Saturday, September 19, 2009

If it's popular it must be bad

I have just read Grant Smithies’ cover piece in Your Weekend about Pip Brown, the former Masterton girl (note that: Masterton girl) who is conquering the pop world under the name Ladyhawke.

Smithies is a clever and knowledgeable writer about pop and rock music (and so he should be, considering that he’s chosen it as his professional niche), but he shares the besetting fault of many others ploughing the same field. He’s a bit of a snob.

He refers to the fact that Ladyhawke draws her inspiration from the mainstream pop of the 70s and 80s: Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, the Electric Light Orchestra, Pat Benatar and so on.

Smithies manages to restrain himself from commenting on her musical tastes until it comes to Phil Collins, whom he labels “the insomniac-friendly King of Bland”. Ladyhawke recalls her dad playing Phil Collins on the car stereo all the way to Auckland and says, rather defensively: “Hey, some Phil Collins songs are really good. You can’t help but rock out to Easy Lover.”

Actually you can, Smithies interjects disdainfully, after wondering why the young Pip Brown didn’t call CYFS from a petrol station along the way.

Okay, it’s clever, and harmless enough. And to be fair, Smithies balances the ledger towards the end of his piece, where he declares that Ladyhawke’s brand of pop is as catchy as the clap (nice line). But the gratuitous sideswipe at her fondness for Phil Collins is telling.

Smithies springs from a long tradition, dating from the late 1960s, of “rock” critics (they prefer the term “rock” to “pop” because of the latter word’s supposedly trivial connotations) for whom just about anything that’s commercially successful is fatally contaminated.

It’s only a year since Smithies got into an amusing stoush resulting from an article he wrote about Billy Joel. Smithies appears to have sucked up to the former chart-topper during a phone interview, pretending to be a fan so that Joel would play ball. Then he wrote a disparaging piece in which he condemned Joel’s music as “sentimental rubbish”, never imagining that the singer-songwriter would read it. But Joel did, and wrote Smithies an indignant letter asking why he hadn’t been more honest when they spoke.

That episode may have discouraged Smithies from insincerely ingratiating himself with pop stars, but it doesn’t seem to have changed his view of popular music.

I’m no fan of Phil Collins myself, but after several decades it becomes tiresome reading rock journalists sneering at pop stars for committing the cardinal sin of being popular.

It’s as if any music that’s commercially successful must, by definition, be bad. Even the Beatles – to my mind, the most creative pop band in history – went through a long period of being treated by most highbrow rock critics, especially those from America, as unworthy of serious critical attention. More recently, Abba suffered the same fate before attaining a sort of retro-chic status. But it would be hard to find a more perfect example of pure, sophisticated pop than Abba’s.

Generally speaking, the critics prefer their rock heroes to be obscure and esoteric. They love nothing more than to write rhapsodic pieces about performers few people have heard of. It adds lustre to their critical image – or so they seem to think – if they can claim knowledge of something or someone that is too abstruse or inaccessible to have penetrated the public consciousness.

They revel in the exclusivity of the priesthood – the status supposedly conferred by inside knowledge denied to the ignorant masses.

Amusingly, the critics often use the overworked term “legend” to describe these obscure heroes. In the jargon of rock criticism, it is almost axiomatic that a “legend” is someone that only an enlightened handful – the cognoscenti – know about.

It also helps ensure critical approval if a rock star or band strikes a fashionable political pose. Better still if they’re drug-addled and dysfunctional as well. And of course no one appeals to the critics more than someone who is tormented by demons. Death by suicide or drug overdose almost always ensures canonisation. Phil Collins would undoubtedly have got a much better press if he hadn’t been so damned normal.

Ladyhawke herself appears to have suffered as a result of this syndrome. She says success in her home country was far more important to her than anything that happened overseas. Yet even when she was playing huge venues overseas, she told Smithies, she sensed a lot of negativity and cynicism whenever she came back to New Zealand. Perhaps we prefer our pop stars to be dark, gloomy and introverted – rather like our movies, as explored in Sam Neill’s documentary Cinema of Unease. But that’s a subject for another day.

In a recent blog I referred in passing to the American music journalist Tom Moon, author of 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die.

Moon occasionally lapses into the irritating gibberish that is Rolling Stone magazine’s house style, but his great redeeming grace as a critic is that he’s open to all manner of musical influences. Not only does his book span almost every genre imaginable, but Moon has no qualms about celebrating pure, commercial pop (Abba is there, along with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass) alongside the arcane and the highbrow. Moon’s slogan is “The more you love music, the more music you love”.

Significantly, Moon has worked as a professional musician (a saxophonist) himself. He understands that music is a complex interplay of melody, harmony, rhythm and sometimes words. This sets him apart from many of his peers, who seem primarily interested in lyrics (the more enigmatic the better, because we all know that if a song’s hard to understand it must be profound) and the ideological posturing of the performer.

I don’t know about Grant Smithies, but I suspect that many rock critics, unlike Moon, can’t sing or play a note and possibly aren’t really interested in music for its own sake. The result is that they write about it much as a blind person might review a movie.


Unknown said...

Nick Hornby had a comment about this sort of thing once - he reckoned too many critics (he was talking music and literary) are either still in their 20s and haven't experienced enough of life's knocks, so they go for the difficult and the 'edgy', or if they're older they're often emotionally stuck at this level of petrified adolescence.

I think he was onto something.

That said, I still think Phil Collins is the Spawn of Satan.

Vaughan said...

In the late 60s and early 70s there was a lot of simple bubble gum music promoted by commercial interests and lapped up by mainstream audiences.

All this was happening at a time when music by, for example, the Doors, Santana, Hendrix and Dylan was on offer. They were minority interests for years.

I think critics were right to point out to the public that this quality music existed and to encourage people to give it a go instead of just listening to stuff that was little more than an advertising jingle.

It was a question of how to do this without demeaning the people they were trying to persuade.

I think the challenge now for the baby boomer generation is to listen to music composed today and admit that much of it is as good as, or better than, the music they listened to in their youth.

Anonymous said...

An interesting response from Vaughan and some issues that should be looked at. I think in popular music (but not so much in classical music, which is my main interest) there is that element of commercialism that can override real talent. There are numerous examples including that awful group who mimed at all their gigs - until they were sprung. (Cannot recall their name.) His last paragraph MAY apply to popular music. I suggest it does not apply to classical music!