Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Decade In Pop

Tom Ewing's essay for Pitchfork is one of the best pieces of criticism that site has ever published. Unlike most "review"-style articles on P4K (including year-end lists), he doesn't attempt to fool the reader into thinking that a year or decade can be neatly summed up into simple "year X was the year of Y" proclamations, as if pop (or any other type of music) could be conveniently summarized into such catchy little policy statements. Ewing isn't afraid to leave a bunch of open questions on the table. His role as a critic, like that of any good teacher, is to cull what he feels to be the most relevant information, set the context as best he can, and suggest his opinion on the matter. Then it is up to us, the students, to run with his arguments and build on his ideas. And this essay is as full of ideas as any of its kind. It's fantastic work -- I wouldn't even know where to begin with such a wide-ranging assignment like "The Decade In Pop".

I do find some serious faults with the piece, the most glaring being the complete omission of race from any part of the discussion. The way in which white artists have been trying to cross over to black markets (and vice versa) is intricately woven into the very fabric of American pop music -- more than just the elephant in the room, Ewing has overstepped a giant blue whale in avoiding any and all discussion of this topic, which is fairly unforgivable considering that 90% of his essay deals with American artists. This is unfortunate, but not so unexpected, because British misunderstandings of American multiculturalism is the single biggest difference in the perspectives of American and British music critics. In other words, I expect a British critic to ignore this stuff, because he doesn't understand it, whereas it would be impossible for an American critic to ignore the stuff.

Ewing writes about the convergence of the pop, R&B, and hip-hop scenes but somehow manages to dodge the issue of which ethno-cultural groups were affiliated with those genres for most of their histories. Surely this had to warrant a mention in regards to one of Justin Timberlake's many guest collaborations? The "Class of '99" was really no different than any other loosely associated bunch of superstar artists from any other period in pop history -- they were white kids who took traditionally "black" forms of music and mass-sold it to a predominantly "white" audience. If New Kids on the Block were a concerted attempt to create a "White New Edition", then 'N Sync were ... a "White Blackstreet"?

For my money, the real "anything's possible" pop moment was the release of 'N Sync's "Pop", produced by trance megastar Brian Transeau aka BT. At the time, I thought that if trance artists were producing boy bands and scoring big hits, then there couldn't be any other kind of cross-genre collaboration that could surprise me. The funny thing was, hardly anybody batted an eye at the time, pretty much because nobody in the pop sphere had any idea who BT was. His style wasn't so different from what the Neptunes were doing at the time, and they were certainly both influenced by the same sorts of electronic-leaning artists, but the Neptunes were crossing over from the hip-hop world, whereas BT was crossing over from what might as well have been Mars. Even so, the Neptunes didn't become megastars in their own right until 2002 or so, but they did have a all-star base of production credits to keep them working with the biggest acts in the business for a long time to come. Whereas "Pop" was a bit of a dud in 'N Sync's career and they essentially split up not long after, so it was hardly the kind of breakthrough success that BT could have built his career upon. Maybe, if BT had worked with them just a few months later, when producers themselves were becoming household names, then he would have had a more memorable career as a pop producer.

And for my money, the genre convergence became complete following Justin Timberlake's (yeah, him again!) guest spot on Snoop Dogg's "Signs", from 2004. That sort of collab is commonplace these days, but in 2004, it was a bit mindblowing. The pretty boy lead singer from an all-white boy band teaming up with a gangsta rap icon? Even eighteen months earlier, that partnership would have been completely unthinkable (for a laugh, can you imagine, say, Jordan Knight guesting on "Doggystyle"?).

Techno actually had a good decade in the charts. From Timbaland throwing the electronica kitchen sink onto Missy Elliott's albums (and don't forget about "My Love"), to the Neptune's minimalist glitch-funk productions, to Kanye West's "808's and Hearbreak", techno was sort of the secret weapon for the pop producer. Y'know, they've already heard it all from rock and hip-hop, so let's throw something at them that they haven't heard, e.g. a rave siren! Timba's "The Way I Are" was a smash hit, and L'il Jon's screaming and cheapo 90's raver effects relegated Usher to a near afterthought on his own record. How could there ever have been any doubt that Eurobeat and rave would be the electronic genres of the 90's that would produce the most chart successes? Remember when people honestly thought that the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy were going to be rock stars??


Tom said...

Thanks for this Barry - really gratifying to see some informed comment on the piece.

I completely accept your main criticism, and you're right as to the reasons for it - I simply don't feel informed enough to explore the racial dimensions to the 00s pop story.

The class of 99 did borrow from black music for cred - the difference this time being that the music they borrowed from was already as commercially successful as them, or nearly so. Obviously the tensions caused in hip-hop by its massive success are a really fascinating story in their own right and one I'm totally unqualified to start writing about.

I had forgotten that BT produced "Pop"! I purposely didn't mention it in the piece because it's a crummy record, it did seem important at the time though. I dunno if it was such a leap given that Madonna had been working prominently with techno and trance producers for some time.

Good call on "Signs", too, I should have remembered that, especially as I end up humming it every summer when Wimbledon comes round.

Barry said...

Hi Tom! Thanks for your comments. I'm glad that you understand that I wasn't trying to stir the pot by playing the British vs American race card ... I mean, this has already been discussed in a million different ways by a million different people on ILX (and countless other places, of course). Other than acknowledging this, and producing a few names/examples, I didn't have anything to add to that discussion here.

Musically, "Pop" wasn't much of a leap but it felt like a big deal at the time because, as you said, you'd expect a boy band to always play it safe and to borrow from music that had already been commercially successful. So, it seemed like a huge risk for 'N Sync to work with an "untested" producer like BT. It all amounted to nothing, for all the reasons we've mentioned (including the record being a bit crap). Madonna isn't a good comparison here because she'd always had a knack for pushing the genre envelope and working with hot, but not widely known (to a pop audience) producers (e.g. Jellybean Benitez, William Orbit, house music in 1989-90 with "Express Yourself" and "Vogue").