Is There a Correlation Between Music’s Popularity and Its Shittiness?

So a couple of weeks ago, I was discussing my Grammys post-mortem with my pal Max and he asked me a question, inspired by my assertion that, statistically speaking, a Grammy-nominated band will be a shitty band. That question was, “Do you think music’s popularity and its shittiness are somehow correlated? And if so, why?”

I gave Max a short answer (“Not as much as people think”) but he and I agreed that an in-depth discussion of this topic might make a good Bollocks! post. So that’s what this is.

The first thing you have to get out of the way in any discussion like this is the (obvious to me) fact that this is all dependent upon taste. One man’s dookie is another man’s donut and all that. If you like a lot of really popular music, you would probably say that there’s a correlation between its popularity and its greatness. And that’s fine.

But Bollocks! is all about my opinion; for whatever reason, that’s what people come here to read. As I’ve said a billion times (and I’ll say it a billion more), we can love completely different music and still be friends. I promise. But the fact is, I don’t like very much popular music so it might be tempting for me to say that there is a correlation between how popular something is and how awful it is.

But I don’t think that’s the case. There’s plenty of insanely popular music that I like: Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, the Beatles, Cee Lo Green’s Ladykiller, and I could go on all day. I bring this up to provide you, humble Bollocks! readers, with evidence that I never dislike¬†popular music (what the fuck is a Kesha, anyway? I won’t put the fucking dollar sign in her name, either. But what the fuck is she? Who is creating demand for a white trash pop diva?) simply because it is popular.

For purposes of our discussion, I’m gonna divide popular music into two categories: good popular music and bad popular music. Again, this is all based on my subjective experience of music (there is no objective experience of art, no matter what any pretentious asshole tries to tell you. It pleases you or it doesn’t and the reasons why you hate something might be the same reasons other people love it. My wife, for instance, does not like the Screaming Females because they are, true to their name, Screaming Females. On the other hand, this is precisely one of the reasons I love them). I think that good popular music becomes popular because it is just undeniably, universally appealing. This is why a lot of good popular music happens to be in the pop style – that particular genre is almost always on a mission to be catchy. Punk music, on the other hand, is typically designed to polarize and won’t appeal to a broad enough swath of the population to become truly popular if its any good. For “punk” music to be popular, it has to water down its message and attitude and stay vague about its politics. This is why Green Day’s American Idiot (not a punk album in my opinion) is more popular than Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ Shake the Sheets and it’s also why I tend to despise the popular shit that some people consider “punk” today.

Last summer, I talked about The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and his suggestion that stuff has to be “translated” for mass consumption before it can become really popular. At the time, I said that the translation idea was a killer for good music – my exact words were “By the time the raw, beautiful music you love is fit for consumption by everyone, it fucking sucks. Always.” I stand by that assertion, but I have to admit that not everyone likes the purest, rawest forms of music. For instance, you might like John Mayer where I like Chris Whitley or Son House. You can sort of see a tenuous connection between the blues of Son House and the white frat-blues of John Mayer, and Mayer definitely moves more units annually than the late Mr. House. Likewise, the Clash is undoubtedly an influence on Green Day, but fans of Green Day are not automatically fans of the Clash (and vice versa; I love the Clash and I think my feelings on Green Day are pretty clear).

So why does so much shitty music become popular? Well, to be popular, you have to appeal to as wide an audience as possible (duh). That’s extremely difficult to do without compromising your sound quite a bit (“compromising” might be a bit strong of a word, but we use strong words here). If you want to rock like the Screaming Females rock, you have to accept a smaller (though certainly no less devoted) audience than if you want to rock like Nickelback rocks (which is, in my opinion, not at all). Nickelback fits a definition of “rock” that appeals to a whole lot of people, some of whom most assuredly think about music a whole lot less than I do. That’s not a criticism of those people (in an odd way, it’s a complement), it’s just a fact. A lot of Nickelback fans probably want some drums and electric guitar, but they also want a couple sensitive ballads thrown in there for good measure (I, on the other hand, want “Buried in the Nude”) . Some of those folks might even take the commercial success of Nickelback as an endorsement of that band’s talents; “if other people are buying it, it must be good.” And I don’t think the fact that Nickelback sells lots of albums makes them bad; I think the fact that they suck at playing music makes them bad.

Because pop tends to be built around catchier melodies and major chords, it’s easier for someone like Cee Lo Green to become massively popular behind something like “Fuck You” than it is for someone like the Future of the Left to earn an appearance on everyone’s I-Pod with “You Need Satan More than He Needs You.” Snobs like me enjoy Cee Lo because he represents the cream of the pop crop, while I think some people will eat up “Fuck You” because it’s the best song on the radio, which in my opinion is like being the cleanest corn kernel in a chicken turd. So I think how you find music influences how you feel about the most popular stuff. If you don’t wanna work that hard to find music (again, that’s your¬†right), you will choose what’s good and bad from what you hear on the radio – so you’re already choosing from stuff that is kind of popular. I use every resource I can think of to find music and I dismiss a lot of the homogeneous stuff that shows up on the radio because it all sounds the same to me. I’m not saying this stuff because I think I’m better than other music listeners; if anything, I’m admitting to you what an obsessive fucking nerd I am.

There’s a lot more to discuss on this topic, so we’ll call this Part I and continue our discussion tomorrow. Let’s leave it here for now: music that is popular is not automatically shitty. Since it was a Grammy post that started this whole discussion, I want to talk tomorrow about why it is I think the Grammys specifically reward shitty music (it’s to do with how albums and artists get nominated) and hopefully wrap things up by dispelling the myth that only so-called “non-corporate” music is good.

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The Tipping Point, “Translation,” and the Total Pussification of All Your Favorite Music

“If anyone wants to start an epidemic…he or she has to find some person or some means to translate the message of the Innovators into something the rest of us can understand” – Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point

“The status quo always sucks” – George Carlin, Braindroppings

I know this is going to come off as elitist, but fuck it. When it comes to music (and beer and movies and books), I’m an elitist. You can like music I hate and I’ll still have a beer with you, though. Let’s not confuse elitist with fascist.

Anyway, I’m reading this book, The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. A lot of you have probably read it or heard of it. I’m not really endorsing it much – a lot of it is pseudo-scientific stuff that celebrates gifted, rich white people (although his sections on context and why anti-smoking campaigns are about as effective as Swiss-cheese condoms are honestly quite good) and oversimplifies… well, pretty much everything.

Gladwell’s idea is that ideas – the ones you hear about, the big ones, the ones that seem to make reams and reams of white people rich – spread in much the same way as epidemics of disease. Not a completely revolutionary idea, but not without its merits. The reason I’m talking about this book on my music blog is because it occurred to me, while reading it today (I’m cruising through this book, too. Had four hours to kill at the mechanic’s this morning), that the quote I’ve cited above explains something that always annoys me about music. Namely, the fact that almost every genre of music that I love has some sort of watered down version of itself that people who think about music a lot less than I do (I’m being charitable here) love, even though it’s reduced to practically a parody of the actual music.

Examples? Oh, I’ve got examples. Just the other night, I was in a situation where I was playing some electric guitar at work and this kid (he’s a nice enough kid, just young) asked me if I knew any songs he would know. I said I probably didn’t. I mentioned that I knew a lot of old punk songs and he got this kinda hopeful look in his eyes and suggested, “Sum-41? Linkin Park?” Now, as I said, the kid is young and a pretty nice dude, so I wasn’t gonna Hulk out on him or anything (I’m really a non-violent guy; I just have really violent thoughts sometimes), but I just realized today that what happened was, by the time punk got “translated” to the mainstream, it was way watered down. And this has only gotten worse. Here are my Big Three for early punk: the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Ramones. Love it or hate it, that shit was undoubtedly punk. Now what’ve you got? Kids who think Sum-41 and Green Day are punk bands.

Same thing for jazz music. “Translate” the amazing art of Mingus, Miles Davis, and Coltrane so that Baby Booming crackers can say they like jazz and it becomes, sadly, Kenny G. So you can see why Gladwell’s quote is juxtaposed with George Carlin’s quote, yeah? By the time the raw, beautiful music you love is fit for consumption by everyone, it fucking sucks. Always.

I used to think I hated country music. Then I heard Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Hank Williams, Sr. But not first. The first “country” music I heard was country-pop shit, so-called “crossover” success stories like Shania Twain and Billy Ray Cyrus. Here’s a hint: if they can make a dance-club remix of your music, it ain’t country. So fuck it.

You might be inclined to point out that hip-hop is still replete with swear words and edginess and stuff. And you’re right. Hip-hop didn’t get watered down so much as it got dumbed down; listen to what Public Enemy was rapping about on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and compare it to the shit that 50 Cent talks about. Hip-hop went from agitating for equality and social change to just a bunch of macho asshole bullshit (to borrow another phrase from Mr. Carlin, who knew the value of never watering down your art. Although great comedy also gets watered/dumbed down for people. Proof: Dane Cook sells out shows around the world).

So what’s to be done? There’s still plenty of great music out there (plenty of hope for punk, as I’ve pointed out many times: look to the Future of the Left, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, and Titus Andronicus), so it’s not like the good stuff is getting watered down before your very eyes. I see a lot of hope in niche markets in the future, especially once the major labels finally bite the fucking dust. Perhaps good ol’ word of mouth (or word of internet) will help people find the real shit. In the meantime, don’t be afraid to dig deeper when someone tells you about a great new artist. Maybe that “great new artist” is ripping off someone who was a really great artist (looking at you, John Mayer) that deserves more of your attention.

Gladwell contends that having a great message isn’t enough if you want your message to “stick” (the book is full of bullshit capitalized phrases that smack of self-help jargon and pop science), but when it comes to music, he is absolutely wrong. Fuck the masses – make great music first, water it down for no one, and there is bound to be someone who likes it. In a world where Nickelback sells millions of albums, your band can generate a large enough audience to sustain you, no matter how shitty you are. If you’re in a rock band, please, for the love all that is awesome, make it your mission to unwater-down the music and fuck that translation right up – I want some Tower of Babel shit happening in here. And if you’re a music fan, don’t be part of “the rest of us.” Don’t let anyone translate anything for you. If you genuinely love smooth jazz, so be it (you fucking pervert)! Gladwell implies that most of us are complacent morons, waiting around for someone (who he, tellingly, labels a “Salesman”) to tell us what’s cool. So please, whoever you are and whatever you love, don’t take for granted that something is cool just because some other jackhole (even me; hell, especially me) tells you it is. Dig into it, see for yourself. Because if Malcolm Gladwell is right about you (and me and “the rest of us”), we’re fucked.