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.

My Favorite Albums of 2009 5-1

I know we’re a few days in already, but I have a couple New Year’s resolutions I’d like to share with you, both of which pertain to language you find in abundance on the internet. The words “douche” (or “douchebag” or “douchetard” or “douchefuck” or et cetera) and “hipster” are used far too much on the internet. This year, I will not use the D-word (or any of its various permutations) on this blog. At all. Ever. It’s done. Don’t worry about me coming up with alternatives, either. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s finding new ways to hurl invective. As for the word “hipster,” when it comes to music, everyone thinks they know what a hipster is and everyone thinks it’s not them. It’s become a completely meaningless – and therefore useless – word. I don’t use that word a lot myself, but it is hereby banished from Bollocks! in the hopes that I can inspire other people on the internet to stop using it.

So let’s get on with the continuation of my meaningless – and therefore useless (but entertaining, one hopes) – list of my 13 favorite albums of 2009. Here’s the score so far:

13. Lord Cut-Glass, Lord Cut-Glass

12. Mike Doughty, Sad Man, Happy Man.

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz!

10. Brother Ali, Us

9. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career

8. The Minus 5, Killingsworth

7. The Future of the Left, Travels with Myself and Another

6. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast

And now here’s the top 5:

5. Sparklehorse and Danger Mouse, Dark Night of the Soul. I know, this album wasn’t technically released this year, but it damn well should have been. It’s still streaming on NPR’s website and the Wikipedia suggests that you can fire up your favorite torrent software and obtain a copy of the album for yourself at an exceedingly reasonable price. Sad thing is, Dark Night of the Soul is well worth the price of admission that EMI is so unwilling to charge. Featuring guest appearances by the likes of Wayne Coyne, Frank Black, and Iggy Pop (to name but a few), the album is pure beauty from start to finish. Danger Mouse has asserted himself as the preeminent collaborator of the last few years (perhaps of the decade, if you’re into that sort of declaration) and he and Mark Linkous (who collaborated on some of Sparklehorse’s underrated Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain) create gorgeous sonic landscapes upon which their friends (including David Lynch!) freely frolic. The highlights are numerous, but “The Man Who Played God” (featuring Suzanne Vega), “Insane Lullaby” (featuring the Shins’ James Mercer, who is partnering with Danger Mouse to release an album as Broken Bells later this year – I’m sure EMI will find some way to fuck it up, if at all possible), and “Star Eyes (I Can Catch It)” are my top 3. If you like music at all, find a way to hear this album, legality be damned!

4. Metric, Fantasies. I think 2009 was a pretty good year for the kind of pop music that I like to listen to. My favorite pop record of the year – no contest – is Fantasies by Metric. Emily Haines has an amazing, versatile voice and Fantasies is infused with loud guitars and pounding drums. This is the album you put on at top volume while flying down a freeway in the summer. And this is one band that understands brevity – the album is but ten tracks, but every single one is a killer. A different one gets stuck in my head on just about a daily basis, although “Sick Muse” and “Front Row” are the most frequent visitors. “Sick Muse” deserves special credit because, as the song builds to the chorus (where Haines sings “I’ll write you/ harmony in C”), it gives  me the feeling of going down a particularly awesome water slide or cannonballing into cool water from some dizzying height. That feeling is exactly the feeling you should get from pop music and it’s why Metric currently tops the list of bands I really need to see live.

3. TIE: Modest Mouse, No One’s First and You’re Next and Lucero, 1372 Overton Park. I know this is supposed to be some sort of exercise in perfectly ranking the albums I loved from last year, but there’s no escaping the fact that Modest Mouse and Lucero both made albums that I think are precisely the third best things I heard all year. No One’s First and You’re Next is technically an EP of songs recorded during sessions for Good News for People Who Like Bad News and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, and the songs make it clear that they weren’t omitted for a lack of quality. “Satellite Skin” and “History Sticks to Your Feet” are instant classic Modest Mouse tunes, to say nothing of “Autumn Beds” and “King Rat.” Rather than being a miniature pile of odds ‘n’ sods, No One’s First is a potent reminder of the fact (indisputable!) that Isaac Brock is a brilliant lyricist and that Modest Mouse has become a formidable musical force for awesome.

I know I haven’t reviewed Lucero’s 1372 Overton Park, but that’s because I just got it in the last month and haven’t stopped listening to it long enough to write about it. Yeah, Ben Nichols’s voice is shredded (it has been said of Tom Waits that he sounds like he gargled whiskey and broken glass. In that spirit, you could say Ben Nichols was gargling whiskey and broken glass when he accidentally swallowed), but he still tells a great story, (mostly) carries a tune, and manages to wax anthemic as fuck on album opener “Smoke.” There’s a badass horn section on nearly every song, but rather than coming off as gimmicky, the horns perfectly augment Lucero’s busted-ass country rock and aid the band in making their best album since 2005’s Nobody’s Darlings, if it’s not their best album ever. You can have your Airborne Toxic Events and your Gaslight Anthems, but neither of those bands are fit to clear the (numerous) empty bottles from Ben Nichols’s table.

2. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic. If you watch the Grammys, it might be easy to forget that the word “artist” used to apply to a select group of people. On the Grammys, everyone’s an artist (for instance, Maroon 5 were named the best new artists of 2005. I’ll give you a minute if you need to go throw up), but in the really real world, the true musical artist is a dying breed. Or maybe not. Wayne Coyne, the Flamingest Lip, is a true musical artist, a guy who lives his art because it’s who he is. And in 2009, the Flaming Lips returned triumphantly with Embryonic, a spaced-out, bass-heavy, fuzzy hippie nightmare. Not nearly as experimental as Pitchfork would have you believe, Embryonic is nonetheless a powerful rock record featuring the Lips’ usual meditations on life, love, good, evil, ego, and death. And it all ends with the cosmic dance party “Watching the Planets,” the video for which features naked adults being born out of a giant vagina ball. No, really.

MY FAVORITE ALBUM OF THE YEAR:

1. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone. If we learned anything last year, I think we learned that Neko Case is a goddess. Three years after releasing the excellent Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Ms. Case topped herself with Middle Cyclone. Such beauty! Such violence: “Their broken necks will line the ditch until you stop it/ stop this madness” (from “This Tornado Loves You”); “The next time you say ‘forever’/ I will punch you in your face” (“The Next Time You Say Forever”); people are “filleted” on the stairs (“Polar Nettles”), and, of course, surprised when they’re eaten by man-eaters (“People Got A Lotta Nerve”). I could discuss at length, as other have, the obvious metaphors for romance as a force of nature (sometimes beautiful, sometimes deadly), but beyond all that academic shit, what the music of Middle Cyclone is – above all else – is almost profoundly gorgeous. Of the fourteen songs here, there are probably eight that give me chills every time I hear them. Listening to the album again (for the billionth time – if I ever get sick of this record, you can stick bamboo splinters soaked in lemon juice under my fingernails), the dreamlike “Prison Girls” is the one that really has a hold on me. For a while it was “Magpie to the Morning.” And so on. Neko Case is among the best singers in music right now, bar none, and Middle Cyclone is a stunning achievement. If you haven’t heard this album, there is a hole in your life that can, I suspect, be easily filled. Also, it bears repeating that Middle Cyclone‘s cover is among the most badass things I’ve ever seen.

No One’s First and You’re Next

114a4190

I’ve had a curious relationship with Modest Mouse. The first time I heard them was in Eugene, Oregon, when I was in college at the good ol’ University of Oregon. I was browsing the racks at Face the Music (which no longer exists) and they were blasting The Moon and Antarctica. While I recognized and approved of the Tom Waits influence, I can’t say I was enamored of the music. In fact, I found it to be pretty fucking obnoxious, honestly. The first time I liked a Modest Mouse song was, oddly enough, when I heard “Float On” on the radio (those of you who tire of my constant bitching about how shitty the radio is might be tempted to cry “hypocrite” but I never said that the radio never plays good music. It mostly never plays good music). I was working overnight at Target, also in Eugene, and I swear “Float On” was the only good song we heard on the radio and we heard it almost every night. I was stunned to find out that it was  a Modest Mouse song and even more stunned when I ended up not just liking but loving Good News for People Who Like Bad News. In fact, I love that album more all the time.

And now I find myself in the odd position of being something of a Modest Mouse fan. I own all of their albums and most of their EPs and the stuff I used to find obnoxious is now really interesting to me (remember: I like Captain Beefheart) and my appreciation for Isaac Brock’s writing and ability to completely lose his shit vocally without going emo has only grown. I saw them live last year and, though the internet warned of vast inconsistency in the quality of Modest Mouse live shows, I found them to be an extremely tight and wildly entertaining band in concert. Lucky me.

Modest Mouse’s last two albums, Good News and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, have been their poppiest yet. Some would be inclined to say their best yet, but that would only be half right. Good News is their best, followed closely by The Moon and Antarctica. I’m one of those guys who like 99% of Modest Mouse’s output and while that may earn me the scorn of some, it really just means there’s more for me to enjoy than there is for them. To paraphrase The National, all the wine (where “wine” = “good Modest Mouse music”) is all for me.

So now Brock and his revolving cast of characters have released a new EP, No One’s First and You’re Next, made up of stuff recorded during sessions for their last two albums, though it might be misleading to dismiss these songs as mere cast-offs. They’re all high quality tunes, many of them are even excellent, including “Satellite Skin,” “History Sticks to Your Feet,” and “Autumn Beds,” which sounds like it could’ve made the cut for an album by Brock’s apparently one-off side project Ugly Casanova (whose album I also own and, yes, it is awesome).

People who love Isaac Brock’s voice are probably (definitely) a minority (of which I am a card-carrying member) so it’s more likely that people come to Modest Mouse songs for the music and Brock’s lyrics as much as anything else. Musically, No One’s First is great, pretty heavy on the electric guitar (this is, I think, the Johnny Marr influence. So if Johnny Marr wasn’t the boring part of The Smiths, who can we blame? Oh yeah – Morrissey was also in the Smiths) and banjo. There are a lot of great lyrical turns to be had, too – on “Satellite Skin,” Brock asks, “well how the heck’d ya think you could beat them/ at the same time that you’re trying to be them”;  offers “I drew a blank/ we put it in a frame” on “Guilty Cocker Spaniels”; and, in typical Isaac Brock fasion, he rips your rose colored glasses off and crushes them on the sidewalk on “History Sticks to Your Feet”: “optimism doesn’t change the facts/ just what you’re gonna see.”

It’s easy to see how a lot of this stuff didn’t fit the overall vibe of Good News and/or We Were Dead, but it would be laughably inaccurate to say it’s because they’re not good enough (earlier, I said it might be misleading, but I’ve listened to the album several times since I wrote that sentence and I’m now convinced that “laughably inaccurate” is more appropriate than “misleading”. Why did it take me so long between the composition of these two sentences? It’s been a long week, don’t ask. Also, I’ve been listening to this EP almost non-stop since I got it). Some of these songs are far superior, quality-wise, to stuff that made the cut on We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, but they don’t fit the mood of the record. And No One’s First features, back to back, two pretty compelling stylistic departures: “The Whale Song” (which centers around the haunting line, “I know I was the scout/ I should’ve found a way out/ so that everyone could find a way out”) and “Perpetual Motion Machine,” which is straight out of some bizarre musical starring Isaac Brock as… well, I dunno.  I’m not sure what role Brock would play in a musical, but I do know that if more musicals had people like him in them and music like his band makes on No One’s First and You’re Next, I would probably hate musicals slightly less than I do now.