Aug 09

Confusing Them With Mountains

FT26 comments • 567 views

Well, here it is – my essay on the “Decade in Pop” for Pitchfork. The last time I read it through, which was also about the 50th time, I thought it was pretty good, but I’ve lost all distance.

The angle I took was to write it for people who are already open to the idea of pop being good – not necessarily wedded, but not the kind of dudes who go mental at the idea of “Ignition (Remix)” placing higher on a list than a Decemberists record.

I’ve made a Spotify Playlist which tells the same story, though in more chronological order. As always with Spotify, a few annoying omissions, but most of it’s there.

Thanks to everyone who I consulted on this, often via the medium of cryptic Twitter questions. Special thanks to @girlboymusic aka Erika for helping crystalise the idea of ‘transparency’ I’d been groping towards, and to Redcommieapples on LiveJournal for giving the piece its REAL SECRET TITLE (as seen above).


  1. 1
    mike on 27 Aug 2009 #

    It took me about an hour to read this – Pitchfork crashes my browser, so I was having to grab screenprints in double-quick time – but the reward was absolutely worth the struggle. I’d only take issue with you on Lady GaGa, but we can save that one for Popular in several years time…!

  2. 2
    Tom on 27 Aug 2009 #

    Does readability work for you Mike? http://lab.arc90.com/experiments/readability/

    Definitely my preferred way of reading very long things.

  3. 3
    Pete Baran on 27 Aug 2009 #

    Has the article been deliberately written with a US bent, or do you think the decade in pop has been more driven by the US. Equally do you think that the start and end of this decade you’re writing about are more important than the middle? It seems that way from the piece – which may just be due to the pleasing symmetry created from the Mickey Mousers old (Britney) and new (Miley).

    Terrific piece though, it does map an interesting journey into some form of respectability for some types of pop. Surprised not to see an mp3 / iPod mention however. It always struck me that the reasons why certain music fans did not buy pop was due to
    a) them being shackled to albums/CD’s (non-single buyers)
    b) Having to buy them in the same record shop they buy their Decemberist records from. Risking THE EYEBROW.

    So the mp3, and the secrecy of buying them, also feels like a factor. Just a few kneejerk thoughts.

  4. 4
    Tom on 27 Aug 2009 #

    The MP3 beat was being covered by Eric Harvey in this fine feature – http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7689-the-social-history-of-the-mp3/ – so I made the briefest of references.

    And yes, deliberately a US bent. I had “Xenomania digression” in my notes to go in after the Idol section but it just wouldn’t fit. I think the US has been more important generally: we’ve not found it easy to export our stars in the 00s. The decade in UK pop might be the subject of a Poptimist column when the regular columns return.

  5. 5
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 27 Aug 2009 #

    “Xenomania digression” — haha this reminds me of my notes to myself: “insert critical history of dogs and clocks and medieval asian crime here” (yes this IS a review of a TV comedy about indie robots, WOT OF IT)

    then there was “bubble!”

  6. 6
    mike on 27 Aug 2009 #

    Ooh, Readability is quite the find – thank you! (Because there’s just enough time to click the conversion link, before the crash-inducing part of the page is detected.)

  7. 7
    Zarathustra Smith on 27 Aug 2009 #

    Having an “American bent” is all very well when you’re writing for a US publication, but not to include anything by Girls Aloud or Rachel Stevens on that Spotify playlist is simply criminal.

  8. 8
    Tom on 27 Aug 2009 #

    The playlist isn’t meant to represent my favourite pop! It’s simply a musical accompaniment to the article: everything on it is either mentioned or referenced in the piece.

    If I was picking my top 50 pop songs of the decade for a playlist both those acts would be there.

  9. 9
    sterl on 27 Aug 2009 #

    Great article tom. but i’m not sure about the end, at least US-wise. It feels like maybe nobody has a real grasp on what’s going on, with the stagnating charts, hip-hop’s anti-pop turn (except for kanye really, who is the height of producer->superstar popwise, and would have really rounded the article out), today’s stars being yesterday’s stars and so on. The new transparency (exemplified i think by trl -> it’s on with alexa chung) is maybe Fake (Real-Fake) [or Fake (Fake-Fake)] which raises an interesting question — is there an algebra of realness? i.e. is fake distributive and does Fake (Real-Fake) === Fake-Real Fake-Fake? We know it isn’t commutative. [note to self: “semigroup digression”].

    despite trying not to, of course, the article gets a bit lost in critical vs. popular takes on pop, and i think maybe what happened more broadly is that pop moved from pretending to be about the people but being about the music to pretending to be about the music but being about the people, the reason for which being, maybe, tied to mp3 culture, or maybe the re-regionalization (and mini-pop-ization) of hip-hop in response to the pop/hip-hop/r&b fusion that sort of solidified a certain type of royalty, and hip-hop’s inability to escape such even as new acts/scenes broke and disappeared/were swallowed.

    i.e. the dominance of the studio machine is more complete, which in turn means that the profits and production of the studio machine dwindles, do you SEE?

    ok. enough of this or now.

  10. 10
    Tom on 27 Aug 2009 #

    I agree that it’s very hard to get a grasp on what’s going on right now. (Regret taking Kanye out – I thought P4K might be running a hip-hop overview but they weren’t, and he’s an important figure though I don’t have a coherent take on his stuff.)

  11. 11
    Alan on 27 Aug 2009 #

    Great article Tom, studded throughout with so many insightful gems.

    The Idol/Mariah thing is interesting – it took her ten years to get anywhere near the street-smart collaborative performer we saw at the start of the 00s. If she was her young naive self she’d have been the exact sort of contestant Idol would have lapped up. With no Idol in the late 80s she succeeded in winning one of the internal Idolesque “competitions” all major labels undertook in the search for new vocalists. It’s her career journey that brought us the artist we now know, not what she brought to the table to begin with.

    And it’s kind of ironic that just as her more urban, collaborative street-smart output appears to be stalling on the charts, she is going back to an Idolesque ballad as her next release thus completing her own pop circle. She’s chasing the sort of worldwide commercial success the UK-Idol hewn Bleeding Love achieved, spawning a series of imitations in its wake (such as half of the last Beyonce album).

    Pop, forever chasing its own tail.

  12. 12
    Tom on 27 Aug 2009 #

    In the name of aggregating discussion about the piece a bit – and also cos I was really chuffed by the content (beyond inevitable teal deers)


  13. 13
    sterl on 27 Aug 2009 #

    ok new thought, inspired by looking at the threads in popjustice. the weird thing is that america doesn’t really have pop in the same way that britain does. so america briefly did have pop, and it was massively important, but then america stopped having pop, and that’s why trying to talk about pop is odd at the moment. we have pop culture of course, but not pop music, and that has everything to do with race.

  14. 14
    sterl on 27 Aug 2009 #

    so the question is why did we have pop at all, if only for a bit?

    (and maybe vampire weekend are pop, which would help validate the #1 rule of american pop — it feels like it comes from somewhere else)

  15. 15
    Tom on 27 Aug 2009 #

    I’m hoping Nitsuh’s “Decade In Indie” essay will have some stuff to say about that!

  16. 16
    Lex on 27 Aug 2009 #

    hip-hop’s anti-pop turn

    Funny, from a British perspective I see more of “pop’s anti-hip-hop turn”.

    In what way does the UK have pop but the US doesn’t? I’ve been vocal about my dislike of the British tendency to shout about “POP” and narrow what is/is not pop down quite severely: witness the almost total denial of hip-hop and UK garage on the Popjustice forums, for instance. Whereas the US charts are nominally dominated by a few genres but there’s more of a sense that anything can be pop.

  17. 17
    sterl on 27 Aug 2009 #

    lex: that’s sort of what i meant by “this has everything to do with race.” millennial pop music was distinguished by how white it was, even as everything it did to “adult” up was to move towards black performers. there’s a social pull of genre and genre construction that doesn’t leave a great deal of room for pop as such, and the excitement of that period was maybe because the categories were briefly more up in the air than usual.

  18. 18
    sterl on 27 Aug 2009 #

    also haha it occurs to me that our exchange (u have pop because race isn’t at issue the same way, no u guyz do because it is) and the (mis)understanding there pretty much sums up an old theory of mine about the last ~60 yrs.

  19. 19
    Miguel Toledo on 27 Aug 2009 #


    It’s a very good article. The moment I read it I was as puzzled as Pete regarding the US-centric nature of the article, but I assumed it was pretty much indicative of its audience (Pitchfork IS a US-based website) but also, and maybe more importantly, the moment it’s being written at, considering these days chart music in the US seems to be much more interesting than any of the things going on in the UK top 40.

    However, DO NOT underestimate the power of the UK as a force in the pop music scene all over the world based on the fact that not many of your pop acts didn’t make it in the US. The world is larger than that; I’m from Argentina, a pretty remote country, and acts like the Sugababes may not show up in magazine covers, but it’s pretty easy to hear “Push the button” or “Too Lost in You” when you walk down the street, and believe me, that’s a lot more exposure than anything “Get Ur Freak On” will ever get. McFly has become huge with teenagers here, La Roux is (sadly) getting airplay in AOR stations, Robbie Williams has always been huge here (he’s a way bigger than Justin Timberlake here, for instance), Daniel Bedingfield scored some hits…They may not be the best of the bunch (“Come and get it”, “Chemistry” and stuff like that did not have any impact beyond the local blogosphere), but the number of hits you scored here is a big one.

  20. 20
    rob on 28 Aug 2009 #


    Just wanted to say that this is a brilliant piece (the site looks great too; don’t know how I never stumbled across it before).

    I particularly like your remark about BEP embracing the idea of album-as-stream rather than as event. This strikes me as a very rich thought, one that I’d like to explore further. Can I ask, have you seen this notion being used elsewhere in music criticism (popular, journalistic, academic or otherwise)?


  21. 21
    Tom on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Hi Rob –

    I think BEP themselves aren’t sure how to explore it further! The END as it stands is a really sprawling record (I haven’t steeled myself to play it all the way through, and I quite LIKE the BEPs) so the idea of further add-ons etc isn’t especially appetising. There’s all sorts of things you could do with the idea of an album as perpetually unfinished: they might say, right, here’s some new tracks, now vote the old ones OFF, but I’m not sure what the point would be.

    I guess in the CD era we got towards the idea of the album as unfinished document with CD issues featuring bonus tracks – I can only think of XTC who actually interpolated the bonus stuff through the album proper though. And the format for CD reissues seems to have settled on original album + bonus disc now.

    The idea of an album as a period of time rather than event has a long and happy life in the marketing department, of course: this was a fine art in the 80s in terms of what to release as the second, third, fourth single, when to release them, when to tour, etc etc.

  22. 22
    Tom on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Oh, I put the Taylor Swift “pop mix” up here


  23. 23
    rob on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Hi Tom

    Thanks for the response.

    I should clarify: I’m interested in the idea not for artistic purposes but for critical purposes, i.e. as another means for making sense of music. As you say, the idea of an album as a period of time is one means for making sense — critically, industrially, etc. — of music, as is the idea of album as event. And there’s also the idea of music as object (Cf. Harvey’s Pitchfork piece on the mp3), and a certain conception, simultaneously related and unrelated to the conception of music-as-object, of music as timeless, eternal. This idea of album as stream seems ripe for further thought, for consideration not just as a means of describing a singular accomplishment (the BEP album) but also for thinking about the production, distribution and reception of music more generally. It’s certainly an apt metaphor, given the widespread use of internet streaming as one among a number of means for distributing music today.

    I’m interested, then, in knowing whether this idea of album-as-stream is something that just occurred to you when faced with the challenge of describing the BEP album, or whether it’s an idea you’ve seen used elsewhere to talk about that album or any other albums. Does Will.i.am or the likes explicitly talk about the album in that way? have other critics picked up on and run with the idea, perhaps in relation to other artists/albums, etc.?


  24. 24
    Tom on 28 Aug 2009 #

    The metaphor Will I Am uses is a “living” album, I don’t think he’s used the idea of a stream. But as I say it’s very hard to work out what, if anything, he actually means by that.

    The idea of information – including culture – in terms of flow rather than event is generally hot at the moment, w.r.t. “realtime search”, microblogging, “lifestreaming” etc. So it’s an idea that’s out there in the culture (begging to be clumsily linked to this if you ask me!) My day job is an internet/social media analyst so that’s probably where I grabbed the metaphor from.

  25. 25
    rob on 28 Aug 2009 #

    Ah, cheers.

    Moving from “flow” to “stream” makes sense — so much so that I don’t know why I didn’t make the connection myself. Kinda ironic, too, given the use of “flow” to describe (US) television in the 70s/80s, which of course is currently going through a process of intensified “objectification” via DVD boxsets, etc.


  26. 26
    M on 28 Aug 2009 #

    On a personal note, I think the absence of t.A.T.u in all summaries of the decade so far is quite shocking! For their music, their image, the phenomenon, everything.

    For me, I don’t think there’s been a more beautiful/stunning/confusing moment in pop this decade than the two girls, on top of a truck, through the snow, singing ‘Not Gonna Get Us’. One of the decade’s most extreme gimmicks, yet somewhere beneath that; real emotions, an honest expression, something transcending any cynical, calculated PR.

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