Critical Hype: Commentary on Poptimist 31: The Heart of the Crowd

Edited 10/7/10

I have a love-hate relationship with Pitchfork. On the one hand, they occasionally give me insight into genres I have little interest in; offer helpful retrospective lists of various decades; and I did, after all, apply for a writers position there. On the other hand, they focus on twee/electronica/drone a little more than I would like; they put "In Da Club" by Fiddy Cent, one of my most hated songs from the past 20 years (trumped only by the Black Eyed Peas entire catalog) in their Top 200 Singles of the 00's (the position is irrelevant). The rest of the list vacillated between understandable (Radiohead, Outcast), insightful/interesting (I think The Knife made it in there, right?), and fucking bullshit (Cry Me A River? Really? REALLY?).

That being said, I enjoyed this column/article. Really. This isn't going to be a backhanded, sarcastic critique of the thing (like that 'Twee as Fuck' bit I did a few months ago), this is a genuine response to a topic you shouldn't be surprised I'm interested in.

The issue of 'generic' music (the central focus of the article) is one that's popped up in music criticism for decades, and has been getting harder to talk about ever since 'pop' become a genre in-and-of-itself during the 80s. When someone says that Michael Jackson is pop music, they aren't using it in the sense of calling him uninteresting or derivative. It's just one of the only labels that fits (R&B, disco, and New Jack Swing also work, albeit for distinct records as opposed to the artist as a whole). Power pop is a similar genre name, and can refer to more obscure artists like Big Star just as easily as big stars (ohohoho) like Weezer.

So 'pop music' isn't necessarily 'generic', unless you're a particularly jaded music critic who only likes stuff released by underground labels with an initial pressing of 500 copies (like Daniel Johnston, John Fahey, etc, etc). The fact that no living popular music critic is like this should tell you that the whole pretentious myth applies only to hipsters. Anyone with an open mind about music embraces a wide swath, obscure and Top 10 hits alike.

So generic doesn't mean bad either. So what does it mean? It's definitely subjective; any kind of critical judgment is. I would hazard to say, however, that almost any music fan has some definition of the word in their head, which makes me think that its a bit more universal than words like 'good' or 'bad'.

The word itself suggests derivative works, songs/artists that deliberately try to evoke some other song/artist. A few quick examples would be "Welcome To The Black Parade" ("Bohemian Rhapsody" by MCR's own admition), Britney Spears (Madonna), Kylie Mingoue (ditto), Christina Aguilera (ditto, again), Oasis (The Beatles), Weezer (KISS, again by their own admission), and many, many others. Any number of musicians admit their influences (Michael Jackson was heavily influenced by James Brown, who was influenced by Ray Charles, who was influenced by gospel music, etc, etc) but the best of them are able to transform themselves into something unique. Oasis aped The Beatles with an uncomfortable devotion, and The Beatles were themselves guilty of aping Motown artists and, of course, Elvis. The key difference is that The Beatles were able to develop past their influences and create music that was, at its best, unique. In contrast, Oasis developed past their influences and released Be Here Now. The difference is clear.

Let's say this definition, that generic refers to music that is derivative and obviously based off some prior musician's work with minimal development/unique qualities, is roughly universal. We've managed to narrow down the scope of the word, but it remains subjective. How? It depends on one's personal experience of music.

There is little doubt in my mind that a number of my generational compatriots heard Oasis songs before they heard Beatles songs. Nothing wrong with that. The issue is the false impression that comes with that little temporal reversal. On some level, I think, those people see The Beatles as the derivative artist. The qualities that make them unique have been heard in another context, and suddenly the people who did it first are judged inferior. In these peoples minds, they did not do it best. Oasis, or some other similar band, did.

This isn't something that can be removed with a simple history lesson. First impressions are, as I'm sure you well know, extremely powerful. I have plenty of friends that prefer modern pop to classic pop, and this (in my mind) is why. I don't think relative quality really enters into it; music preferences are so vague and individual that they're hardly worth talking about.

This explains why pretentious windbags like myself prefer either artists who are doing something relatively new (most electronica, drone, showgaze, etc) or classic artists (the ones who did ___ first). Musical plebeians, on the other hand, listen to new music without much context outside of prior years' Top Ten singles. Poor bastards.