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.

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18 Responses to Toppermost Of The Poppermost

  1. Hal says:

    I would tend to think that it’s *not* just you and that a lot of it *is* loathsome (or, to be crude, crap), so I wouldn’t worry about it. One thing though, what precisely is wrong with thinking you’re an elf?!

  2. I wouldn’t worry. “Mainstream” music seems to have a different function for today’s twenty year olds to that which it arguably had when we were of that age, or I was, or whatever. I’m not precisely sure what that is, but the fact that it seems equal to games and ringtones probably indicates something, so it sounds crap by the criteria we might apply because er… it’s McDonalds rather than smoked salmon, or something. There’s just as much good stuff out there but no media bottle neck by which we will ever again find The Fall in the top ten (if we ever did) alongside Autechre, Johnny Cash, Val Doonican, and Barry Blue which is why, so far as I can tell, the Bay City Rollers sound like the Sex Pistols compared to the gurning shite listed above.

    Not sure if it makes a difference (and I actually have no idea of your age) but I’m 47 and no longer care about what’s out there – there’s more than enough of the stuff I already regard as great to keep me going, and I don’t feel my horizons would be expanded by listening to “fun” (check them out… they’re impressively awful). Nor am I hugely bothered as to whether this makes me appear insular or not. Life is too short to pretend that Russell Brand serves any purpose.

    I sell propane and propane accessories.

  3. Hal says:

    “They’re impressively awful”, a winning phrase indeed. Also there’s the ridiculous punctuation of fun., how incredibly annoying.

  4. Tilt Araiza says:

    I’ll have to listen to the top ten myself, actually. If I were you, I’d try repeating this experiment (minus the liveblogging) for a few more weeks. See what patterns emerge, see if your feelings change to some things, just because shared culture’s something we all kind of stew in. If you’re genuinely worried about becoming disengaged from the mainstream, I think letting it wash around you for a bit might make you feel better; even if you end up rejecting it you can say you lived with it for bit rather than “tried it once, hated it”. It’s the reason I keep watching British TV documentaries, despite them regularly making me feel genocidal.

    Adele’s from Tottenham, so her vowels are mangled by an adopted mid-Atlantic soul voice with estuary pushing through. Interesting you should flag up the weird rhymes, because her song Cold Shoulder (which I actually quite like in a proper sort of way) features her vowel-bending causing words that should rhyme to not rhyme. “Shoulder” and “her” become “shoulder” and “hohwoooo”.

  5. Tilt Araiza says:

    Ooh, another interesting experiment. If you want to hear yesteryear’s shocking music with new ears, try listening to Harper’s Bizarre for two hours straight (maybe four hours in your case as you’re likely to do that from habit already). I did it once unintentionally and all moderately upbeat pop music became the loudest heavy metal in world for a while afterwards.

  6. You know I have to sympathize with you here. In many ways your story is similar to mine-I too sort of self-isolated from the larger culture simply by gravitating to the things I was interested in. Paradoxically though one of those is pop culture itself, or at least a kind of broad-stroke Western culture. I tend to approach it like an anthropologist (fitting I suppose as I trained as one) and most of my work is coloured by my own desire to make sense of the observations I make of a culture I’m ostensibly a part of yet feel wholly disconnected from at the same time.

    Got a bit of a chuckle at your Gonzo Top of the Pops and, unfortunately, I think you’re pretty much right. It’s not just you (even speaking as I am as a fellow grumpy old person), a great deal of the contemporary pop environment is pretty depressing. There’s still plenty good music being made; you just tend to have to venture far, far outside the mainstream to find it (a current obsession of mine is a rather delightful new trend that overtly fuses motorik beats and Post-Punk sensibilities with surf music, and you have to *dig* to find that).

    That’s not to say there’s absolutely no good pop today either: I’d point you to someone like Kesha Serbet, A.K.A. Ke$ha, a very skilled and talented artist whose mainstream career has to date consisted almost entirely of her making it explicitly clear she’s using the trappings of contemporary pop to turn herself into an elaborate self-parody while simultaneously making more sophisticated and enjoyable songs than the people she’s satirizing owing to her expert musicianship. She’s a parody that not only critiques the original, but surpasses it. Ke$ha’s one of a rather new breed of expressly ironic and self-aware pop artists, and probably the best to boot (or at least the one with the most impressive credentials and musical chops-Look her up sometime, her resume is surprising).

    That said, I don’t really have anything positive to say about the songs you picked for this particular post, unfortunately: I think you pretty much said all there is to say about those.

  7. The popularity of “Gagnam Style” really does seem to be powered more by the video (which is pretty entertaining satire of how well-moneyed South Koreans are supposed to behave) and its silly but easily imitated dance move than by the music itself. Which may be somewhat true of some of the other top 10 songs as well – you can go a long way in pop music on the basis of visual imagery these days.

    The repetitiveness is, I think, a function of so many people listening to music while distracted – songs really have to hammer home their hooks over and over if they’re going to penetrate.

    I don’t listen to much of what’s in the top 10 myself, but I have noticed the increasing prevalence of autotune, even on singers who actually appear to be able to sing acceptably without technological assistance. Maybe it is becoming a stylistic feature that some people genuinely enjoy?

  8. Karl Musser says:

    Agree with the Wendy that the popularity of Gangnam Style is all about the silly dance and not the music.

    I do a similar exercise every once in awhile and I don’t think you’re messing much, though I do like Adele – she’s not at her best with Skyfall, try some of the stuff off of 21 if you haven’t already.

  9. Iain Coleman says:

    You may be interested in this Nature paper, based on the Million Song Dataset, that concludes that the evolution of Western popular music since the 1960s has been in the direction of decreasing variety and increasing loudness:

  10. TAD says:

    Andy, you really should continue writing about Top 40 music (or whatever it’s called in the UK)! It was quite a funny post.

    Perhaps now you can get some insight into why the Beach Boys used some autotune on their new album. Literally *everything* on the pop charts has it. The autotune on “There and Back Again” didn’t ruin the song for me, but I definitely agree that Al Jardine’s voice doesn’t need auto-tune. My god, especially Al Jardine…he’s such a good singer.

  11. Rachel Kate says: & Flo Rida are a shitty intro to hip-hop. If you want to move away from the top ten stuff, try some Mos Def & Talib Kweli over a Dilla beat instead:

    • Holly says:

      I have tried repeatedly to get him to listen to hip-hop (I like Atmosphere and Akira the Don; I really think if Akira doesn’t work on him nothing will) so he has had previous exposure to hip-hop.

  12. prankster36 says:

    About the only thing I can contribute to this discussion is that Childish Gambino is the nom de rap of the extremely funny comedian and actor Donald Glover, who stars on the somewhat overrated but still sometimes brilliant sitcom Community. Which is where all that “Inspector Spacetime” jazz comes from, but don’t judge it too harshly based on that, that’s more the internet’s fault.

  13. Mr. S. Bray says:

    You might do yourself more of a favour by, say, listening to tracks from Piccadilly Records’ selections for the week online than bothering with the Top 10. I’m probably slightly more attuned to popular culture than yourself, but I’ve not heard anything Big in the charts to have interested me in a fair old while. Still, the new Stones single is quite good fun, and I’ve heard good things about the new Pet Shop Boys single, too!

  14. Mike Taylor says:

    OK, but the Stones formed in 1962 and the Pet Shop Boys in 1981 — 50 and 31 years ago. If we’re talking about trying to connect with modern culture, they may not be the way to go!

  15. Amusing post Andrew, I always enjoy it when you try to get to grips with all that slippery skiffle.

    “Childish Gambino is a great name” – yes it is, and it comes courtesy of the Wu-Tang Clan name generator:

    Using your real name (as printed on the back of the first Bulletproof Coffin trade), Andre Whickey, I have discovered that your primary Wu-Tang alias is “Phantom Commander”, which seems quite promising.

    Childish Gambino aka Donald Glover is a very talented and entertaining writer and performer of comedy (see: Community, 30 Rock) but to borrow a line from some on That Twitter (Duncan? David Brothers?), as a rapper, he’s definitely a good comedian!

    He’s still probably the best MC in this particular list though, but by my own, slightly less cut-off standards, this is still a pretty duff top ten. Then again, I’m not overly keen on a lot of what’s popular right now – not sure if it’s just my age speaking here because I enjoyed a lot of the mercenary pop music of the early-to-middle 2000s and now find myself feeling a little bit bummed out to hear Girls Aloud ditching their own aesthetic (I KNOW!) in favour of the mix of gated drums and auto-tuned vocals that you encountered several times over here. For a while there the mix of post-mashup freeness and money hungry desperation led to some properly bizarre pop music, but I think that pop’s cooled off and solidified into something uniform and horrible again. Or maybe I’m just half a decade older, a little less drunk, and a lot less likely to be out dancing every weekend, I dunno.

    In short: I am six feet tall.

  16. Oops, missed prankster36’s comment about Donald Glover/Childish Gambino, sorry!

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