I was listening to Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s song “Powerless” on Youtube, and did the usual scroll down to read comments. This led to some interesting questions, provoked by the following exchanges:
Person 1: “Scariest thing I’ve heard in a LONG time”
Person 2: “I dont find this scary. What I find scary is that the mass of people listen to terrible pop music.”
Person 3: “Hey man, don’t be an elitist.. kids listen to shit just like you did as a kid. Most people don’t really care that much about music, and that’s fine, there’s other things you know… and this music really is pretty unsettling, far from easy listening.”
person 2: “I listen to things like Sleepytime when I was a kid. But thats not what I am talking about. The general rule seem to be that terrible music is popular, stupid braindead pop music. Who has no musical merit, plays on sex and not talent. Yes Sleepytime is not for the faint of heart :-)”
[Back to me again, and I apologize in advance for rambling in parts, and for talking a bit about myself here.]
I don’t necessarily find Sleepytime to be scary, either. I find them to be a very good “avant-metal” band who were often clever, and often more listenable than some of the weird sounds I create [hate to toot my own horn here, but I am an “experimental musician” some of the time — just goofing around making sounds on instruments, seeing what happens].
And yes, I would have to agree that the truly frightening thing is the people who just listen to formulaic, play-it-by-the-book pop artists and bands. Chances are you know just what I’m talking about — the onrush of ultra-generic performers whose sole purpose is to latch onto whatever’s popular at the time; who tend to sing about nothing but love and relationships, and who tend to make music that somehow sounds totally drained of all spontaneity, passion and originality. That is indeed scarier to me.
There is always danger of being called an elitist for having taste in music, and for occasionally criticizing conventional pop music. And, sure enough, there’s a thin line between mere criticism and just being a jerk about it, and, to the extent possible, I try not to cross that linee. At the same time, to know that young people are listening to such boring stuff through pop radio’s American Idolization, it’s enough to make me wonder what people are even looking for out of art, and out of life itself. Also, the fact that young people are listening to this fuddy duddy-sounding pop music could make my head spin. I’m the middle aged guy. If anything, I’m supposed to be listening to the more boring crap!
If anything, young people should be the arbiters of what’s cool, and listen to cooler music than their parents. However, that trend really seems to be reversing. If I were to hypothetically have a kid, there’s a good chance he or she would listen to something far more conventional than what I listen to, and that bothers me. It’s a chilling role reversal. It makes me wonder if these kids would be the ones out there yelling, “Damn it, get off my lawn!”
Even weirder is the thought that MTV used to not only play music, but sometimes interesting music. They even took chances they probably didn’t have to. I kid you not: They used to play the Butthole Surfers and Primus sometimes. On top of that, even the pop music used to be better, it seems.
For example, check out Republica’s “Ready To Go.” It is undeniably a pop song, right? Yet, at least to my ears, it beats the living shit out of just about anything out there today. It just sounds better to me. It’s from the mid-1990s, yet somehow sounds hipper than literally anything in the top 40. I can’t fully explain why it’s better. It just sounds more convincing, more authentic somehow. Perhaps the best, more recent comparison would be the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s song “Zero,” which is actually alright. But most new songs aren’t like that, either. They just suck.
Republica aside, why don’t more kids listen to music that tells a more complex story than “Oh, we broke up”? In my opinion, it’s because they’re pressured by corporations to be lazy, trendy and conformist. They’ll just listen to whatever’s popular, for the most part. They want to be boring.
Anyway, the irony of my critique is, if you look at the lyrics, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s “Powerless” seems like it could be a relationship song of sorts. However, what sets it apart (aside from the music, which itself tells a complex story), are lyrics like these: “Finding some shoes. Losing your feet. Finding some food. Losing your teeth.”
Though they could be construed as classic nightmare imagery, there is also obvious humor to those words. There is almost a slapstick quality to it, of being thwarted at every corner even when something positive happens — keep in mind, this band also has titles like “Sleep Is Wrong,” which is similarly humorous. It’s the type of theme that most pop music doesn’t really delve into. Sad emotions are definitely allowed in pop music, but they are conventionally sad emotions, conventionally expressed. Similarly, sad music is allowed, but it’s bound to be very conventionally sad music.
Meanwhile, in most pop, the vocals will tend to have a very soundalike quality, where the singer just tries to sound “nice,” and any supposed flaws will probably be pitch-corrected in the studio. Then, if there is ever to be anger involved, it will typically not be conveyed in an interesting way (though, oddly enough, I don’t even consider “Powerless” to be a particularly angry song, as I hear more humor than anger in it).
All lyrical questions aside, the real problem with most pop is that it lacks musical changes and variety of notes, and emphasizes repetition and sounding like “what works” way too much. It’s also far too fixated on genre, rather than just expressing one’s own individual style regardless of what came before. It gives the impression that all discovery and unique expression is gone. Going back to my own crappy music, it’s rather telling that many of my pieces which rely on delay loops — which are quite repetitive by nature — often still sound less repetitive than pop songs. Plenty of those experiments I don’t consider successful, but they are at least attempts at something different, like a mad scientist trying to be innovative yet failing in the process. That’s more fun than catering to genre standards and repeating the same ideas over and over, or joining a cover band and being a human jukebox for a living. I’m fine with occasionally making something that sucks, too, so long as it’s at least vaguely unique, vaguely mine. And maybe that’s why that Republica song sounds more authentic, too. The song is at least pretty unique and successfully catchy. Even if you don’t know who it is, you can hear it and instantly identify it as that song. You don’t necessarily remember it just because the radio plays it a million times. You might remember it just from hearing it a few times.
Anyway: The fact that more people aren’t goofing around and having fun with sounds (successfully or otherwise) — now that’s kind of scary to me. Many are scared to even try making music, because they’re afraid of the American Idol-type critiques they’ll get, and think music just needs to be left to the professionals. Again, that is what’s scary, and why I can be an elitist sometimes myself, and scare away people in that way. It is indeed frustrating that we’re all critics, whether we’re on the American Idol side of things or on the underground anti-pop snob side. However, that’s life. But, the main point is, more people need to get out there and make some weird sounds!
You can get started here (and no, I am not being paid to promote Audiosauna): http://www.audiosauna.com/studio/