Watching the second show in “Danny Baker’s Great Album Showdown” I found it confirming all I had found out in the past year – that the basic, simple genre of “Pop” has now been twisted and subverted beyond all recognition. I watched with pleasure as Danny – along with guests Boy George, Grace Dent & David Hepworth – reeled off anecdotes of their favourite “pop” albums, and realised I wasn’t in fact going mad and that the likes of Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon were indeed “pop music”, the pop I knew and loved but has now been sub-genre’d and formulated into submission.
I am roughly the same age as Grace Dent, brought up by parents roughly the same age as David Hepworth – and I had immersed myself in the joys of pop music ever since I clapped eyes on “Animal Kwackers” at the age of two. I was watching Top Of The Pops as my weekly “treat” from the age of three, bought albums from the age of five and was writing and taping the Radio 1 Top Forty from the age of seven. I was just 10 when I first subscribed to Smash Hits in early ’84. I spent the late 80s buying Jimi Hendrix albums alongside Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye alongside Stock Aitken Waterman and Public Enemy. I knew exactly what the shows panel were talking about because it was exactly the same place I was coming from. Pop to me is, and always has been fascinating and delightful – a world in which the simple and the complex can co-exist happily and often following on from each other. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the second “Golden Age of Pop” (77-85) and to experience the 70s, 80s & 90s first hand. I could go backwards in time (70s, 60s, 50s) whilst lapping up new releases and new styles with great enthusiasm. It isn’t like that now, though.
I have, for my sins, recently spent a year working almost exclusively with young people, aged approximately 18-23, in an environment were music was on constantly. What I learned early on in this work was the majority of young people now have specific requirements and expectations in the music they listen to, and that these clashed completely with my own – and those of most people over the age of, say, 30.
I will admit to having lost my pop compass somewhat in recent years in terms of following the pop charts. Whilst I have maintained my collection of the “Now That’s What I Call Music” series, most of the last 15 have had just the odd flick through – a far cry from the days of yore (Volumes 1 (1993) thru’ to Volume 63 roughly, were each volume would be purchased as close to release date as possible and played repeatedly). Massive exposure to both what they call “modern pop” in my workplace told me there was a reason for this – ‘fings ain’t what they used to be”! Somewhere around 2007, mainstream pop mutated into a generic triple-headed beast that doesn’t stray far from type. Parented by what we used to call “R’n’B” in the 90s, much of what is now seen as modern edgy pop is computer-generated tuneless drivel, driven by half-formed lyrics rendered meaningless by a lack of any context other than mindless chemical-fuelled hedonism. In a society constantly putting the past to trial under the pretext of “child protection”, what those of us who went through 1978 undamaged by some supposed mass “grooming” by errant DJ’s make of todays kids hands-in-the-air’ big hits – songs like Lonely Islands moronic “I Just Had Sex”, Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” (‘Right now, Lick It Good, Lick this pussy just like you should – My Neck, My Back, lick my pussy and my crack”) and Ke$ha’s “Die Young” (‘Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young, We’re gonna die young’). The music made by, say, Calvin Harris presented as typical of todays pop may have been charming once – but once that forumla is applied – and demanded by the modern pop consumer to be – on every other track in the Singles Chart the innovation, and the charm, soon wear thin. The lyrical content of many of these tracks manages to be both trite and offensive at the same time, but with no trace of the intelligence that blessed previous examples of “offensive pop” (from Serge Gainsbourg to the Sex Pistols to Frankie Goes To Hollywood) or the genuine threat much of the greatest rock/pop – The Stone in 1969, The Sex Pistols in 1977, Guns ‘n’ Roses in 1987 – still has in spite of the subsequent ageing and acceptably of those artists So pop stars still “mean it, man”. Alas, not. They are confused, empty sexless vessels just like the youngsters who consume their product over and over again.
As well as jittery semi-worded dance-pop, there appears to be two other ‘default settings’ in pop. Whilst the world of ‘X-Factor’ talent shows could have seen a return to Tin Pan Alley- style songsmithery what it has tended to depend on is either teams of professional songwriter delivering songs-by-number or oversang (and often mis-sung) cover versions rendering yesterdays crafted masterpieces into slush. Bands like One Direction use a pop formula that manages to be both bland and utilize elements of the “pop nouveau”. The ‘Pop Ballad” has been rendered impotent by sticking to a set formula – songs have to be in “uplifting” keys and set to a precise sickly formula. Perhaps the most shocking lesson I learned recently was not “ver kids” slavish devotion to Nikki Minaj & Rihanna but how the music we knew and loved as “pop” rendered “depressing”. This label was applied to hit tracks by artists as upbeat as Madness, David Bowie and Jane’s Addiction – it would seem that a song possesses either words, key changes or – God forbid – minor keys and real instruments together, it is classed as “depressing”. To someone who finds early Leonard Cohen an uplifting inspiration this seemed even more absurd than it obviously is. Perhaps this is symptomatic of two deeper issues I encountered with this age group now – particularly widespread emotional immaturity and the substitution of real emotion and experience with a combination of social instruction and copycat consumption of recreational chemicals.
The realisation that there has been a new “Generation Gap” created during the past 15 years – something that hadn’t reared it’s said in 50 Years Of Rock’n’Roll – and that this gap also includes the Universal Language of Pop is something I find both sad and fascinating.
Danny Baker and co on the glorious BBC4 channel – the only real of “actual” music television now – confirmed that I am not alone in thinking Pop Music is a multi-faceted beast and home to the intelligent, varied and progressive music as we all knew it was for those glorious 40 years of incredible advances. It would be a shame if it all ended in a genuine Arrested Development (‘scuse the pop reference!) but that seems to way things are heading.
I myself have embraced iTuned as a vehicle for music, if not the scatterbrained AD/HD ‘randomisation’, and have banished “Genres” from my carefully ordered database of over 5000 albums (77500 tracks) – they are completely unnecessary and the sheer amount of potential genre’s make a nonsense of the music itself.
Don’t worry though, I still own and use such lumbering beasts like records, cd’s, Hi-Fi separates and quality turntables for the ‘organic’ experience!