Tuesday, September 9, 2008
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.