An Onion headline that pretty much sums up what I think is starting to happen in pop culture: “Community Comes Together To Paint Over Ugly Mural”. A simplification, of course, but still.
Archive for the ‘Chaos & Coalescence’ Category
Katherine St. Asaph’s piece on Usher, Nicki Minaj, and the demographic triangulation technique of modern pop is essential reading, even if you disagree, as I do, with her critical assessment of Looking 4 Myself and hold a less gloomy view of the current landscape. There’s no arguing that Usher’s album is largely pastiche, drawing on numerous well- or lesser-known sources, but I don’t think it’s the jumble St. Asaph suggests. What holds all the disparate musical backgrounds together is the very thing that St. Asaph says the music hides, Usher’s personality, in particular his overheated romantic/sexual obsessiveness, and, more importantly, his vocals. No matter how much he alters his voice to fit the different musical backgrounds, it’s always recognizably him. The album, in fact, may ultimately be more important for Usher’s vocals than for its electronic backgrounds. The same can be said of Minaj, though she has a harder time making something cohesive out of her varying voices and points of view (the resulting clash, however, is also a large part of her appeal).
At this point I should admit that I also have a hard time with albums where all the tracks seem to draw from the same stylistic source. This has to do, I imagine, with growing up in the 60s and 70s, a time when the variety of styles between tracks was often seen as a large part of an album’s appeal and quality. Stylistic diversity, after all, is a hallmark of The Beatles’s later LPs; ranging over various genres on a single album was seen as a sign of artistic strength, not as a weakness or a genuflection to demographics. As much as I enjoy Born This Way, for instance, which St. Asaph cites as an album that resists the current pop trend, I find it wearing in the stylistic similarity of its songs (though that’s also a result of the loudness and garishness of the mix).
The article also reminded me of some notes I’d made a while back regarding genre and the talk of the creation of a “genre-less future” that was current a couple of years ago. The idea, as I understand it, was that the digital marketplace would create a vast musical melting pot in which genre would disappear, turning all popular music into a kind of giant Bollywood soundtrack (as if it isn’t already). Ridiculous on its surface, the idea was also wrong at its heart, based on an idea of genre mixing that replaced the reality of the situation with a utopian vision of a universal pop style that would be inclusive and accepting of all the world’s music and result in the end of racism, nationalism, and generational conflict, not to mention ushering in an era of world peace (I’m hyperbolizing, but not by much).
I once felt something close to this idea myself (absent the utopian yearnings), but came to realize that the opposite of a pop landscape heavily divided by genre, isn’t one ruled by a universal synthesis, but one focused on individuals in all their multifaceted complexity. In other words, not so much a mixing of genres, but an acceptance on the part of artists, and the audience, of different genres and styles as tools of personal expression, reflecting varying aspects of the world and the culture and the individual lives within it.
The way I’m putting it makes it sounds as utopian as the idea of a universal style, but all I’m trying to suggest is that when you focus on the individual artist as opposed to the genre an artist is associated with, you allow an expansion of style and expression that moves the artist, the audience, and hence the culture, beyond the limitations of genre.
I’m not suggesting that this would become some permanent, ideal state, but I do believe it’s an essential element in the cycles of culture. In time, the personal styles that would develop in this phase would harden into genres of their own, starting the whole cycle over again. For now though, I think this relatively genre-less state is what we’re moving toward, and where we’ll be for the next decade or so. Usher and Minaj may be moving in this direction through commercial calculation, but that calculation is based on following the culture wherever it leads. I’m not sure anyone can be faulted for that.