Once upon a time the term “Pop” simply referred to popular music, and little effort was devoted to differentiating between styles. R&B, Rock & Roll, standards (Ol’ Blue Eyes and his ilk), Soul, whatever – it was all lumped together on AM radio and while you probably liked some things more than others, it was a mass media world and you didn’t really have the rigid demands of subcultural self-selection and boundary policing that came to be the rule later on.
Beginning in the late ’60s and early ’70s, though, the genrefication of popular music began getting serious, driven in large part by the emergence of FM radio. All of a sudden you came to understand that Rock was something different from Pop and that some music was Art while other music was Product. The illuminated musical elite, which listened to Artist, looked down on the unwashed Pop peasantry and thus ensued the out of control nichification that has dominated the last 30 years.
I don’t want this to sound like those snooty Rock-loving elites are the bad guys here, though. I mean, I’m one of them. In truth, their disdain for the Pop industry was well-informed. Pop wasn’t about authentic expression, it was, in fact, about corporate product. There might be a music genius involved, but that person was usually behind the scenes, helming the money machine and playing Svengali to a series of disposable faces chosen more for their look as their actual musical ability. Milli Vanilli and C&C Music Factory weren’t the first put-up jobs in music history and while he may have perfected the process, Simon Cowell didn’t invent cynical factory pop.
That’s your quick three-paragraph Reader’s Digest summary of how we got to where we are.
The saddest part of it all is that Pop has been branded for all time with an inherently pejorative taint by so many of popular music’s more intelligent fans. But let’s remember: The Beatles were a Pop band – probably the greatest one ever. The Who, as far as I can tell, were the ones that coined the term “Power Pop.” And it has to be acknowledged that a lot of today’s brightest stars are doing music that is unabashedly Pop in its sound.
While the difference between a Product and a Serious Artist, in the eyes of the intelligentsia, often boils down more to “I know it when I see it” than it does objective criteria, there are factors that are generally accepted as key to the evaluation. “Authenticity,” while it can subjective to the point of random, spiteful arbitrariness, is everything. You have to write your own songs. You have to play an instrument (even if you’re mainly a singer, fans are reassured when you strum away at the acoustic for a song or two in concert, as Mick and Bono have been known to do).
And you need to be in control of your career. Artistic and professional autonomy, these matter a lot. The people around you – managers and the like – they work for you, not the other way around.
As the header says, 2013 has been a great year so far for what I guess we’ll call “authentic Pop.” In some cases, we have to attach the word “Indie,” because doing so insulates artists from charges that they’re money-grubbing sellouts. That word is so incredibly powerful these days, too. I think a five dollar hooker could brand him/herself an “Indie Prostitute” and immediately garner widespread social and critical acclaim for the gritty realism and authenticity being brought to a profession that has never enjoyed proper respect from the corporatized mainstream media establishment/sex industry.
Of course, were that to happen, the commodification engines would spring into action, monetizing the perceived authenticity of the Indie Hooker, and invariably some would emerge as stars of the genre, meaning that instead of five dollars, a romp would cost you a few thousand large. At that point graduate students and junior tenure track faculty would begin jacking out largely incomprehensible neo-Marxian critiques of how Late-Stage Capitalism was appropriating legitimate cultural spheres of work and play, and in doing so invalidating the linguistic vocabulary of dissent and rebellion. #Hipster #AvrilLaVigneIsARealPunk #PostModernism #YouKnowI’mRight
The theme that’s hard to ignore, if you waste as much money on tuneage as I do, is the French Invasion. The CD that freakin’ everybody is raving about right now is Random Access Memories, the lastest from Paris synthpoppers Daft Punk. I’m still trying to onboard this one – I habitually dislike everything until I’ve heard it four or five times, and I’m currently halfway through spin #3. But the intelligence and craftsmanship are immediately evident, as is the duo’s thoughtfulness about its own influences. I could probably do without some of the overt Studio 54ishness, but the homage to Giorgi Moroder goes well beyond riff and deeper into a consideration of the path from youthful aspiration to fully realized stardom.
Also, my gods, is “Get Lucky” the most infectious tune you’ve heard all year or what? It actually makes me hate The Bee Gees just a bit less. Not much, mind you, but a little.
The other French band that gets a lot of attention is Phoenix. They blew the proverbial lidd off of Indie Pop with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009) and this year’s Bankrupt! is a worthy follow-up. Critics don’t seem to love it quite as much (AMG gives it four stars instead of the four and a half that WAP earned), with the sense being that it’s a little more comfortable and not as ambitious. Maybe, but if so, that slight lack of edge is compensated for with a confidence and a polish that wasn’t always evident before.
Then there are a couple of bands that you probably haven’t heard of. First up is Aline, the Marseilles quartet responsible for Regarde Le Ciel. Insanely catchy, hooky Power Pop inflected by both an ’80s wistful Romanticism and a more stripped-down aesthetic owing more to late ’70s UK New Wave – it all adds up to perhaps the best French CD of the year to date. The fact that it’s all in French means RlC is going to have a hard time breaking through in the US, which is a pity. It’s a superb effort that you’re going to love even if you don’t speak a word of the Gallic.
Finally, there’s a band I only discovered recently: Exsonvaldes, who are so darned French they don’t even have an English language Wikipedia page (although some of their vocals are in English). They’re probably a bit less poppy, in the sense that we usually think of the term, with a noisier, harder edge on their sound (it’s even a little shoegazerish in spots) than the other bands noted here. But there’s a distinct ’80s influence and they wouldn’t be at all out of place on a bill with other Power Pop and Indie bands. And, most importantly, they’re driven by the rich sense of melody and structure common to all great Pop.
Of course, not all the great Pop this year hails from France. For instance, if you liked Pet Shop Boys style ’80s synthpop, you’re gonna freakin’ love Brooklyn’s Bear in Heaven.
And Manhattan’s The Postelles, who are following up their fantastic self-titled debut with …And It Shook Me, which is arguably an even better effort. I’ve argued that these guys are what all your favorite Hipster Pop bands would sound like if they’d get the fuck over themselves.
Finally, there’s Fitz & the Tantrums. Their debut was a wonderland of Motown and Stax influenced neo-Soul goodness. In an interview shortly before the new disc’s release, frontman Michael Fitzpatrick explained that while the debut was marked by a distinct 1960s sound, there was a lot of ’80s going on underneath it all. With More Than Just a Dream, he said, the dynamic was flipped, with the ’80s out front and the ’60s lurking in the background. The point is proven a few seconds into the lead track, and while this was not what I was expecting, and it took me a few listens to catch on, by the seventh or eighth spin it had become one of my favorites of the year so far. Put simply, it’s one of those CDs that gets in your head and you can’t get it out.
I’m expecting 2013′s back nine to be pretty cool on the Pop front, too. I don’t know if there will be more discoveries from le Francais, but I do know that Mayer Hawthorne’s new one is slated to drop on July 16, and if it’s half the record the last one was I’m going to be a very happy boy.