Apr 10

How To Win A Pop World Cup

FT/35 comments • 618 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…)


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  1. 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!

  2. 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…”

  3. 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.

  4. 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”).

  5. 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?

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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?

  10. 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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