Friday, November 21, 2008

Pop in '08

In a recent interview with Pitchfork, mashup artist Gregg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk) was asked to defend the quality of the music he samples.  Here's the Q&A with interviewer Mark Richardson:

Pitchfork: What about the role of irony in your music, if there is any? What is your actual relationship to the tracks you draw from? Which of them you think, "Oh, this is amazing; this is genius," which of them you think, "This is silly," and which of them you think, "This is a cheesy guilty pleasure."

GG: At this point I feel like I've graduated beyond guilty pleasures. I sample everything on this because I like it. Going back to my high school band experience, the bitter teenage years, back then I would sample the music almost to mess it up. Even on the first Girl Talk album, I don't want to say I was approaching it ironically, but I was taking songs that I maybe didn't listen to as much, like [Joan Osborne's] "One of Us", and completely mangling it. But [now], that's not really interesting to me.

Kind of taking a step back, I appreciate almost every form of music. If I'm not really getting it, oftentimes [it's because] I don't like something on the surface. There's probably a fan base for it, but I just don't understand why they're into it. There's a crowd out there who hates everything Pitchfork reviews, and there's a crowd who hates every jam band release out there. No one's really right or wrong in my mind, it's just a matter of your influences and your experiences growing up. All that factors into my never wanting to sample anything ironically-- I'm totally behind everything. Especially pop; it's so sincere and up-front, making a song everyone's going to enjoy. It's impossible for me to hate on that.

This quote immediately brought to mind two occurrences: 1. After Girl Talk's breakout album Night Ripper was released, my brother Joel said to me, "It makes listening to really bad rap fun"; 2. Dave once asked me if my inclusion of R. Kelly's "I'm a Flirt (Remix)" on a mixtape was "a joke."

Defending an entire genre of music is a difficult prospect because stereotypes are so prevalent, more often than not, for good reason.  I'll refer you to an article I wrote on the merits of country (see pages 12-14), because most of the same arguments can be slightly altered and applied to pop.  But I think ultimately, Gillis hits the nail on the head with that last line.  Trace the history back through Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Elvis, and pop has always been about simplicity and fun, and not a whole lot more.

Most of my days are spent in the library and not tuned into the car radio, and as a result, I haven't a clue what today's number 1 hit is.  That said, I have been lucky enough to catch a handful of gloriously unabashed pop singles this year.  Here are a couple I've particularly enjoyed and a couple more that have me salivating for a future release:

First: Sugababes - "No Can Do"

I have no explanation for why some groups simply don't make it across the pond (example: probably the decade's best pop album, Robyn's 2005 self-titled, finally saw an American release in April of 2008--what the hell?).  Sugababes have six albums to their name--their most recent, Catfights and Spotlights, is their "lowest charting in eight years," despite hitting #8 on the UK Albums Chart--and yet I'd never heard their name before moving to England.  Their album, like most pop records nowadays, is simply not all that good: it's not at all cohesive, it's front-loaded to death, and much of it is downright boring.  But there are a couple of singles that just scream perfect pop.  Case in point, "No Can Do," which borrows a Sweet Charles Sherrell sample originally produced by James Brown, glimmers with a modern Motown feel.  This is the kind of track that would put Christina and Britney to shame if it ever made it onto American airwaves.

Second: Taylor Swift - Fearless

I promise to give this album a proper review sometime soon--it deserves it.  But for now, I'll just post my current-favorite-tune, "Hey Stephen," from what's hands down the best pop album I've heard in 2008.

Third: Kid Sister  - "Family Reunion"
Dusted Magazine posted what I believe is the first proper review of Kid Sister's upcoming Dream Date today.  One of the first singles out is this Diplo-produced number with a killer bass line and a funky guitar lick.  In the middle of November, Kid Sister treats us to the perfect summer single, complete with a chipper chorus: "Quit your boohooin'/ Sun be shining, barbecuing/ It's about to be a family reunion."

Fourth: Rox - "My Baby Left Me"
I'll let Pitchfork's Eric Harvey handle this gem:
Ah, ooooooooo-uu-oohh yeah!
The soul beneath Rox's sweet shout sounds like the product of peak-era Motown labor division--each piece molded with micro-level human care and macro-level cold precision. The excerpted vocal above is no exception: it only distantly exhibits characteristics that one would instantly recognize as "human." Like the studio-constructed self-choir Stevie Wonder made of his own impossibly keening falsetto on the middle eight of "We Can Work It Out" (2:08 to 2:15), this background holler is chrome. Most crucially is the break in the middle of the "Ah, oooooooo" part. It's the quick-hiccup sort of modification that most would identify with record-scratching, but there's no "scratch" sound present. Just a frozen microsecond of space, like gleaming side-panel detail work temporarily interrupted by the gap where the door opens.
Listen to "My Baby Left Me" here, or visit Rox's MySpace page.


Dave said...

While I completely maintain that R Kelly's I'm a Flirt is a definitively terrible song, I love your approach to music.

I especially enjoyed Taylor Swift's "Fearless." What struck me about it was how easy the words were to listen to, digest, and enjoy. I usually find myself straining to hear what artists are actually saying, but her prominent vocals, upbeat rhythm, and beautiful voice made it easy. I would love to hear more from her.

I feel like music serves two major roles in my life, a catalyst of reflection and means of celebration. I have a tendency to focus on the music that forces me to reflect in new ways, but we must find time to celebrate and for that, what better than pop?

Thanks Adam

Ali said...

I agree with Dave. I love how you are so musically literate, but are not opposed to finding beauty in songs that are supposed to be easy to grasp. I think it's easy to dismiss pop songs as cliche and trite, but the fact that you are able to find something worth writing a blog over is so cute;) Am I allowed to flirt with you on this forum or is that inappropriate? Let me know.

Dave is going to start writing blogs on poetry after I give him some of the great ones to interpret.