Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Is the Concept of Popular Music Dead?

If the Video Music Awards proved anything, it's that, well, MTV has lost its touch. But more than that, it showed that the level of music we call "popular" has broadened its scope over the past couple of years, which actually works to contradict the idea of said music's "popular" status in the first place. Let me explain.

Maybe I've just gotten a little too old to be on top of, say, Z100's current playlist, but I remember back in the 90s and early 00s, I knew every song nominated for a VMA. (Okay, there were always those one or two obscure videos, but I think they were nominated because the videos themselves were cool, not because the songs were necessarily underground smashes.) They were the biggest hits of the year, playing on radio constantly, having their videos be requested around the clock on The Box (sigh, I miss that channel), and just generally pervading the culture.

But this year's VMAs featured such nominees as Ne-Yo, Danity Kane, and Taylor Swift. None of which had huge hits this year, at least at the level that MTV's flagship annual program would concern itself with. (No, "Damaged" was not a hit.) Sure, we also saw Katy Perry and Britney Spears, but...Katy rose to fame on the strength of her digital EP UR So Gay, and for all its buzz, Britney's Blackout wasn't the hit-producing chart-topper some hoped it would be. Which is exactly my point: I think the Internet has destroyed, or at least vastly changed, the concept of popular music.

It used to be that the hit songs were whatever radio and MTV wanted to play, and if you wanted to hear other music you really had to dig. Now, though, we have the Internet, and you can listen to Wolf Parade and Britney Spears with equal ease. iTunes, arguably the largest music store in the world, currently includes lists as its top-selling artists (in terms of Top Songs) T.I., The Pussycat Dolls, and M.I.A. Sure, "Paper Planes" was a breakout hit for the latter artist, but it's remarkable that a song from a Sri Lankan indie darling can achieve equal popularity with with a song by the most popular currently-together girl group in America. I'm happy for M.I.A.; her music is wonderful, and it's great that so many people are getting a chance to hear it. But without the Internet, I don't know if her music would have achieved such popularity. In the days before Pitchfork, you had to go to scour music magazines and go to the record store in order to find artists who weren't carried by Sam Goody; now, though, you can get any kind of music from the same service--iTunes--and new music is but a link away.

So while this increases the scope of popular music, it also limits its power, because once everything is popular, nothing is popular. Being a "top-selling artist" loses its meaning as people download illegally or burn music from friends; it's more about buzz than record sales. So while The Shins can enter the public's consciousness, perhaps Christna Aguilera and Lil' Kim has begun to fade out of it, pushed away by a score of other female pop and hip-hop stars who have seen their careers rise (or re-rise; hi Robyn) due to viral success. The artists from the pre-Internet era who survive today have done so for two reasons: either they have just become such a powerful cultural force that their name has guaranteed a fixed position for them in music culture--Britney, Madonna, etc.--or else they have successfully used the Internet to promote their music--Lil' Wayne has released a bevvy of online mixtapes, for instance, and Radiohead's Internet sale of In Rainbows revolutionized the record sales industry. But popular radio, like Z100 of the Tri-State Area, has lost its meaning; in a world where anyone can download whatever music they want at any time, nobody wants to hear whatever music an overpaid radio DJ has been given a bonus to promote. And YouTube has brought back the music video! As much as we'd all like to see MTV play more videos, hasn't YouTube kind of rendered that network's function obsolete? We don't need to wait for John Norris to introduce the new Kanye West video; we can watch it online instead, right now, for free. (Okay, one link--go watch it here. SO CUTE.)

Is "popular" music now whatever gets the most downloads on iTunes? Whatever the blogs hype the most? Whatever music gets the most word-of-mouth buzz? That's a difficult question, but I can tell you what popular music is not, at least by default: the music playing on Top 40 radio and nominated for a VMA. Actually, let me revise that statement: just because a song is played on Top 40 radio or nominated for a VMA, does not mean it is popular in today's culture. Am I just out of touch, or is it a little weird that Linkin Park won "Best Rock Video"? Because, honestly, who actually listens to Linkin Park anymore? Maybe I'm just too entrenched in New York, but I don't see how fans voted Linkin Park to victory, as nobody I know--in college or back home in Jersey--claims to like them, and I haven't even seen them played on MTV Hits (when...when I watch that network.)

And I didn't see M.I.A. get a single nomination.



MediaMaven said...

I agree with you. MTV, and the VMAs especially, do not capture what popular music is; only a fraction of it. Damaged is played a lot on Z100, but so are a lot of other songs, and that group isn't particularly popular. I'd say popular music is very fragmentary, but it's the artists that sell both on iTunes and in album sales. Radio play works when it has long-lasting, multiple format and genre appeal (like Rihanna and Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy", though that example is outdated by two years).

Buzz does have a lot to do with it, but it's tricky, because it has to be relevant (not just watered down corporate speak) and not just the province of a few hipster blogs.

Linkin Park actually was played a lot on MTV and VH1 earlier this year, and I did hear them a decent amount on the radio, although they haven't been front and center. They are now, like Nickelback, a band that did well but didn't have a lot of hype or the chattering classes around them.

The internet hasn't destroyed popular music so much as shown that popularity is an elusive thing that many artists get to share.

Jess and Josh said...

I agree with your last point; what I meant by saying the Internet had destroyed "popular" music was that the Internet has decimated the hierarchy of music merchandised by record companies and (over)played by selected media outlets like Z100. I think what constitutes "popular" music now is a broadening, more encompassing, and in many ways more leveled playing field by which artists with less studio support can still achieve fame while successfully reaching a large audience. The VMAs increasingly seem like a vestige of a bygone era of the music industry.


Jess and Josh said...

Moreover, I realize something in your comment: Linkin Park got a lot of radio play and help from MTV (and VH1, even though it's even less of a music channel now than MTV.) Yet I don't think their music has had the dominant presence in our culture that past radio/MTV darlings have enjoyed. Remember when Korn was like the biggest thing ever? And then they were on South Park? And "Nookie" by all means shouldn't have been a hit, but since MTV loved it, the song became one of the biggest of the year? Good times, man.


Jason H said...

Sorry if this turns out to be long. I basically agree with you, but I wouldn't say the big hegemonic popular music industry is entirely decimated yet, it's just become decentralized. There are still a lot of people in America that listen to corporate radio formats overloaded with payola, but those people aren't likely to be serious music appreciators. The VMA's and their ilk are the detritus for sycophantic Miley Cyrus fans.

Even with the internet bringing greater accessibility to obscure music, rarely does that go beyond a few bigwig blogs or publications. People still have to "dig" online, the more prominent blogs aren't going to cover the latest or best in outsider jazz or anything of that sort. There's a "popular" underground (I don't know what else to call it), and then there's a huge sub-underground that for one reason or another continues to flourish in relative obscurity until it's adopted by the larger blogs, or because so many people get behind it that it's too pressing to ignore (i.e., pitchfork praising Midwest bands on the Siltbreeze label or giving LA's The Smell venue a bigger spotlight when they realized that those bands had an established network of fans and were gelling more with people than Clap Your Hands Say Suck or whatever dreck they're pushing).

Popularity these days is harder to achieve and harder to sustain. More than ever, America has a feverish obsession with novelty, and whatever currently exists as cultural currency is changing at a hypersonic pace. But there's reason to be optimistic - musicians will have to constantly innovate new ways of keeping themselves and their audience interested once the old system of doing things finally croaks. There's less room to be lazy if an artist is serious about what they're doing. People now have a bigger CHOICE to decide what they want to listen to, they're not going to waste it. With more accessibility, there's also more crap to sludge through, and the gems that shine through will be all the more apparent. This has always been the case probably, but in the 00's it's been multiplied.

I also have found at times that blogs have contributed to musical OVERconsumption or fetishization. Maybe this is why we're having a new age of the "single" as opposed to album. Consuming hordes of music over a short period of time without any real concerted listening effort is likely to cheapen the music into being mere aural wallpaper (and not in the ambient sense). These days I take a step back, obsess on one particular album or artist for a week or two, and then move onto something else when I feel compelled. I want to hear every nuance and harmonic convergence, I don't want to prematurely abandon a song or write off a band just so I can consume more music I found on a blog.

Mazi said...

great post...just like to nitpick...i think "paper planes" hit a huge second wave of success based on an old model - the popular movie trailer. Although I don't listen to radio myself enough to know exactly when it hit kroq here in LA...but hearing it every time I'm in an ipod-less car no matter how short the trip is pretty good indication that it is peaking now in terms of its mainstream success.