d expect a Bond theme to sound.
And at number one is DON’T YOU WORRY CHILD by SWEDISH HOUSE MAFIA / MARTIN. I must say, before listening, that the name “Swedish House Mafia” doesn’t fill me with confidence, and Martin isn’t the kind of name that leads you to expect poptastic thrills. But I’ll listen anyway…
And it’s yet more of the staccatto piano chords, autotuned vocal and thudding four-on-the-floor kick drum. And the same rather disturbing lyrics about how special (in a completely nondescript way) the singer is.
I swear, I came into this completely open-minded, and expected to be able to laugh at myself not understanding the young persons’ pop music, and I wrote all this in one draft, live, as I was listening. And at the end, I’m horribly depressed.
Because either I really am *exactly* the kind of philistinic old man who used to say “you can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl, and it all sounds the bloody same and you can’t hear the words”, or it really *does* all sound the bloody same. And I don’t know which of those two conclusions would be more depressing.
There’s so little variety there — synth piano (and synth-string pad), four-on-the-floor kick drum, melisma and autotune used to hold together a vocal performance pasted together phrase-by-phrase, get someone to rap a bit over the middle eight… at least four of the songs, if I’m remembering right, were even based on the dang-dang-dang, dang-dang piano chords that were a cliche of what I think was called handbag music twenty years or so ago.
Please tell me it’s just me. Please tell me there’s actually something of value in here, some way in which this music is enriching people’s lives that I’m just not understanding. Because I’d much rather be wrong than have pop culture really be that loathsome.