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.


Rocktoberfest Acht

So yeah, my friends and I, in a bout of total unoriginality, started this annual party called Rocktoberfest back in 2002. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of beer and friendship and meat and rocking until you break yourself. If that sounds childish and/or unimportant to you, maybe you should attend Rocktoberfest before you go judging things you don’t understand. Or maybe you’re humorless California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who doesn’t seem to like anything at all, especially if it has ever a) been in a union or b) been poor. But I digress.

This year was the 8th annual Rocktoberfest (Rocktoberfest Acht in German. So Achtoberfest, as my pal Jom pointed out while quite drunk) and we held it at my friend Badier’s mostly former house in Menlo Park, which is dangerously close to Stanford University. Having a massive party in a house that is mostly empty is definitely the way to go. Less shit to break.

I’d like to think that everyone who attends  our Rocktoberfest recognizes that, like Hold Steady albums and good beers, the most recent one is always the best one ever. This year was no exception.

Somewhere in the haze of music, drunk, and smoke, I realized why Rocktoberfest feels like a holiday to those who attend it and, as a sort of bonus realization, why rock ‘n’ roll is not a terrible substitute for a religion (when it doesn’t suck, of course). Let’s deal with the last thing first: at its best, rock ‘n’ roll creates community. When you go to see your favorite band, you share in the pure joy of music with a roomful of strangers. The audience and the band are all plugged in to something much bigger than the sum of its parts. The potential exists in that moment to meet new people and make new friends. You don’t have to do that, of course, but you totally can. And maybe you should. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of an ever-expanding community that started with five guys in a house. Those five guys didn’t always get along by any means, but Rocktoberfest creates a unique present in which the past is mostly obliterated while people sing along to songs like “This Fire” by Franz Ferdinand (modified by us so that the chorus is now, “This beer is out of control/ I’m gonna drink this beer/ drink this beer”) and “Holy Diver” by Dio (we poured one out for Ronnie James Dio this year). Sure, it’s silly. But what’s wrong with being silly?

What happened at Rocktoberfest this year was what I  imagine happened around Joe Strummer’s famous campfires at Glastonbury. Old friends met new friends, some of us had wives to bring, others had kids to leave at home. But for several hours of a Saturday, everyone was cool with everyone. For my part, I was deliriously happy. You can do this anytime you want, and you should. Gather your friends and some drinks and some great music, and celebrate your personal community. Rocktoberfest Acht was a reminder of why I love music and – more important – why I literally love a majority of the people I know. It’s not prayer and it won’t save you from much besides boredom, but it could provide you with one helluva a great night.

So, in the great words of Mr. Craig Finn, “Let this be my annual reminder/ that we can all be something bigger.” Go forward, kids, be awesome to each other, and rock the fuck on.

A Brief(ish) History of Awesome American Music Pt. 4: Sucking in the Seventies

In the movie Almost Famous, you learn two things about the 1970s: 1) That film is a parody of almost every stadium band in America during that decade and 2) Lester Bangs loved “Search and Destroy” by the Stooges. With good reason. The Stooges were one of the bright spots of the 1970s in America, but we need to start our discussion of this decade off with someone who was almost undoubtedly The Man (in a good way), Mr. Curtis Mayfield. After writing some hits for the Impressions in the 1960s, Mayfield set out on his own in 1970. By the time he was done, he had injected a social consciousness into soul music and had crafted songs that were at once funky, sexy, and full of fire. You might know his work on the Superfly soundtrack, the theme of which is probably Mayfield’s best-known work. But for my money, it doesn’t get any better than “Don’t Worry (If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go”). Riding a funky rhythm and Mayfield’s soulful falsetto (hey, Sensitive White Guy singers: Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto is why you assholes should never ever sing in a falsetto), the song chronicles the hypocrisies and prejudices he saw all around him back in the day. That shit hasn’t gone away and that song is as relevant as it’s ever been.

Lester Bangs, a hero of mine (who is unfairly labeled an “asshole critic” by the Rock Snob’s Dictionary, by the way. Bangs wasn’t really a critic at all, he was a music geek. He loved music and didn’t give a shit about making friends with the people who made it or really even the people who wrote about it. Bangs wrote with a passion and directness – sometimes drug-fueled – that hadn’t been seen before him and hasn’t really been seen since him, Chuck Klosterman notwithstanding), loved The Stooges because they played big, loud, stupid, fun rock ‘n’ roll. And, in so doing, they kinda invented punk in 1973 when they released the David Bowie-produced Raw Power (Iggy Pop oversaw a reissue/remaster of this album a few years ago that restored some of the low end. As much as I love Bowie, Iggy’s mix is better), which led off with the ferocious “Search and Destroy” and also featured songs like “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell” and “Death Trip.” Iggy Pop (James Osterberg to his folks) was ingenious at completely losing his shit on stage, making Stooges shows good places to get covered in blood, peanut butter, raw meat, and myriad other bodily fluids. Oh, and after the Stooges broke up, Iggy released Lust for Life in 1976 (also produced – better this time – by Bowie), giving him claim to two essential American records in three years.

If you use Raw Power and Lust for Life as the bread for an awesome punk sandwich, the filler is gonna be horse meat. Or rather, it will be Horses, the 1975 debut album from Patti Smith, which opens with a very ballsy cover of Them’s “Gloria”, a song that had been covered to death by everyone at that point (including music’s angriest hobbit, Van Morrison). Smith, who was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness (“Knock, knock! Shit happens”), wrote the following opening line for her cover: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/ but not mine.” And from there on, Horses is unrelenting, epic, and awesome. Smith could go toe to toe with Johnny Rotten in a snark constest, and probably come out on top. Along with the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith inspired R.E.M., who pulled off the not-inconsiderable feat of being really awesome in the 80s (Michael Stipe claims that hearing Horses made him decide to start a band).

To quote Magnolia, “So Now Then”: The Ramones. Formed in New York in 1974. Basically galvanized punk music on both sides of the Atlantic. According to End of the Century (a must-see for fans), also basically kidnapped by otherwise upstanding citizen Phil Spector (who also held DeeDee Ramone at gunpoint in the studio). That’s the history. The music, after all these years, still holds up. If you wanna know why I hate Green Day so goddamn much, listen to the first three Ramones albums. In fact, that should tell you why I hate today’s emo/pop-punk crowd too – no sense of humor, and no fun (Green Day has become especially humorless since deciding, without consulting me, that they are America’s late answer to the Who). And shitty music, of course. “Blitzkrieg Bop,” however, remains one of the all-time greatest opening tracks in music history. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until you believe me: it is impossible to be unhappy while listening to the Ramones.

I hope it was impossible to be unhappy opening for the Ramones. The Talking Heads played their first gig under that name opening for the Ramones in June of 1975 at the famed (and now sadly defunct)  CBGB’s in New York. Combining elements of funk, world music, pop, and rock with David Byrne’s oddball lyrics and dramatic singing voice, the Talking Heads were smart at pop and arty without seeming pretentious or (worse) annoying. Though not super successful upon it’s release in 1980, Remain in Light is often (quite rightly) acknowledged as a pop masterpiece. The band officially broke up in 1991 and, I’m just drawing a conclusion from the Wikipedia page here, it was probably due in large part to how weird David Byrne is.

This will seem counterintuitive at first, but kids today don’t know shit about Television. Of course, they know plenty about that flat screened boxy thing (TVs get bigger, Americans get bigger. Is this a coincidence? I report, you decide) that bombards them with talking sponges and Billy Ray Cyrus’s offspring (honestly, I could care less about Miley Cyrus. What offends me about her is that she is living proof that someone, somewhere, fucked that bemulleted jackass. For readers who are too young to remember, Billy Ray Cyrus had a one-hit wonder in the 1990s called “Achy Breaky Heart” and it was so bad that it makes Toby Keith seem listenable). They know lots about that. But do they know that, way back in 1977, the band Television released Marquee Moon, one of the most underrated American albums ever? (I know the album is adored by critics, but I’m talking about civilians here. They need to know about this album.) Sadly, the answer is “not really.” Well, I’ll tell you. In the middle of what was known as Year Zero for punk music (The Ramones had lit the fire in 1976 with their debut album and the Sex Pistols and Clash were carrying the torch on the other side of the pond. Helpfully, the Clash decided to make punk mean something), Television released an album whose title track was nearly 11 minutes long, but they weren’t a jam band. They had the punk snarl, thanks to Tom Verlaine, but they weren’t really punk. Nor were they really art-rock. They were totally unique; I haven’t heard anything else like Marquee Moon since I first heard it. The closest is Wilco’s A Ghost is Born, which owes a considerable debt to Television.

If you think it was hard to be cool in America in the 1970s, wait until we get to the 80s. Which we’ll do tomorrow. The 80s were a mess, but there was still lots of good music to be had. For shits ‘n’ giggles, here’s a list of bands I will be totally ignoring in my discussion of 1980s American music: Motley Crue, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Don Henley, Bon Jovi, Van Halen, Metallica (we’ll talk about these assholes when we get to the 1990s, when they took a massive shit on their fans), and Vanilla Ice. Until then, enjoy your Monday off, if you’ve got one.