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The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

I didn't mean to write about Michael Jackson, but…

By Peter Valelly

I recently endured the latest single from Shakira, the utterly vacant “She Wolf.” My experience was improved by the unfathomably over-the-top video—which not only features jaw-dropping bodily contortions but also includes Shakira cavorting wildly around what appears to be either a Martian cavern or a giant sparkly nostril—but I was left with a lingering thought: this song would sound practically the same if recorded by nearly anyone. The groove is a sort of depthless, airy caricature of both techno and hip-hop, the vocals processed into oblivion so that they sound like yet another gentle synth tone. The melody is big and dumb. In other words, it could easily be the latest song by pop peers such as Rihanna or Mariah Carey (whose latest single, the “Mean Girls” homage “Obsessed,” actually is cut from the same affectless musical cloth as “She Wolf”). I suppose the complaint that chart-pop all sounds the same is the sort of accusation that has been leveled at it for at least thirty decades from all corners of the musical world, but I’m not sure it’s quite a criticism, and I am sure that this diagnosis matters.

For one thing, it actually all sounds the same, for perhaps the first time since the early 1980s. While that era was defined by glossy synths and stiff drum machine fills, pop today is a cocktail of many of the least interesting ideas put forward in the last 15 years by hip-hop, dance music, and teen pop. Pop in 2009—much more than it was even a year or two ago—is a precisely inoffensive fusion of lyrics that are sexual without being sexy, beats that resemble dance music but lack any sort of convulsive power, vocals Auto-Tuned toward cleanliness (as opposed to T-Pain-style weirdness) and a clunky, over-the-top melodicism straining to impart any hint of character to the singer.

This evolution comes on the heels of a half-decade in which pop has enjoyed monstrous popularity among the sort of collegiate, urban, young and literate audiences that, for twenty years previous, usually gravitated towards either indie rock or cultish subcultures like punk or rave. Sometime in the early 2000s, the “poptimist” perspective—which contends that the most popular forms of music are just as valid and valuable as those praised by culture’s hip gatekeepers—became the norm among this crowd.

It should be clear by now that when I talk about pop, I’m not using a generic term for all forms and genres of popular music, or even exactly what fills the Top 40 (which includes, of course, scads of country and hip-hop). I’m talking about Pop as in “Michael Jackson, King of.” Of course, when “Thriller” was released, the charts were fractured between all kinds of rock, new wave, R&B, assorted disco remnants, nascent house music and many more strains. What Michael Jackson and producer Quincy Jones envisioned in 1983—and what they ultimately created and popularized seemingly through an act of sheer will—was a sort of Frankenstein’s monster patched together from this potent stew. Having created a style that no one could disagree with, Michael Jackson crowned himself its King. Since then, pop has been a series of spectacles which aims to fantasize this sense of unity, this final synthesis at the end of musical history.

25 years later, in the wake of its patriarch’s death, this meta-genre has arrived somewhere very strange indeed. Luke “Heronbone” Davies, a blog poet from the UK (no joke), once wrote of music’s “half-life”—the period of time that elapses between an underground scene’s period of greatest energy and its canonization by bohemians. It’s funny and kind of odd to imagine that this term applies to the most willfully anti-underground style ever known, and yet this is what seems to have happened. No longer a thing to be adored, pop, in 2009, is curated. Its pleasure is no longer primarily one of sheer irrational spectacle but also, for many, one of considered appreciation.

Arriving into this museum culture, Michael Jackson’s death prompted a massive return to his music, his sales eclipsing roughly every contemporary pop artist so far this year. Perhaps this is proof, finally, that we should look elsewhere than contemporary pop for the future of music.

Pop, in the Michael Jackson sense, has never promised to be the next big thing, but has always insisted that it is the current big thing. Once, this was a bold claim, but not anymore. Maybe, with its days as the central spectacle of our culture winding to a close, pop can once again become as daring and audacious as its just-deceased progenitor’s version of it was. But unless your idea of daring looks like Shakira inside a giant sparkly nostril, don’t hold your breath.

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    Alexandra RobertsSep 8, 2019 at 2:48 pm

    F*ckin’ amazing things here. I am very glad to see your post. Thanks a lot and i’m looking forward to contact you. Will you please drop me a e-mail?