Sunday, January 20, 2008

Insincerity Makes The Radio Go 'Round

Of my five kids at least two are as hopeless of music junkies as I am. I know that this will lead them into a life of obsession, isolation and blank stares from normal people but at least we understand each other.

That is, up to a point. I was driving with one of them the other day with her iPod plugged into the car stereo. By the time we reached our destination I had heard:

1) A Latin tinged dance pop love song with a chorus almost identical to a different dance pop love song of the same name from ten years before
2) A highly sentimental multi-generational country love song about an all-American girl in an all-American town
3) A hip-hop influenced R&B love song that amounted to a four minute proposition

If it sounds like I'm complaining please let me assure you that I am not. I'll get to that in a minute. I'm not talking about bad music. I'm talking about something, some je ne se qua, that turns up in radio hits that turns me off in a big way. These songs are often written and produced by the best in the business. Many of the singers are hardly slouches themselves. No matter how much I, or any other snob, might dislike them I don't think anyone who understands rock, pop and country music can actually argue that Carrie Underwood is making bad records.

This leaves us with the ultimate question. Why, when my daughter's iPod comes to one of "those songs," do I want to want to jump right out of the moving car?

Polyphonic HMI has developed software for predicting hits through objective analysis of recordings. They claim that "hits" in all genres and across history have certain tonal and rhythmic commonalities that can be identified, measured and replicated. This is interesting but I still doubt that their research can explain why, even when I was young and it was being marketed to me, so much pop music got on my nerves. Besides that, there have been plenty of radio hits, even recent ones, that I like. So, whatever it is that is bugging me it isn't a vital ingredient in commercial success or getting radio exposure.

These questions have been nagging me for some time and I started making mental notes about what songs did and did not make my back hair stand up, lodging itself in the car seat cushions. Taking the songs listed above (and others like them) and comparing them to songs I like helped me rule a few things out. For example:

1) I have nothing against love songs. The Over The Rhine and Bruce Springsteen sections of my music library should put that notion to rest.
2) I'm fine with sentimentality. See my Dire Straits and Sarah McLachlan albums...
3) I'm not uncomfortable with sexual content in music. Thao Nguyen, Greg Brown and India Arie all do human sexuality some justice in their music. Some artists are just tacky and artless about it but overall I have no objection.
4) It has nothing to do with style or genre. On any given day I may put put on Venetian Sares, Drive-By Truckers, Wes Montgomery, Green Day and Bob Dylan. I know it is cool to say "I like a variety of music" to sound sophisticated and open minded but really, there are no broad categories of music I don't like. One of my sons had to explain some things to me about current R&B ballads but I get it now and have quit throwing darts at pictures of Usher when I walk by record stores.
5) I am not stuck on my music being meaningful. Over the last couple of years half or more of the music I have bought or listened to has been instrumental. Be it my new interest in jazz fusion and bebop or my bottomless appetite for breakcore and IDM the meaning of any of the instrumental music I take in is highly subjective. I won't try to argue that this music is without meaning but if my problem with this or that piece of music were that it wasn't meaningful enough for me I'd have trouble defending my copy of "MENSA Dance Squad" by Lesser.

I finally pinned it down using this question. "Why do I respond differently to a love song sung by Karin Bergquist of Over The Rhine than to one by Ciara?" The answer? I believe Karin Bergquist. I don't believe in Karin Bergquist. I believe she means what she is saying, at least on some level.

Let me reiterate that I'm not criticizing anybody. I don't have a moral or ethical problem with someone recording a song that they don't feel in their heart. However, when I hear a song and I have a reason to believe that the singer is insincere I feel like I'm being lied to. In this case the liar has every right to do what they are doing. I just prefer not to hear it.

I put on a Neko Case case album and I believe every word she says, even when she is at her most abstract and I couldn't tell you what the song is about. For some reason I believe Kelly Clarkson on "Since U Been Gone." I really don't know why. My perception of pervasive insincerity is at the top of my objections to the current crop of pop starlets. Maybe it is because Clarkson seems a bit more independent than some of her peers or maybe I'm just a sucker for good break-up songs.

The list of examples could be endless. Regardless of whether or not a strategic litany of pickup lines is a viable idea for a song (in the right hands it could be pretty cool) when I hear it over a stock slow-jam arrangement on the radio, sung by a handsome R&B star who is also pursuing an acting career, I just don't buy it. I don't think it's based on his experiences and I don't think he's making observations about relationships. I think he and his producer agreed that the audience would enjoy it and they could sell it.

I could be totally wrong about any given singer but so long as the perception of insincerity is there the music is ruined for me.

1 comment:

Jenn-Z said...

Love that the "tacky and artless" hyperlink leads to wiki-Aerosmith. (smile)