Apr 10

How To Win A Pop World Cup

FT/35 comments • 649 views

You may be loving the Pop World Cup (we hope you are!). You may be thoroughly sick of it (in which case – sorry! But we’re more than halfway through now). But I hope you’d agree that the basic question it’s asking – how do you represent a country’s music? – is an interesting one. Certainly in the comments boxes this year we’ve seen a lot more people expressing outrage or delight at the choices the managers’ AREN’T making as much as those they are.

Which can get pretty confusing. Too little Latin pop! Too MUCH afropop! Too Eurovision! Trying to be American! Novelty nonsense! Only the North Koreans sit serenely above this fray because nobody had any idea what to expect of them anyway.

As I said in a comment box this morning, the PWC asks a player to balance three things: their own music tastes, the music of the country they represent, and the preferences of the crowd. The precise weighting of these is what makes it tricky. But the tactics the players use point to more general issues around ‘pop’ and ‘world’ music. So let’s look at some of the strategies we’ve been seeing!

Traditionalism: Selecting tracks that match up to people’s ideas about the ‘natural game’ or native music of the country – which probably means that aspect of the country’s pop which has already crossed over to achieve a level of Western fame. The enormous catch-all of genres that get referred to as “afropop”, for instance, comes under this heading. J-Pop from Japan, too, and Europop from European countries. A winning example of this in this PWC would be Algeria’s rai track in their first group game: everyone knew some rai would be forthcoming, it was, it didn’t disappoint.

Modernism: Tracks which represent local musics, but up-to-date ones which haven’t yet achieved that level of partial crossover. This is the kind of thing experts in a country’s music, and vocal fans, will tend to be clamouring for – whether it’s always wise to listen is another matter. When the strategy works, though, it can be very exciting – see for instance Cote D’Ivoire’s coupe-decale track in this PWC.

Atlanticism: Local acts performing in a US (or more rarely UK) style – locally produced rock, pop, hip-hop tracks with little or no specific local influence. Can often perform very well indeed but are also accused of a lack of imagination. In this PWC, Denmark’s Raveonettes and New Zealand’s Scribe got strong wins with this tactic.

Individualism: Shifting further from what the country does well to what the manager knows well, individualism is where the manager’s particular choice of formation dictates team selection: if you like and know indie, for instance, you might trust your judgement in spotting good indie from a country rather than going further afield. Purists carp at this but it can work very well in countries like Spain or Japan with wide ranging music scenes.

Pragmatism: Managers of countries with limited pop resources basically have to field whatever they can get – a backs-to-the-wall approach which can yield shock wins against sides who might be guilty of overthinking things: witness heart-warming victories for Honduras and Paraguay in this tournament.

Novelty: Or of course you can select something completely unexpected – Italy’s death robots in this PWC, for instance. This might or might not work but it usually makes for an entertaining commentary.

It’s really important to stress that there’s no RIGHT way to go about this – a lot of the comment box disputes have been from people expecting one of these approaches and being disappointed when they don’t get it, but the strategy the manager HAS chosen might be a winning one. Probably the best solution is to switch your tactics around from game to game, if you have the luxury of doing so.

Obviously, though, the choices in a frivolous thing like the Pop World Cup also mirror the expectations we have of ‘world music’ – how much expertise should people expect? How much qualifies you to judge? How to balance authenticity with the appeal of the familiar? I’d be really interested if people used the comments on this thread to talk about the things they like hearing and the expectations they have of these different musics (not least because it might save unfair managerial grief in the comments…)


  1. 1
    Pete on 8 Apr 2010 #

    I think you miss out the potential difficulties also in playing some of the big guns, England or USA where the choice and knowledge is so massive that a completely different set of standards apply. I think the recent England tactic of using tracks which are good but don’t get much airplay in the England (outside of 1 Extra / Asian Network) has been a very clever one. But I agree that the best tactic is, if you can, change tactics.

  2. 2
    Matt DC on 8 Apr 2010 #

    I think Japan and South Korea get a free pass here, no one is bothered if they ape Eurobosh or American rnb entirely, whereas it’s the South American or African teams that are criticised for being too rock, or to American, or too African. POSTCOLONIAL PRESCRIPTIVISM etc etc.

  3. 3
    Tom on 8 Apr 2010 #

    I dunno Matt, I think there’s definitely a set of expectations around J-Pop (and K-Pop to a lesser extent) but they’re coming from a different place than the idea of LatAm and Africa being these constant spawning grounds of fertile native genres.

  4. 4
    Matt DC on 8 Apr 2010 #

    Yeah that’s true, people expect sleek robotic brightly-coloured modernism from both countries and an element of traditionalism from Latin America and Africa maybe. That said anything that marries both seems to be going down well as the success of teams playing a dancehall or reggaeton-influenced formation shows.

  5. 5
    FC Ljubljana but logged out innit on 8 Apr 2010 #

    Avoiding Eurovision tactics is key for the central-European countries that might otherwise blend into one – it’s difficult to pick out ‘traditional’ stuff when the difference in musical heritage for eg Slovakia and Czech Republic is pretty much zero. I am v lucky that Slovenia’s traditional musical heritage is banging techno!

  6. 6
    Ben on 8 Apr 2010 #

    As a manager of one of the African nations represented, I have to say that I’ve found sourcing music to be the toughest challenge. My research has provided me with a long list of artists to investigate, but I’ve struggled to find anywhere to buy/download anything by these artists.

    But certainly, I’ve tried to vary my tactics across the three group games, trying different styles of music against different opposition to try and get a clearer picture of what works and what doesn’t. Once we get to the knock-out stages, tactics will become even more significant. If you know your opponent is likely to go for a rock song, does that make a rap tune more likely to succeed, given the audience?

  7. 7
    Matt DC on 8 Apr 2010 #

    Yeah getting hold of good quality MP3s has been very difficult indeed for me.

  8. 8
    Tom on 8 Apr 2010 #

    Yes, same here – there’s a lot of South African music on CD but most of it is pretty trad afropop or SA rock which is unconscionably terrible (as and when SA departs the tournament I will share the Worst Record In The World with you all)

    A lot of Kwaito mp3s out there which partly explains our reliance on it.

  9. 9
    Steve Mannion on 8 Apr 2010 #

    Atlanticism aka Pacificism ;)

  10. 10
    JimD on 8 Apr 2010 #

    Yeah, I’ve been having to make my own mp3s, ripping from last.fm, spotify, myspace. Not ideal quality-wise, but I’d rather use a low-fi copy of a great song than a polished turd.

  11. 11
    Steve Mannion on 8 Apr 2010 #

    I generally favour the modernist approach and I’m really enjoying being able to showcase NZ pop that most people did not seem to be aware of (myself included before this year) and are appreciating to varying extents. It does seem that ‘Americanisation’ among the English-speaking countries can be either a help and a hindrance. The NZ tracks I’m preferring are mostly on that ‘try and imitate the originators of this style’ tip so authenticity is usually not a concern for me provided the material is good enough.

  12. 12
    Andrew Hickey on 8 Apr 2010 #

    My own strategy has been to try as far as possible to do something different from what everyone else has been doing, while still remaining resolutely ‘pop’, rather than trying necessarily to represent my country’s music as a whole. My view is that there’ll be enough people who want something completely different to the rest of the competition that they’ll vote for unusual over good-but-samey…
    It probably helps in that respect that I’m almost completely detached from current pop music trends, and have been for the best part of a decade. If I play something that happens to be the kind of music I listen to, but German, it’ll sound different to a choice from someone who listens to current pop music.

  13. 13
    Lex on 8 Apr 2010 #

    I don’t think there’d be any difficulty in managing ENG or USA, except narrowing down which of a plethora of (relatively unknown) tracks to field!

    I don’t think any particular tactic is inherently flawed EXCEPT the temptation to go for a comedy/novelty angle, which is an aesthetic I hate anyway but in this context takes on an irritating “lol foreigners” undertone. Luckily it’s not been employed much. I’ll always favour beat-based club/street music though, so it’s frustrating to see managers of countries with rich traditions of that go instead for dull indie.

    I’ve found the biggest problem is the Silent Majority. Only 10-20 voters comment regularly, which is about a third at best – so it’s really hard to gauge your audience. I don’t even know who the ~40 or so silent voters even bloody ARE. I consider not commenting at any stage of the game to be slightly rude, tbh.

  14. 14
    FC Ljubljana but logged out innit on 8 Apr 2010 #

    “I consider not commenting at any stage of the game to be slightly rude, tbh.”

    But what if you can’t think of anything to say? A lot of dudes like listening to music but not writing about it, Lex.

  15. 15
    Steve Mannion on 8 Apr 2010 #

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that a number of people would deem comments along the lines of “both these songs are utter shite” and accusing everyone who didn’t vote for your song of having cloth ears a fair bit ruder than not commenting at all for whatever reason.

  16. 16
    Steve Mannion on 8 Apr 2010 #

    ^ Probably also rude ha ha

  17. 17
    koganbot on 8 Apr 2010 #

    While reading I was getting ready to say what Pete said, which is that England and the United States are in a different category, ’cause we all assume voters aren’t going to reward something that’s too familiar (though no one’s actually tested this since the “Rasputin” fiasco in the last Cup); but also, managers getting into the spirit of the thing want to surprise listeners and undercover surprises themselves. I have long been certain that if I were ever assigned the United States in one of these contests I was going to start with a Yolanda Perez song in Spanish, to let people know right off the bat to drop their expectations. Also knew that if I either made it to the final or knew I was certain of going down in round one, the last thing you’d get from me would be some suicide punk by little-known Cleveland bands, or some horror no wave. Of course, since I didn’t even try out for manager, all those strategies were moot.

  18. 18
    Tom on 8 Apr 2010 #

    I should say that I take the Lex’s advice on USA management with a BIG pinch of salt, since he actually DID manage them and went out in the first round after playing a novelty track.

    I think Pete’s had the right idea with them to be honest – minor gems in big genres. (I gave him grief for Kid Sister but I did see that as a favourite among a specific known chunk of voters. And it did alright!)

  19. 19
    koganbot on 8 Apr 2010 #

    Lex, I’m sure Tom will correct me if I’m wrong, but the lurker to commenter ratio around the Internet is generally 9:1 on average, so PWC does better than that. But of course it’s still hard to discern reasons when people don’t give any. But this is the way of the world.

  20. 20
    Tom on 8 Apr 2010 #

    Yes, we have a good ratio, particularly since some people may be voting more than once!

  21. 21
    koganbot on 8 Apr 2010 #

    I didn’t think it would let you vote more than once (though I suppose cleaning one’s browsing data might open things up). I’ve actually forgotten several times whether I’ve voted or not (usually FT informs me of what I’ve voted for, but sometimes it leaves me a blank ballot), and voted again and was told that I already had. Of course, I may have also voted twice and had one go through without my knowing it. Or been told I had voted when I hadn’t, though I doubt the latter.

  22. 22
    Andrew Hickey on 8 Apr 2010 #

    Koganbot – cleaning browser data wouldn’t do it, it tracks by IP address. I know because my wife tried voting in one round on her laptop, and was told she’d already voted because I’d voted from mine in the same round…

  23. 23
    Matt DC on 8 Apr 2010 #

    People not commenting is a GOOD thing. If everyone who voted then commented on how they voted there’d be no element of surprise in this at all.

  24. 24
    Lex on 9 Apr 2010 #

    How are the managers meant to even make a pretense of playing to the audience then, if the only visible audience might not have the slightest effect on the outcome?

    I managed the USA team FOUR YEARS ago and tried to play to the audience then :(

    @14 you don’t have to think of anything to say beyond “I like/do not like this”, it’s more to make your presence known than anything else. Then again I actually find lurkers quite creepy, too.

  25. 25
    Jonathan Bogart on 9 Apr 2010 #

    I don’t think you CAN play to the audience, especially as it never seems to be quite the same from game to game. All I’ve been able to do is trust that what I’m playing is what I like the best out of my on-deck options, and hope that others will agree.

    Of course I can’t go strictly on my taste, or I’d have been buried from the first game when I tried to play some vocal tango from the 1930s — which is why setting up artificial self-limits (mine: has to be from within the last decade) is I think a good strategy for those with the resources to do it. Of course that can then lead to feeling like others aren’t playing fair because they’re not within my self-imposed rules! (But seriously, sixties beat groups?)

  26. 26
    FC Ljubljana but logged out innit on 9 Apr 2010 #

    “you don’t have to think of anything to say beyond “I like/do not like this””

    That’s what the voting button is for!

  27. 27
    jeff w on 9 Apr 2010 #

    A better way of making Lex’s point is: more post-match analysis from the pundits might be no bad thing. e.g. “Paraguay were robbed because…”

  28. 28
    Garry on 9 Apr 2010 #

    I also don’t think you can play to the audience, because it is hard to pin down their personal musical listening experience, both of the manager and the audience. I mean the audience of this site seem to have overlapping knowledge and likes, but also different strengths in different genres. And what comes up on the comments of the whole site are snap shots of their likes, not the full story. The only link is a vague notion called Pop.

    I’m Australian, and I disagree with both the Australian choices so far, but that is not a criticism of the manager. Being Australian, my knowledge of the music is very broad, and it would be unfair for me to criticise someone of whom I am unaware of their musical experiences, their tastes, nor, indeed, their nationality. I would assume it would be hard for a manager to go the other way: their idea of what the audience likes is a perception, not a fact. The only think I willing to predict in terms of the audience of this site is that they have open ears.

  29. 29
    koganbot on 9 Apr 2010 #

    I voted Argentina three out of three, which probably means that managers shouldn’t play to me, but I’d have been fine with vocal tango from the 30s (assuming that it turns out I like vocal tango from the 30s, that is). Problem with the past is that people tend to register “the past” rather than particular aspects of the music, which of course also happens with a genre people aren’t very familiar with (where they register “the genre”).

  30. 30
    thefatgit on 9 Apr 2010 #

    Any lurkers reading this thread might feel aggrieved enough to comment, but it’s the lurkers right to vote without having to formulate a cogent argument for doing so. Their choice.

    As far as management tactics are concerned, I think on the whole there have been some good choices. I can’t think of any particular track that would force me to vote for the opposition even if I liked neither in particular (which is rare). It’ll be interesting to see which managers maybe tempted to change tactics if they progress by the narrowest of margins, or will they hold firm and stick to their guns?

  31. 31
    Birdseed on 9 Apr 2010 #

    One tactical thing missing from the list is the question to what extent you should play to your opponent’s weaknesses versus just fielding the best tracks you’ve got. I’ve tried the former with rather limited success: straightforward, vaguely ethnic-tinged music against the famously west-copyist, quirky South Korea. Something tasteful and restrained against Nigeria’s perceived commercial clout. And (blowing up in my face, by the looks of it) commercial pop against Argentina, the alt-everything Nation.

    Good tactical idea in general or overthinking it in the extreme?

  32. 32
    ChrisB on 9 Apr 2010 #

    Garry @ 28, to answer your questions, I’m American (from Seattle) and the formation I played today with Belinda Chapple is very, very close to my own taste in music (more so that my first selection and much, much more so than my second).

    I’ll write more about my song selection after I’m eliminated (hopefully later rather than sooner!) but this was my first PWC and I had no idea what to expect from voters and commenters.

  33. 33
    Garry on 10 Apr 2010 #

    Chris B @32 I’ll look forward to your write-up – I’m very interested in what impact Australian music has made overseas. I didn’t even know Sneaky Sound System were that well known.

    SSS and Chapple aren’t to my tastes – I’m more into the rockier side of things, with an increasing interest in Australia’s ever improving hip hop scene.

    In terms of the tactics Tom mentioned above, Australia is hard. There is not much “traditional” pop sound, even well regarded charting Indigenous artists use overseas influences to marry up to traditional ones. A lot of (let’s call it) Pop pop is heavily influenced by the US, UK and Europe. There is a lot more variety in the rockier end of town, but it too is influence by oveaseas rock. As soon as the Strokes hit, for instance, Australia had it’s apes.

    If there is anything particularly Australian then it is the lyrics – think the Lucksmiths, Paul Kelly, the Go-Betweens, Regurgitator, TISM. There is a lot of focus on the little, everyday like things in the lyrics, plus a lot of humour or cheekiness.

    There have been scenes over the years, like the Cave/Moodists/Scientists etc etc going on in the 80s. For a while there was a popular Ska scene for a couple of years. But these come in waves.

  34. 34
    Garry on 10 Apr 2010 #

    That said, my idea of an Australian sound is as an insider. I’d be interested to hear what non-Australians think an Australian sound sounds like?

  35. 35
    shedders on 29 May 2010 #

    “you don’t have to think of anything to say beyond “I like/do not like this”, it’s more to make your presence known than anything else.”

    Maybe the pressure to come up with tenuous football analogies puts some off?

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