Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Pop Goes the Good Ole Days

Dance Music - The Mountain Goats (mp3)
257 Weeks - Nine Days (mp3)

The schoolgirl outfit. The pigtails. That oddly childish voice emerging from that very grown-up lookin' body. Although Britney's become something of the Bearded Lady With Three Heads people pay money to see at the state fair, what we've forgotten is what we all knew the minute she exploded on the music scene: she was the world's first Cylon Pop Star.

Oh, we've had cyborg stars in the past, folks who needed a lot more than mere talent to hit the charts. But never before did we have someone whose sole talent was merely looking the part of a virginal teenager who desperately wanted to be a slut. (Or maybe it was the other way around.)

I mean, I can still remember the first time I ever saw the video for "Baby One More Time." My cheeks flushed and I looked nervously around me, as if I was holding one of my Dad's Playboys and I was afraid someone would catch me. Is this OK to watch? I thought to myself. This seems so wrong... but gosh she's kinda hot... How old IS she??

The only time I can ever recall feeling guiltier about watching a video was Fiona Apple's "Criminal." Fortunately, by the time I'd watched both videos 20+ times, most of the guilt was gone. We humans are nothing if not exceptionally gifted at numbing our consciences.

Lots of us who love music feared Britney's arrival signaled the end of the world as we knew it. Although "Flash Over Substance" had been "The End is Nigh" claim for decades, maybe since before the first rock 'n' roll song, Britney managed to somehow kick this equation up a notch. She managed to get me listening to songs I didn't even like just because they reminded me of the dirty thoughts I had watching her videos!

What we didn't realize but perhaps should have is that, while we were fixated on her as the Death of Music because she was the paragon of Flash Over Substance, she was actually the Hospice Nurse for another musical phenomenon of our culture: The Simultaneously Experienced Pop Song. Songs everyone knew.

Born in 1972, I can only speak for the musical times in which I was a living component, but I'm pretty sure the Simultaneously Experienced Pop Song (let's call it "SEx Pop"!) was an even more powerful creature in the Elvis and Beatles days. Although the '70s seemed to be a time when albums stole some of radio's thunder, radio and the universally-known pop song were doing just fine.

My elementary school years found radio continuing to ebb, but that crazy little thing called MTV emerged. MTV was a nation-wide radio station with visual aides, and it injected new life into the SEx Pop. But that merely provided a second wind to an aging notion. By the time Nirvana arrived in their flannel and bitterness, the SEx Pop was hitting retirement age but still able to drive around on its own, albeit very slowly and always in the right lane on the Interstate, its head barely visible behind the wheel. By the 21st Century, SEx Pop was in a nursing home.

Let's have a fun experiment. No matter your age, go take a look at the Top 100 Hits of 1984. Just keep track of the number of songs you know. Speaking personally, it's easier to keep track of the ones I don't know. It's not until #61 -- "State of Shock" by the Jacksons -- that I fail to recognize a single song. Hell, I could almost sing the choruses to at least 92 of them, and I'm not remotely exaggerating.

Now, take a gander at the Top 100 Hits of 2004. To quote Sheriff Buford T. Justice, ain't no way, nooooo way, that list stands the test of time, comparatively speaking. Even if you compared the lists with comparably-aged people -- say, comparing my knowledge of that 1984 list to someone born in 1992's knowledge of the 2004 list, I still bet the farm my generation has them beat by a mile.

For every "Crank That" by Soulja Boy in the present, there are at least half a dozen "Ghostbusters" by the Ray Parker Jr., and arguably more. Not because kids today listen to less music, which would be insane. It's because kids today don't have the musical Tower of Babel -- MTV, radio, etc. -- feeding them all the same food like we did.

If anything, the Guitar Hero and Rock Band phenomenon have done nothing but exacerbate the situation. Every recent hit they've managed to pound into our older generations' skulls is matched by at least one or two more from the '70s or '80s roping in those younger kids.

With all the talk about how today's generation of teens and young adults are somehow more interpersonally disconnected, in spite of all this communication-centered technology, I can't help but mourn the slow death of SEx Pop. Play "Bust a Move" or "Mickey" in the presence of 20 people and see if you don't get some smiles, some looks around to see if anyone else is enjoying the guilty pleasure of a fun flashback.

You think f#*king Hoobastank is gonna have Peter Frampton's legs? You think Switchfoot holds the same longevity as Dexy's Midnight f*#king Runners? No. Chance.

Sure, exceptions exist. SEx Pop ain't dead; it's just in an iron lung, fighting for every molecule of oxygen. Most mammals with ears know Eminem's "Lose Yourself" or Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." But ever since Britney took over Hospice care, the most universally known pop songs come from one single location. Ironically, it's the very same location that began Britney's transformation two decades ago:


High School Musical. Hannah Montana. The Cheetah Girls. The Jonas Brothers. This is the closest that Modern Music has to a SEx Pop generator, music that adults like me play in their cars to keep their kids entertained, because at least the music approaches something akin to music we can stomach, and at least the songs maintain the slightest level of innocence.

The '80s had Grease. Now we have HSM. Even if HSM wins -- and I don't really think it does -- nobody from the younger generation is gonna be particularly proud to claim it. Hell, even my daughters are already starting to diss HSM.

Breaking Free - Troy and Gabrielle (High School Musical) (mp3)

"Dance Music" is off The Mountain Goats' The Sunset Tree. "257 Weeks" is a great, great pop song by the 1-album wonder Nine Days. "Breaking Free" is one of the many halfway decent pop songs churned out by the Cylons created at Disney Channel. All are available on iTunes or's MP3 site.


Bob said...

I know I should comment on your post, but, man, them Cylons are a good-looking bunch.

Daytimerush said...

I have to admit that I knew 95% of the songs listed from 1984, AND at least 75% of the ones from 2004. I listen to the radio---all of the time. Being in the car at least one hour a day guarantees that I'll know what is being played to the public. I've enjoyed your recommendations 'cause they have exposed my ears to some great stuff!

Bob said...

Billy, even I know most of the songs from the 2004 list, I guess because of the age of my children and driving them around. I'm also not sure I see much difference in quality between the two lists--most songs on both lists are schlocky pop songs. Some of the ones on the 1984 list only seem venerable because they have been around long enough to become cultural icons.

Billy said...

Oh Jesus, I'm not arguing quality. I'm not suggesting "Ghostbusters" is a transcendent f#*king pop song.

I'm saying there was a greater universal awareness of more songs 20 years ago than there is today. Working in a high school dorm, it's pretty clear there's a lot more variety in what music emerges from their rooms than was the case 20 years ago. They have more access to more songs. More options means less shared knowledge.

This isn't totally a bad thing for the modern music lover. It just comes at the cost of a smaller window of songs everyone knows. Few of our students listen to local radio, and MTV doesn't show videos anymore.

Bob said...

20 years ago in McCallie dorms there were still Deadheads who didn't listen to any of that stuff, and country-only guys who would swallow their cup of dip spit on a dare, and Stevie Ray Vaughn fans, and, if not then, then soon, a big chunk of grunge fans on the horizon and a range of others.

Chris Carpenter said...

I'm with Billy on this one - there are so few songs today that EVERYBODY knows and, at the same time, so few songs that are just mine. Think about the best songs of 1984 from The 'Mats, Husker and The Minutemen and how few people knew about them. It isn't easy to think of underground bands, because of iTunes, Internet and general awareness of alternative music, that aren't as well known as their major label counterparts.

I think, however, that the quality of the SEx songs today is much better than yesterday. "Yeah" is a fantastic song that we all know. Same for "Hey Ya" or "Sexyback." That new Madonna/Timberlake tune is going to be on a list soon. I have a hard time imagining a "Ghostbusters" piece of garbage being a SEx song today. So I think the quality is better while the quantity is more scarce.

Chris Carpenter said...

To throw one more idea out there (this article has gotten me thinking), the songs of 1984 were competing with basically 25 years of rock music. The songs of 2004 were competing against 45 years. Usher is not just trying to be heard over Outkast or Pink, but also over The Beatles, Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Bruce Springsteen and U2.

Billy said...

Chris, I totally agree. While some folks constantly claim the death of music, I think the overall quality is thriving quite nicely. And I agree that a pop song with longevity in 2008 has to be better, in most cases, than one that had legs 25 years ago. The listening options today are triple or quadruple what they were for us back in '84. The long, distinguished line of Pop has gotten longer and, uh, distinguished-er.

Bob said...

I equate this situation with cartoons: when you're little, you know all of the cartoons and kid shows and when your kids are little, you know all of the cartoons and kid shows, but, like for me right now, at some stages of life you lose touch with what cartoons (or pop songs) are out there.

Actually, I don't care all that much about what I just said; I'm just trying to get this to become our first 10-comment post, so someone please respond.

Chris Carpenter said...

Good point, Bob.

jbradburn said...

Billy - if you want to feel really "dirty" see what Fiona Applet looks like now. You'll really want to cleanse yourself for thinking those unclean thoughts.

About the music - one thing I now notice - I rarely listen to music on the radio anymore. I'd guess that less people listen to the radio stations a lot less these days. I would think that music is a lot more "grass roots" than it was in the past.

jennifer said...

I love this. This is the kind of "argument" we'd have in my Pop Music: Records and Radio in America course at UT several summers ago. Best class ever!

I agree that SEx Pop isn't as prevalent as it used to be, but I think it will continue to gasp and wheeze its way along, as long as kids still listen to ClearChannel stations, watch American Idol and Disney, etc.