Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pop Rules!

Below is an article by David Quantick on the power of pop music. It is thought-provoking to say the least, and downright spot-on to say the most.

“Strange how potent cheap music is,” Noel Coward once said, doubtless while trolling round the drawing room in his pyjamas to the strains of some Cole Porter song. These days, assuming he wouldn’t be beating Paddy McAloon to death with a copy of ‘A Life Of Surprises’, Coward might be making the same remarks about the Top 40.

Potent is the word when it comes to pop music; no other form of music, not even free-style jazz or Verve b-sides, can exert the same irritating, crazed influence on the adult brain. No other music is that simple and direct; pop music, whether it’s The Beatles, Take That or Phil Bastard Collins, breaks into your mind and squats in it until you die.

Pop music is of course a subjective business. Bryan Adams and Whitney Houston records make us cool pop persons with our REM and Orb records run into the bushes and gag like hippos, but millions of other people feel very differently. Similarly, the dull men of rock out there in medialand who can only groove to Peter Gabriel, BB King and the Brits nominees run with horror from anybody over 125bpm (and indeed under 125 years old).

So we won’t waste a lot of time defining the creaking question of what is pop? – except to say that if it is Sting, then all we have ever fought for is an empty sham. Nirvana – they have hits, they have tunes – are pop. Public Enemy – they are exciting, they make memorable records – are pop. And, sadly, even Undercover – they look like shit, they are shit – are pop. Hey, that’s showbiz.

Some people won’t accept this. Some people think that their record collections are morally superior to other people’s record collections. They think that liking Belly or Pavement makes them better, more intelligent people than folks who opt for Erasure or East 17. Bloody hell, some people think that pop – that’s pop, ladies and gentlemen, the musical form that gave the world Motown and The Beatles and punk rock and Suede – is inferior to what they thrillingly call “proper music”. They will tell you from the moral high ground of owning ‘It’s A Shame About Ray’ that people who like pop music are “morons” or “brainwashed”. And we wonder why Morrissey is so popular.

STUDENT: “These pop groups are rubbish. They don’t even play their own instruments!”

- Extract from my forthcoming novel Die Sad Indie Boy, Die!

You know what pisses me off? This: there are thousands of people out there who profess themselves fit enough to go into shops and buy records but who despise everything about pop music. They might from time to time buy a Pet Shop Boys single because they have heard that Neil Tennant is a bit “ironic”; they might have a couple of drinks and dance to ABBA at a party because that’s a “funny” thing to do; and they like a bit of SexKylie (even though they do not know why ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ was a great single) but show them anything outside their weeping world of guitar self-righteousness and they sneer a half-wit’s sneer of disdain.

History is riddled with such gits. In the 1950s, when everyone was doing it naked in the streets to Elvis Presley and Little Richard and Chuck Berry, these people were buying 1920s-style trad jazz albums and wearing bowler hats.

In the 1960s, when everyone was doing it on speed and then acid in the streets to everything from The Monkees to Smokey Robinson, from The Who to Jimi Hendrix, these people were sitting down and listening to weedy white grammar school boys playing tedious copies of old blues songs. And then there were the 70s…

The 70s, as we know, gave us punk. But the real reason for punk rock wasn’t social upheaval or inflation or the oil crisis; it all came about one afternoon when the nation’s sane teenagers – happy with their T Rex and Bowie and Barry White and Philly Soul and all the rich cultural heritage of the day – finally tired of being told by their elder brothers that the likes of Yes and Genesis and ELP and Wishbone Ash – decaying, talent-free, self-abusing arsefluff of the devil every single one of them – were not only “good” but were in fact “important” because they could play their instruments and wrote about elves and spacemen.

BAM! That was it. The nation’s pop kids went through nine evolutionary stages in a week and destroyed the world in a spitting, leather and safety-pin hail of hate and guitars. Well, almost. Some of the sadder punks claimed the joy and release of disco was in fact “faceless” and, horrors, “commercial” and formed sad hardcore labels in the 1980s which went bust. Wicked!

“I could do with the money…” – David Bowie, ‘Star’

But we digress. The point is that these wankers have always been wrong about pop. Who cares if people play their own instruments or even sing on their own records? It’s what the record sounds like that counts. Who cares if pop is “mindless”? It’s an emotional form; given the right circumstances a pop record can be even more exciting or moving or even weird than anything “rock” has to offer.

Ah, say some invertebrates or Levellers fans, but pop records are so meaningless and cynical and tacky. Pop artists only care about the money and they put no thought or creativity into the record, like, and you have to admit that Stock, Aitken and Waterman weren’t in it for the love.

This is an interesting argument. It assumes that you can only make good records if you are doing it for free and giving the proceeds to charity, which pretty much puts paid to every record ever made. It also assumes that rock equals honesty and pop equals dishonesty, and neither of these things is true.

Pop is honest. It was invented to make money and it never pretends otherwise. And it will shamelessly try every trick in the book to make you like it. It steals from everyone and it makes no bones about it; at the moment, it’s stealing from hip-hop, ragga, hardcore, techno and even Asian music (pop, is in fact, the only real “world music”) and it doesn’t pretend to originality – this despite the fact that there’s more inventiveness in a third-rate dance track than most of U2’s career. Look at an average band like East 17, whose records casually blend about five different musical styles from the past 20 years, but fail to boast about it. Meanwhile, Elvis Costello hires a string quartet and you’d think he’d found the lost bastard chord. Originality in pop is a daily occurrence; originality in rock means owning a Big Star album.

Rock, basically, is dishonest. It’s founded on dishonesty, from Jim Morrison pretending to be a poet to Bruce Springsteen pretending to be a steelworker. The major labels are crammed with rebels in limos, street kids with accountants and pure woodland spirits with $1,000,000,000-a-day coke habits.

Morrissey is a stadium rock act who sells himself as a lonely bedsit lad. Bono promotes himself as a man subverting the very concept of rock, when in fact all U2 are is Bon Jovi with boggle shades and a good art director.

The worst pork pie about rock and pop, however, is the claims they make about “meaning”. The difference between rock and pop isn’t that rock has meaning and pop doesn’t – it’s that rock claims to have meaning, whereas pop generates meaning. It’s like this: nearly every “serious” rock act seeks to have some kind of artistic impact on the listener. Sometimes they fail and sometimes they don’t, but they’re always after that effect.

Pop records, though, can be crass and cynical and all that, but because people take them up and relate them to their lives or to incidents in their lives, those records mean something. It might be as spooky as ‘Man On The Moon’ or ‘How Soon Is Now’ or it might be some saccharine weepy that turns up twice a week on Our Tune, but it doesn’t matter.

Pop is great because people take meaning from it and, while it’s unlikely to change our lives, it reflects our lives and becomes part of them too.

Strange, how potent cheap music is.

- David Quantick, “Pop Rules!”, NME (6/2/93)