Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Don't Sweat The Critique

'If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers.'

Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

Music criticism is an unavoidable part of music culture. Aristotle noted the effect of the ancient melodies on listeners' emotions, Debussy wrote under the critical alias, Monsieur Croche, and The Source dished out five mics for rapping prowess. Yet criticism, both constructive and destructive, are frequently being overlooked. Too many album reviews either read too much into the music or just give some vague description on how the music made the reviewer feel. At some point the music has to be evaluated. Or maybe not... 

The artist, Kreayshawn, which as Wikipedia highlights is a play on the word "creation", had her song "Gucci Gucci" in Pitchfork's top songs of the year. Obviously the gimmicky hook is catchy enough to warrant the millions and millions of views she got on YouTube, but there was a mistake in letting her talk about the kreayshawn of the video - its a play on the word "creation."

"Everything that happened was just like, that's how it happened." 

This is the phrase that stands out, and it seems most people dont mind this unabated madness. There is a general disregard of criticism by a lot of  recent pop artists and their fans. As far as they're concerned criticism is just "hating". No one likes a hater, just let things happen no matter how bad you think they are. In the equally terrible pop song by Cher Lloyd, "Swagger Jagger", the chorus runs: 

"Swagger Jagger, Swagger Jagger 
You should get some of your own
Count the money, get your game up
You're a hater just let it go."

The thing is, hatred of these songs could be linked to the love of music. If you love music, if you love Hip Hop, or used to love H.E.R., you will be more protective of the values and messages certain songs of that genre send out. Mindlessly writing off critics as haters only reveals how mindless many of the songs are. Pretentious intellectualism isn't the answer, but neither is hash-tagging every nay sayer a hater. Rakim warned against skill getting in the way of the music, 

'It's cool when you freak to the beat,
but don't sweat the technique.'

But in this modern music is there any technique at all?

"Everything that happened was just like, that's how it happened."

Saturday, 11 February 2012


Pop music requires the age-old notion of masking. People have assumed musical identities to sell shows throughout history. But masking isn’t just for the sake of the performer. The audience too need to know that what they project their loves, lusts, hatreds and fears upon isn’t too real. The mask signifies that the performance is indeed an act and not a documentary. Everyone involved in this interplay has to be aware of the mask, conscious of the fact that pop music is made for television, for radio, for the perpetual playing to the masses. Recently this has led to a problematic paradox. Increasingly music has just become ‘pop’ – popular characters basically offering the same types of music under different guises – and the music that grounded these masks in authenticity and reality have been put aside. The paradox is that whilst the greatest character masks still tap into a reality the music used to provide, it is never desirable to stray too far from pop world conventions.

People want to identify with real music but are uncomfortable when the performers become too real. So on the one hand no one wants real pop stars that live in the everyday world, but on the other hand we want to believe that what they sing about and perform is still relevant to us, the average listener. Of course the songs that speak best happen to be the ones that come from a real place and person. It is the dilemma the lead character from the cult classic film Videodrome faces. In a sci-fi world dominated by soft porn and TV violence, there’s something about Videodrome that separates it from the rest. The problem is that this something happens to be the fact that Videodrome is real. He realises the distinction that where many people will enjoy watching pornography, few want to watch snuff.

Nowhere is the mask more sacred than in America, where Disneyworld staff rooms are for ‘Cast Members Only’ and radio listeners mistake HG Wells for the news. Recently America has been churning out better pop stars because they can actually believe in the mask modern pop culture demands. Nowhere is this seen more than in the MTV VMA ceremonies. In 2009 Kanye West infamously wrecked Taylor Swift’s award speech. By 2010 this had become the material for Taylor Swift’s performance at the very same award ceremony the next year. What had been a real event in 2009 had become part of the character masks by 2010.  Taylor Swift becomes the mature model of forgiveness when faced with adversity:

While Kanye languishes in his boyish arrogance and the burden of his obvious genius, “lets have a toast for the assholes”:


And remarkably all was forgiven despite none of these events ever leaving the surreal world of the music award ceremony, something Taylor Swift even alludes to at the beginning of her performance. Pop will eat itself and enjoy it too. The success of the performances lay in their ability to offer some real feeling within the comforts of the MTV world, unthreatening, safe – unreal. The script couldn’t have been written any better.

However, for one person this system has gone horribly wrong. Her character is Lana Del Rey. A name formed from a Golden Age Hollywood actress and a Brazilian car. She released a video for her song "Videogames", which brought her to the pop arena quicker than perhaps any other internet meme, and people don’t know what to do with her. What they have done is drag her through a never-ending series of interrogations about her authenticity. What separates Lana Del Rey from the plethora of female artists is that rather than being too fake, she isn’t fake enough. The music she has become famous by is very good, "Videogames" has topped numerous songs of the year polls, but people are more interested in whether she used to be called Lizzy Grant and whether her dad is rich. It’s as if she created a character for genuine musical/aesthetic reasons that has now found its self embroiled in a world where music is irrelevant - pop.

When Katy Perry released “I Kissed A Girl”, she became a huge hit, but no one questioned the authenticity of her song. Maybe its because the nature of the song and her character are so dramatically overblown that it put everyone at ease that things weren’t getting threateningly real. Lana Del Rey produced a song that really hit the public consciousness, because the public are desperate for genuine songs, and people have become obsessed with the authenticity of the character. The charge against her is that Lana Del Rey isn’t real enough.  The truth is Lana Del Rey isn’t fake enough. Unlike successful pop artists she doesn’t believe in her own mask.  After the reaction of her Saturday Night Live performance she has cancelled her world tour[1]. She has even stated that there might not even be another album because she has said everything she needs to say[2]. These aren’t the actions of a pop star, though of course all this could still yet prove to be a publicity masterstroke.

Right now the success of Pop comes from knowingly teasing the audience into a character relationship. We put our unreal expectations on them and they live up to it. It takes on the role of voyeurism. Everyone feels plugged into the music, but really we are all just looking through keyholes as pop seduces us. Our experience becomes as deep as the eyes that can sense it, and it stops anyone seeing the bigger picture. There is a huge value on the authentic feeling because it is so fleeting in our age. Perhaps this is why popular music gets away with the most incredible superficiality. Perhaps this is why Lana Del Rey has been hounded so relentlessly. In any case what Lana Del Rey has shown is that the pop world isn’t like a videogame, it’s more like videodrome.