Last night I was watching Iron Man with a friend of mine and he mentioned something about an interesting shot. Off-handedly, I mentioned something to the effect of how Superhero films were a bit like crack to me and also that, “Transformers was actually also very good.”
“You know, Transformers always comes up whenever someone is talking about a ‘guilty pleasure’ film,” he said.
“I don’t feel guilty about it at all. I think it’s great action.”
It was a fantastic example of how the information economy has affected our view of aesthetics. The foundation of hipster-ism (particularly in music) was to have access to enough information to procure more unique memes (obscure bands) thus raising the value of one’s personal brand (I am a special snowflake). In my tween years, I was prey to this, eschewing big name boy bands for Britpop bands, believing it made me more sophisticated. Fortunately, my interest in non-mainstream music, which was kick-started by an interest in increasing social capital, matured into an actual interest in musical structures as I grew up. By the time Post-rock became the buzz genre, I was already knee deep in Modern Classical. My journey into ‘eclectic’ obscurity was accelerated. By contrast, my journey into the mainstream, which only truly started when I met my Britney-obsessed best friend at 15, was slow, painful and fraught with personal battles.
For example, recently, I had a lot of trouble appreciating Ke$ha because her music video for Blah Blah Blah gave me such a bad vibe. I saw her as an entitled, bitchy, mean girl and I actually felt, for some time, that she was a “bad influence” on youth. It was the first time such a thought had ever occurred to me in my entire life. Comparing her with Rihanna and especially Kylie Minogue, I felt that her music made sexuality somewhat dirty, whereas Kylie with her affinity for major keys and romantic lyrics made casual sex feel like a celebration and Rihanna, with her poise and brazen-ness imbued even explicit songs like Rude Boy with a kind of classiness.
In retrospect, my objection was nothing but pop prudishness. Without noticing it, I was using the same arguments as old people who hated The Beatles. What helped me understand this was actually the Hipster Runoff-coined term “Slutwave” which perfectly described Ke$ha’s musical philosophy. Unlike her predecessors like Britney or Madonna who played up their sexuality while still maintaining a virginal distance through explaining it away as a sort of “performance art” (a tradition upheld by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry now), Ke$ha’s image (drunk party girl) is a much more accurate reflection of the current definition of “slut,” a term which is problematic in and of itself.
In this way, understanding definitions and how they shift helps us to understand current narratives happening in the world. “indie”, for example, denotes a lifestyle rather than a specific musical style. The myriad of electronic dance music genres are divisible mostly by bpm. The countless metal genres are divisible by texture. With “Slutwave”, we are acknowledging (even if in an ironic sense) that the driving force for a lot of pop music nowadays is the performer’s image rather than their music. By doing this, we get one step closer to disengaging it from aesthetic morality.
In an era that is slowly getting rid of the objective morality imposed by religion, it’s important to realise that we often use the same rigid rules with regards to art and aesthetics. In music, this is most clearly delineated by the divide between “mainstream” and “non-mainstream”. A band that writes their own songs and performs them (however badly), is less likely to be considered “mainstream” or “pop” even if their music is 4/4, verse-chorus-verse and in a relatively unchallenging key. This is because as songwriters, they conform to the traditional image of “musician” and we assume that they must be more emotionally invested in their music rendering it more artistically valuable. Which is more embarrassing? Being a huge U2 fan or being a huge Justin Bieber fan?
The idea of art as being nothing but a vehicle for emotional expression is already distasteful to me but we’ll leave that story for another day. The fact is, the idea of someone creating art for commercial purposes is somehow obscene to us. We cling to the outdated archetype of the artist of fulfilling the same function as the monk or the outcast king of yesteryear. He dedicates his life to transcendental goals, providing an outlet for the rest of us to live vicariously through his inevitable suffering.
The reality is completely different. Capitalism has changed all this. The complexity of current economics lends more fluidity to media than ever before. This company might be affiliated with that company and maybe that company is owned by another company and for all of them to make money, all sorts of new and interesting tricks happen. Glee, for example, sells music through incorporating performances into a television series. The songs sell the series, the record companies get royalties, the series sells mp3s, everyone makes money. The K-pop (Korean pop) industry does away with traditional entertainment gender roles by having K-pop girl groups and K-pop boy bands perform each others’ songs in a bizarre bi-curious fashion because they recognize that it makes more money. The commercial impulse becomes the driving force for creativity and social change. Pop music innovates and changes at a far greater rate than something like Hardcore because public tastes are so fickle and general attention span is miniscule.
This is how I read pop music. I like it because it’s catchy and easy to listen to. I love it because it’s so intertwined with society and economics and I came to this because I chose to read it on its own terms rather than imposing another outdated structure on it. Sure, if you’ve grown up on less mainstream music, it takes some time but, rather like the advice I give to people just getting into Coltrane (it took me a year before it kicked in) or Classical music, if you stick with it and slowly work through your prejudices, the rewards are incalculable.
In the time-honoured tradition of putting my money where my mouth is, I will assure all readers that my next project is to attempt to turn myself into a ‘Belieber’. I’ve already downloaded My World 2.0. Wish me luck.