The underground: saved, salvaged, or savaged?
By DANIEL BROCKMAN | July 30, 2009
There's an old saying — and I'm paraphrasing here — that if music criticism meant anything, then your average Joe would love Built To Spill as much as the Beatles. (So, maybe it's not that old a saying.) This owes, of course, to the condescending view that critical favorites are too good for the masses, but it also speaks to the perceived divide in pop between "conservative" and "radical" forces, as a wave of outrageous upstarts attempts to topple the apple cart of lame-duck superstars. Pop culture has hit a fractious crisis point, as genres dissolve into dilemmas of identity and/or assimilation. In confusing pop times, how can we tell where the edge is? It's kind of the same deal as porn: what counts as fringy may be hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
X FACTOR: In a fractured pop-culture scene, is there really that much difference between Coldplay (below) and Animal Collective?
Take MGMT and Kings of Leon. The former bested the latter for National Act by a mere couple of votes. Kings of Leon may be the arena-rocking traditionalists and MGMT the kids who fashion youth anthems out of ringtones while donning war paint. But they're both big major-label pushes. Both have radio hits. Hordes of (the same) people buy, steal, and blast records by both bands every day.
Pop songs are now judged less on their alleged universality than on their ability to hook listeners one by one. Right now, the music biz cares a lot more about your personal MP3 playlist than it does about those ever-tightening ones cobbled together by radio stations. So what's the difference, really, in potential audience between Coldplay's stadium-ready Viva La Vida (Capitol) and the bugged-out headphone psych of Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)? Both records are filled with trippy deep-focus studio touches; both labor to hoist up hooks. In what could be seen as a role reversal, Coldplay worked with Brian Eno to try to get as out-of-it as possible, whereas Animal Collective stuck it to the jam-festooned underground by conceding to things like melody and brevity. Are Animal Collective finally making music to be played toward the cheap seats of the title Pavilion?
Mainstream love for the freaky-deaky isn't confined to psych-pop, either — even a cursory listen to mainstream-pop radio will reveal more bizarre beats and barrages of fuzzed noise than at any time in pop history. You voted luddite folky Bon Iver as Breakthrough Act, and they deserved the honor; but runner-up Lady Gaga snagged more votes in that race than Electronic/Dance winners Cut Copy got in theirs. There was a time when you might have needed to concede to mainstream blandness in order to find chart success. Now, up-and-coming stars of underground electronica have to compete with similar pre-sets and beats already pattering away in cubicles everywhere.
This strip-mining of the underground may actually be goodish news. Perhaps in this post-music-biz world we listeners can actually get what we want, no matter how specific or idiosyncratic that may be. More important, the gloves are off in terms of juxtapositions and appropriations: if pop music is how we explain ourselves to ourselves, then we can count on our weird times to yield strange bedfellows leading every splintered genre and topping each inadequate chart. Usually, of course, the fall of old rules just means the rise of new ones — as Coldplay sing on their winning album's title track, "The old king is dead, long live the king." For the time being, if you can't discern the dead center from the very edges, it's probably safest to follow your ears.
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