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 Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard #1: “Waiting On the World to Change”

Well, folks, the new year is officially here and Bollocks! is coming off a pretty satisfying 2010; this blog was viewed 19,000 times last year, which probably ties into the unemployment numbers somehow, but I don’t want to dig too deep into that lest I start feeling all depressed. Since I’m always looking for ways to improve your Bollocks! experience, I decided to come up with a new feature called “The Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard” to shed some light on some of the worst individual songs of all time. Why would I do this? Because I have heard all of these songs (some of them occasionally get stuck in my head) and I need you to share my pain. This is not a countdown – like my much-vaunted (well, by me) Great Fucking Albums feature, The Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard is listed in the order that these things occur to me. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the first installment – I’ll put up a page so you can gain easy access to your (least?) favorites as the list grows. Because believe me, it will grow.

The reason I decided to do this feature is because I hear bad fucking songs all the time, when I’m out shopping or dining somewhere with my wife or when her alarm clock goes off in the morning and the radio station it’s set on greets us with the Ataris cover of Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” (which, I mean, it should just be the soundtrack to a book called How to Make Bad Things Worse). But that’s not the song I wanted to start off my list with.

No, there was a clear favorite for the first song against the wall when I started thinking about The Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard: “Waiting On the World to Change” by John Mayer. Released in 2006 on his Continuum album, “Waiting On the World to Change” is a great way to find any reason you can think of to dislike John Mayer’s music (and maybe him as a person just a little bit).

Musically, the song is not that noteworthy, unless you’re noting that it is a ripoff of Curtis Mayfield’s vastly superior “People Get Ready” (you might have noticed that I sing the late Mr. Mayfield’s praises quite frequently here. Listen to his music and you’ll see why). But the music mostly keeps to the background so as to better highlight the “gee-ain’t-I-deep” lyrics which are some of the most laughably stupid I’ve heard this side of the first Hanson album. Mayer starts out singing about how he and all his friends “just feel like we don’t have the means/ to rise up and beat”… um… well, whatever it is he’s talking about. Oh: “everything that’s going wrong.” Well, John, let me tell you a little secret: nobody, in the entire history of everything, has changed anything by attempting to tackle “everything that’s going wrong.” So your problem is all in your approach. Why don’t you start small by maybe recycling or protesting a war or something? John Mayer and his friends are content to sit at home and wait for the world to change because they can’t solve every problem all at once, and the chorus, complete with an airy gospel choir, tells us that Mayer & Friends are willing to sit on the sidelines as long as necessary to get the job done. Imagine if Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks had thought that way.

“Just you wait,” thinks Rosa as she dutifully moves to the back of the bus, “In about fifty years, we’ll have a black president, and then you honky motherfuckers are gonna get it!”

Mayer’s assertion basically amounts to “I don’t wanna do anything about any problems because doin’ stuff is hard.” First of all, you fuck, you play guitar for a living. Your job is to rip off Stevie Ray Vaughan and wallow up to your neck in celebutante pussy – and you can’t take a few minutes on your day off to, I dunno, clean up a beach? Fuck you! There are people with real goddamn jobs who make time constantly to try to help other people, which is world-changing shit. There are people whose whole job is helping people. And none of them got to fuck Jennifer Aniston.

My favorite part of “Waiting On the World to Change” – and by “favorite part”, I mean the part that sends me into a nearly homicidal fury – is the part where Mayer sings, “One day our generation/ is gonna rule the population/ so we keep waiting (insert gospel chicks with a “Waitin'” right here)/ waiting on the world to change.”  Now I’m guessing that John Mayer, being 33, is part of my generation and I’m happy to say that none of us elected John to lead the charge on this whole “ruling the population thing.” Many of the very good people in my generation don’t even think in those terms, and I’m glad. It seems to me that John Mayer has created a convenient way to never do anything meaningful or helpful for humanity. After all, if he and his pals are operating on the premise that the time for action is after the world has already changed, can’t they just keep saying that it hasn’t change yet? “Hey John, can you take out the trash?” “Nah, I’m still waiting for the world to change.”

In an interview with the Advocate, Mayer said that “I know that if I were engaged in changing anything for the better, or the better as I see it, it would go unnoticed or be completely ineffective.” So Mayer doesn’t wanna try because he’s afraid no one would notice. Well, John, I’ve got something you could do that would not only change things for the better, but would be immediately noticeable: stop making music, you fucking hack.

Of course, right after Mayer said the above sentence, he added, “A lot of people have that feeling.” And what pisses me off is that he’s right – a lot of people don’t lift a finger for anyone else because they feel like nothing they do will help. They see a vast sea of troubles and don’t feel like there’s a vast sea of people who can do anything about it. The problem is, if we all did simple stuff that was completely within our means (like just being kind to each other, for starters), it could make a big difference (is that naive? Fuck you, we’ve never tried it, have we?). And I get that it’s tough to know what to do to help humanity (that’s a pretty general term to start with), but writing an anthem that excuses apathy (“It’s not that I don’t give a shit, I’m just waiting on the world to change”) is fucking pathetic. John Mayer has made plenty of music to be ashamed of, but I don’t think any of his songs tops “Waiting On the World to Change” in terms of audacious stupidity and general suckitude.

The Very Worst Album of 2010 Part II: Reflection (And Maybe Just a Little More Hostility)

Having vented my spleen on Santana’s utterly shitty Guitar Heaven, I would like to turn now to a broader contextual discussion of the record. How does something like this come into existence (and I am not prepared to rule out the possibility that a mad scientist created it in an attempt to destroy the world) and who is it for? And what, if anything, could such a musical abomination mean?

To take the last question first, Guitar Heaven might be the last nail in the coffin that holds the rapidly putrefying remains of Rolling Stone’s credibility. The magazine gave the album three stars (out of five) and called the performances, “mostly faithful to the originals” which suggests to me that Rolling Stone‘s Mark Kemp may not have actually listened to Guitar Heaven. Not that I can blame him. If you think the Joe Cocker-sung abortion that they call “Little Wing” on this album is “faithful” to Jimi Hendrix’s original, I will fight you. I will literally, violently, will all the force of my rage, fight you. With a two-by-four and a sock full of quarters. If anything, Cocktana’s version of “Little Wing” serves as definitive proof that we should pass an international law that forbids people to cover Jimi Hendrix songs.

And how did something like Guitar Heaven come to exist? That’s the easiest question of all to answer: it came about the same way every Santana album has for the last dozen years. Santana decides he wants to buy a boat, some producers come in and write some shitty tracks, arrange the collaborations with some brand-name, talentless vocalists (I know some people think that lasting a few weeks on American Idol means you’re talented, but I submit to you that it means exactly the opposite of that), and behold! a full-length album’s worth of crap is ready to clog up your FM radio for another year. Santana gets his boat, one or more asshole collaborators get Grammys, and everyone wins except, of course, people who believe in things like truth and beauty. Guitar Heaven turns the formula on its head by eliminating the need to actually write songs at all – now, Santana and his partners in crime (let’s just call it what it is, okay?) can mangle songs that people already know and love. And don’t believe for a second that this is a one-time deal; I’ll bet you every one of Carlos Santana’s dollars that there will be a Guitar Heaven II some time in the near future.

So who’s it for? You might be inclined to guess that it’s for the same Baby Boomers who saw Santana, drugged off his ass, at Woodstock forty-one years ago. If so, shouldn’t they be outraged? After all, Guitar Heaven almost certainly represents the co-opting and watering down of some of the great, primal rock ‘n’ roll moments that were the soundtrack to the youth of a many a Baby Boomer. Santana’s guitar tone renders the notes of Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and Angus Young in a warm, digitally polished shine that is about as vital as a road-killed squid (it happens more often than you think) and only one vocal performance on Guitar Heaven really does justice to the original song; Chester Bennington’s performance on the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm”, is every bit as boring as Jim Morrison’s.

Of course, Guitar Heaven isn’t just a cynical attempt to create and cash in on the perfect Baby Boomer nostalgia bait. It also tries to nab those of us on the cusp of Generation X and whatever the fuck the generation after X was. “Photograph” was a song from my childhood and having Chris Daughtry sing it is a clear attempt to get fourteen-year-old girls to buy this album or at least get that one track from I-Tunes. And if we’re talking about cynicism, what other word describes putting “Under the Bridge” on the album at all? The song is clearly not a guitar classic, but it was on the radio twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for about two straight years in the 1990s. That one is aimed squarely at people my age (as is the inclusion of Chris Cornell, although I was not fooled into believing for even a second that Cornell is as great as he was even as late as Superunknown), but literally nobody my age has ever strummed a solitary air-guitar note to “Under the Bridge.” Why? Because it’s the slow, sensitive song you put on when you want to try and slide into second base (I never did that, but I knew guys who did).

If you’re troubled and/or infuriated by Guitar Heaven, allow me to provide you with some comfort: although you’re right to be infuriated by this album (because – and I’m listening to it as I type this – it really fucking sucks), you needn’t worry that it represents some new kind of musical evil. These attempts to cash in on music someone else wrote have always been around. Paul Anka tried it a few years back with an album called Rock Swings which was so transparently hungry for the money of twenty-and-thirty-somethings that Anka even attempted a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” There are, of course, good covers albums but they are the exception that proves the rule (the rule being, “Covers albums are generally cynical attempts to get money quick”). Astute readers will be in a hurry to point out that I loved Bettye LaVette’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, and I say, “That’s very astute of you.” The thing is, LaVette, without any big-name assistance, took songs other people wrote and made them her own. There’s a sense, for instance, of the personal resonance that “Wish You Were Here” has for LaVette. When you listen to Rob Thomas and Carlos Santana choke the life out of “Sunshine of Your Love”, you can hear that the song means dollar signs to them and nothing else. They’re wringing it out like a sponge, waiting for money to fall out.

It might be tempting to try to link Santana’s decade-long mission to sell out as much as possible (which is his right, by the way – if you want to suck for money, that’s up to you, but don’t get all indignant when I call you a whore) to the Baby Boomer Generation as a whole. After all, a lot of these people spent maybe a decade (some more, some less) trying to stick it to the Man before deciding that they can save more for retirement if they just started working for him. Again, that’s their business and I certainly don’t mean that all Baby Boomer are sellouts, but I am willing to bet that those among the Boomers who buy Guitar Heaven are probably the most ashamed of their hippie-dippy past.  And to be honest, I don’t care so much that Carlos Santana is a sellout per se. I care that he’s a sellout who makes shitty music and now he’s making shitty music out of formerly good music.

And, lest I receive any Red-baiting comments, let me clear up what I mean when I say someone is a sellout. Making money doing what you love is not selling out. Watering down, pussifying, and taming your passions for mass appeal is selling out. Let the great Joseph Campbell sum it up for you: “There’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the center, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the center and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss.” Carlos Santana hasn’t just fallen “off the beam”; he’s swan-dived off of it into a swimming pool full of money, exchanging soulless, lifeless “music” (for it can just barely be called that, and mostly only because it consists of known chords and notes) for cold, hard cash. Or, to put it more succinctly:

Ladies and gentlemen, Carlos Santana has “lost his life.”