Are You Not Entertained?!
May 25, 2011

Nathan Rabin, having just stumbled through volume 34 in the NOW That’s What I Call Music! compilation series, writes:

At this point in the THEN project, it should be apparent to everyone that pop music is just fucking with us. People with too much money and too little talent are taunting us to call their bluff and concede that they’re all empty vessels conducting an insane masquerade that has gone on entirely too long.

This is precisely what I (and, I think, many others) find so depressing about what passes for modern pop music: not its shittiness, but its poverty of ambition. I can respect the sort of woefully ill-conceived project that comes from a deeply personal place — hell, it might even make me feel a weird sort of awe. But virtually every popular medium is saturated with competently produced detritus made by people with a decent grasp on certain technical mechanics but no grasp at all on how to make something feel like it came from a goddamn human being. The fact that a handful of postmodern ironists have managed to elevate that soulless craftsmanship into a sort of self-referential joke doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better about the trend.

Sure, there’s always cool stuff happening at the margins of pop culture, and perhaps now more than ever. Sometimes, it’s even in the mainstream. But the continued flourishing of soulless craftsmanship creeps me out in all sorts of ways, and I don’t expect that to end anytime soon.

(Do I even need to explain how the same complaint applies to modern American politics? No? Sweet.)

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M.I.A.’s Awesome Punk Rock Album
July 13, 2010

M.I.A. 7.31.07 :: Echoplex
Image by v e. via Flickr

Forget about the Tamil Tigers for a second. Put away your truffle fries. Whatever you think of M.I.A. the person has very little to do with M.I.A. the musician. Of course, having a strong response to music is such an intimate thing that we like to think that we’re somehow connecting with the person behind it. But we really have no idea who that person is, or what her intentions are.

That’s why it’s a little hard to sympathize with Pitchfork’s pop psychologizing of M.I.A.’s stellar new album, Maya. And when my friend Luis Paez-Pumar addresses M.I.A. directly, saying, “We want you to be who you really were,” well. Who exactly is that?

If you haven’t figured it out already, I’m a big fan of the new album. I might even go as far to say that it’s her best. But despite that, I’ve found the negative interviews more interesting than the positive ones. Part of that is because both flavors crop up in equal numbers; this truly is a love-it-or-loathe-it sort of disc. And the people who loathe it, I think, have done a lot more to help elucidate why I really, really love it.

Let’s hear the charges: Amateurish production! Egregious use of autotune! Instantly dated references to Twitter and iPhones! A listening experience that is overtly, teeth-grindingly unpleasant!

Not that any of this is actually unique to the latest album. Bird Flu, off of the sophomore effort Kala, has a beat that will rattle your fillings. Jimmy, from the same album, is self-consciously ridiculous and shallow. But the real tell is Kala’s big hit single, Paper Planes; read the lyrics, and you’ll find a pretty obvious satire of anti-immigrant paranoia.

All M.I.A. has done on the third album is crank the satire up several notches. This isn’t the techno world-pop album many of her fans were hoping for, but a vicious, snarling parody of a pop album. It’s a ferocious assault on the meticulously crafted, fundamentally soulless radio filler that my other friend Jake Moore derides here.

So yes, it sounds amateurish and ugly. But that doesn’t strike me as being a bad thing in and of itself. Punk rock, after all, long ago proved the worth of the amateurish and ugly aesthetic. The Sex Pistols might have just barely hit the right notes, but that was part of the appeal. They had no interest in crafting clean, gleaming pop rock; instead, their music was a curdled, snotty mockery.

Unpleasant? Sure, on one level. But it was also a ferocious amount of fun. Never Mind the Bollocks just fucking rocked, and so does Maya. You can’t dance to it, but you can sure as hell pump your fist.

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