Apr 09

Freaky Trigger and the Lollards of Pop – Series 3, Week 7

Lollards Podcast63 comments • 1,204 views

“The Trouble With Pop” – a conversation between Tom Ewing, Hazel Robinson, Alex Macpherson and Pete Baran. Featuring Bat for Lashes, Mastodon, Lady Sovereign, Blackout Crew, Gucci Mane and Girls Aloud.


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  1. 31

    james br0wn — no, the other one though i have spoken to both! — once said to me* that the problem with the nme’s failed mid-80s campaign for grebt black music had been its failure to reach out and pull in to this music’s actual listeners and supporters in significant numbers… the campaign was too much about attempting to “translate” (or bullypulpit) black music’s value to the unpersuaded — the slight implication being that these actual listeners and supporters WEREN’T READERS (ie didn’t especially enjoy the activity of reading), and so hence the coverage skid back to music liked by people who liked reading –> there’s all sorts of problematic assumptions in that implication, but it’s a tough ask for a publication to be expected to change its writing style AND its readership, in one go, on a hunch about a utopian pan-cultural readership just round some social corner… i totally think they panicked and went in the wrong direction and SHOULD have followed this hunch (but i was not having to fend off IPC’s accounts dept)

    *(JB = nme dep ed in the period after “my” time there, the “bad” period),

  2. 32
    Pete on 21 Apr 2009 #

    Radio one does it to itself as well of course, because it puts its “specialist” music shows in the evening, hiving off from the mainstream. Perhaps what 1Xtra has done (and 6Music and Radio 3’s additional grab bag of folk and world) is create a divide in how a song progresses. One thing I remember from the peak of my Radio 1 listening (1996-7)is that the daytime shows would, if they played a breakthrough track off playlist, use it as cross promotion to the show it lived in. “I heard this on John Peel, or “Westwood sent me this”. This does seem to happen less via 1Xtra for obvious reasons, they don’t want to lose listeners.

    One of the questions we asked before the show which we didn’t pick up was, what does Kiss FM sound like now. Apparently, it sounds quite good.

    I think you may have a point Mark, that it may well have been a particular moment in time that made the 98-04 period feel like a massive breakthrough in r’n’b, but the difficulty is I feel we are not getting the chance to judge that. Bearing in mind that the Radio 1 daytime presenters all come from either showbiz or indie background (actually not sure what you’d call Scott Mills on that front…)

  3. 33
    Steve Mannion on 21 Apr 2009 #

    I keep meaning to listen to Kiss again – v happy memories of it during my 6th form years but i think they fell off after that, started playlisting Shania Twain’s dancier numbers. Now I’d be worried about them playing All Around The World type stuff a lot.

  4. 34

    the issue that doesn’t change — its specifics do somewhat but the underlying facts don’t — is “where do the gatekeepers come from?”

    this is a complex and semi-untractable issue, because gatekeepers are VERY MUCH self-selecting (as well as — in this case — self-declared outliers from their own backgrounds)*

    *ie for someone like me in 1979 to decide i wanted to be a rockwriter was a bonkers march WAY out of my own “natural habitat”; as it happens i think the subsequent professionalisation** of this calling (combined with the fact that there were others like me that i didn’t meet till long after i’d committed myself) made it end up LESS outside that habitat that i dreamed it would be when i set off (the tragedy of the traveller: you always take YOURSELF with you)
    **a market rationalisation that coincides with the big-time arrival of niche-marketing

  5. 35
    lex on 21 Apr 2009 #

    Pete’s point about none of the daytime R1 presenters coming from a hip-hop or R&B or UK garage background is crucial – and this is a direct consequence of 1xtra being hived off, if you’re an up-and-coming ‘urban’ DJ then of course you’ll look to 1xtra for a job. But why, in the 7 years since 1xtra’s inception, have no new 1xtra DJs crossed over to R1? The only ‘urban’ DJs on R1 who have a non-graveyard slot are old hands Nelson and Westwood (both Sat night), who I remember from when I was TINY. And surely no one will dare argue that the dreadful Mills, Moyles, Bowman et al are any better than any given 1xtra DJ.

    It affects how black pop is presented to a mainstream audience, of course. I don’t get the impression that any of R1’s daytime presenters even respect hip-hop and R&B as genres, and I’ve heard artists from those genres introduced with more than a hint of snark multiple times. When I listened to Trevor Nelson growing up, I heard how genuinely passionate about the music he was, and this was infectious. Now, I hear white indie kids using African American culture as a punchline/punching bag, and…of course that’s what people will follow.

    And I’m guessing (well – having read interviews with George Ergatoudis, I’m not guessing – I know) that R1 programmers neither respect nor even know jack shit about R&B or hip-hop as genres either – hence the compromises and dilutions that those artists have to make to cross over – the whitifying of their sound. Which accounts, pretty much, for every one of the artists Mark listed in the top 20. It’s depressing that T.I. couldn’t cross over in the UK with ‘What You Know’, one of this decade’s finest hip-hop singles, that it takes a rubbish maiahiii sample and a Rihanna guest spot to make radio programmers pay attention. I mean – I’m sure if Ms Dynamite, right now, worked with Calvin Harris or Xenomania and sampled some naff 80s bullshit, she’d be right back in the top 10! And I’m sure it’d be terrible. Yet she’s made the single of the year so far, which no one’s taking a chance on because OMG she raps in patois in it over a garage beat so surely no one will like that.

  6. 36

    so why is it that staying undiluted puts hiphop-uneducated R1 DJs off , but would wow the hiphop-uneducated R1 audience if only they ever got to hear it? what if people don’t turn to R1 to be “educated”, and people who WANT to be educated actively prefer smaller, minority stations? would you seriously prefer to a station which consciously mixed up all genres (acccording to some quota metric? how would you begin to programme such a thing fairly?)

    if you think becoming mainstream constitutes a necessary degredation, why is it so important to you to achieve it?

  7. 37

    degrAdation — yikes, where is an outsourced proofreader when i need one? :)

  8. 38
    Steve Mannion on 21 Apr 2009 #

    I’m still perplexed by the dominance of rap and rnb in the US charts. This process has taken 30 years but for most of this decade a #1 single that doesn’t fit into the urban bracket has been rare over there. Effectively you have a situation where 9/10 of the chart’s music (or at least it’s toppers) comes from people part of 1/10 of the population. You could interpret that as white/black OR rural/urban tho perhaps. It’s just odd to me because I would expect more balance given how well US indie has fared in critical circles this decade, plus a new improved ‘getting’ of Euro-based dance music post-Discovery, and a couple of other things. But I put this down more to the Piracy Crisis more than anything else.

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    lex on 21 Apr 2009 #

    Some forms of degradation are better than others though! In fact sometimes it can be an UPgrade. I mean, this is the difference between a raw T.I. album cut like ‘Get It’ and a genuine crossover pop smash which the hip-hop heads ALSO love, like ‘What You Know’ (which – had it been allowed through by the gatekeepers – I really think would’ve done well here too). This goes back to self-confidence in one’s own sound and a self-awareness of one’s own strengths – something v obviously lacking in UK artists, but then the labels and the gatekeepers are also to blame. I mean, if Ms Dynamite had turned in a debut album full of grime beats and MCing the label probably would’ve told her to fuck off, even though it would have been excellent. This year there was even that story about Amy Winehouse’s label telling her to redo her album because there were too many reggae influences – Amy Winehouse for fuck’s sake! An album which will shift a gazillion units in a day when it eventually emerges, regardless of what it sounds like! And wtf is wrong with reggae? I bet they wouldn’t have minded fucking electropop influences.

    I think the dominance of hip-hop and R&B in the US is kind of why I expect similar things to happen here. I don’t see the 9/10th demographic thing as particularly notable though? It’s like when people blame the lack of an equivalent UK situation on the smaller black population – it’s like uhhh are you saying only black people listen to or make black music? And I don’t know what’s perplexing about it either.

  10. 40
    Kat but logged out innit on 21 Apr 2009 #

    I had the same experience as Cis growing up – 1998-2000 we had a communal radio at school, and Thursday was Xfm day. I couldn’t (or more accurately, wouldn’t) see a difference between what was played on Kiss (Tuesdays I think) and what was on Radio 1 (all the other weekdays) because I didn’t really like pop OR rnb/garage music then. It seemed to be an endless stream of re-re-wind and the Casualty theme tune (both awesome, what a fule I was).

    I put on Kiss FM on the other weekend when doing some cleaning and it was very disappointing – Robin S = fair enough, but five adverts later they played that Toni Braxton remix that sounds EXACTLY like that Robyn S song, then TI/Rihanna. Such a shame – I used to love Kiss when I was ten.

    One thing we haven’t discussed yet is that a track making it onto Radio 1’s rnb playlist seems strangely reliant on the artist being visually acceptable/attractive (Beyonce, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Taio Cruz* etc). The fact that this is THE RADIO and you CAN’T SEE THEM doesn’t make a difference – you have to be able to put a picture into the listener’s head these days or they get bored. This theory is basically my brain attempting to come up with an excuse for Lady Gaga.

    *I don’t really like his tunes but I SO WOULD.

  11. 41
    Steve Mannion on 21 Apr 2009 #

    “It’s like when people blame the lack of an equivalent UK situation on the smaller black population – it’s like uhhh are you saying only black people listen to or make black music?”

    Problem there is the inclusion of the word ‘only’.

    “And I don’t know what’s perplexing about it either.”

    Because it is a relatively recent development. Was it simply a matter of the right formula having been found + gradual acceptance of the form? And because it doesn’t seem to reflect the true range of American music (in terms of what else was popular up until 5-10 years ago) very well (other than much hip-pop having co-opted so much of everything else whether thru samples or collabs or whatever).

  12. 42
    Mark M on 21 Apr 2009 #

    Lex, “The punters would love it if only they could hear it” is exactly the same argument indie folk used to make about, oh, no-marks like the Weather Prophets back before the dawn of time. It’s usually usefully unprovable. In the case of T.I., you may be right. In the case of that headache-inducing Ms Dynamite track, I’d willing to stake serious money that you are wrong. In any case, I’m left with two questions: 1) are you really surprised that record companies and mainstream radio stations are conservative in their approach? and 2) aren’t you confusing being annoyed that the charts/radio aren’t filled with music you like with something that deserves moral outrage? Why should there be more black pop in British charts other than the fact that you (and I) like it?

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    lex on 22 Apr 2009 #

    It’s an issue because of the racial factor, which you keep avoiding but which – from talking with artists and people in the industry – is definitely not the figment of anyone’s imagination. White British artists are given the kind of structural support, from label backing to media coverage and the inherent respect for their music which black British artists working in black forms of music are not. The general attitude towards US black artists is one of disdain, except for those who are simply too big to ignore. I’m not surprised at the music industry’s conservatism, but I don’t see why anyone with anything at stake in it should just accept it. As I said on Lollards, whoever gave the green light for Aaliyah’s ‘One In A Million’ to be given a promo push had the right idea – surely that must have sounded like a bigger risk than anything the industry is currently confronted with? Anyway, this is a totally different argument to ye olde indie one, which I’m perfectly aware of.

    Also even if there wasn’t a racial factor, it’s perfectly valid to be annoyed when shitty music gets promoted and charts above great music. To take a random example from electropop, why is that worthless hack Calvin Harris (no hooks, pound ship production, charisma of a wet blanket, total twat in interviews) at No 1 and not The Juan Maclean (sparkly glittery catchy danceable Human League/Moroder ear candy)? I don’t think there’s anything going on there except people’s shitty taste, but it’s still annoying. You could have it so much better, Britain!

  14. 44
    byebyepride on 22 Apr 2009 #

    Really interesting discussion. I wonder whether another factor which needs to be brought in to consideration is the shift of Radio 1 and of Radio 1-type pop within the larger media-scape. i.e. if there’s a larger crossover between top-flight pop on the radio and the TV and in the papers, then it has achieved a kind of (possibly hollow, but that’s another argument) cultural dominance. But the price would be exposure to a constant battle to maintain ‘mainstream’ appeal, particularly as sales revenues come down. You could compare this to a political party which finds that it can only stay on top by appealing across the board, having lost a strong traditional core of voters (which can equally lead to weaknesses). Is it possible that the visibility of successful (esp. American) hip-hop and R&B artists in the larger celebrity realm substitutes for their records getting played on Radio 1? (I can’t think of any evidence for this possibility tho – but it might keep some artists on top, since we play their record because they’re famous, at the expense of other artists of similar genre.) I think the celebritization of Radio 1 goes hand in hand with the fact that the day time DJs either don’t particularly like music (moyles) or had their tastes formed in the Britpop era. (Chris Evans’s legacy is still poisoning R1?)

  15. 45
    byebyepride on 22 Apr 2009 #

    I’m almost tempted to suggest that the trouble with pop is that it’s too popular.

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    Mark M on 22 Apr 2009 #

    In terms of the BBC mainstream’s failure to serve the licence fee payer, have, say, Shahrukh Khan or Amitabh Bachchan ever been invited to appear on Jonathan Ross or Graham Norton? I don’t know – that’s a real question, not a rhetorical one.

  17. 47

    i’d go back to my point, lex: R1 is an outlet with a generalist remit and NO remit for social betterment that i’m aware of; i don’t think your argument that it should move to put this particular wrong right has any more weight to it than an argument that, since the elderly are largely excluded from mainstream representation, and ghettoised and patronised, R1 should make shift to feature and support music from and for that “community”…

    i tend to agree with you that the niche strategy has very problematic consequences, and that the idea of the mainstream has narrowed and hardened as a consequence

    however what you’re suggesting is essentially a strategy of the utopian imposition of what the mainstream OUGHT to be, according to a specialist cadre of engaged experts… which would be — from the outset — a decision to turn a station intended as relaxed diversion and ESCAPE from engagement for its listeners, into a station which is highly charged and argumentative the whole time

    (argumentative because either the idea of what the mainstream ought to be would be in the hands of an unaccountable few, cue several million enraged HATAS; or it would be thrown open to debate, haha cue several million enraged HATAS)

    i think the idea of a station devoted to such territory would be awesumzx1000000000, as it happens BUT i don’t believe it would EVER be the state-funded mainstream station, which is always going to be devoted to the project of assuring one and all that we all get along and everything is pretty much ok

  18. 48

    ok there is a bit of a contradiction between “no remit for social betterment” (line one) and “job is make everyone feel nice” (last line), but YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN

  19. 49
    Tom on 22 Apr 2009 #

    You mean that THE MAN is using music to KEEP THE KIDS DOCILE.

  20. 50

    of course but it only works with REALLY BAD MUSIC for some counter-intuitive reason

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    Pete on 22 Apr 2009 #

    Mark, I don’t think so. I imagine Jonathon Ross asks to book stuff he has played on the radio (generally) forming an aesthetic, and I have never been sure why Graham Norton has music on the show, it doesn’t seem necessary.

    I like byebyepride’s suggestion that it is too popular more than my glib statement. In a lot of ways pop seems to be sited more in media where the least important part of the equation is the music. Gossip columns are 50% pop stars (can’t hear the music from the Metro) and many of the TV outlets for pop privileges visuals, personality or ability to withstand Simon Amstell’s snarks above actual musical content. These media outlets needs “pop” to create celebrities which then become content*, but also knows that the precise content is nigh interchangeable, cos the pop they play now won’t be the pop they play in six months time.

    *Content as in tricking a campsite rather than happiness.

  22. 52

    yes, i think bbp’s line is good, too: one of the weird things about much of this discussion is it seems to be a battle over a locus that no one battling likes or wants, it’s kind of an irrelevancy, two bald men fighting over a comb: lex in effect wants a totally different kind of mainstream to supplant the one R1 represents; mark m is saying “the mainstream is lame and the layMoRs can have it”; i am tacking confusedly between the two positions (as a pragmatist — and failed strategist! — i don’t see how lex’s dream can be put in place; as a utopian i’m all for it BUT)

    my own line is — i suppose — something like “music (all of it) is sedimented critical space”, and that all the wrangling necessary to fit it into the mediascape, as soap opera, as visuals, as banter, as sound effects, as muzak, as “theory’s talking points”, as politics, is an uneasy evasion and suppression of of this…

  23. 53

    better: the various wranglings-to-fit form a cluster of types of evasion and suppression, and music — all of it — gives us a map of them…

  24. 54
    Steve Mannion on 22 Apr 2009 #

    I agree with Pete’s point – the actual music of pop stars has never felt more of a ‘background detail’ too often based on their increased screentime. There’s only one TV show devoted to live music (Joolz). But I still lament the lack of decent music magazine show on actual telly.

    It often seems that we want the mainstream to be more like us, but rarely does any good seem to come of this with the exception of random hits e.g. we can all say ‘yay Wiley had a big hit’ but who expects him to repeat that success? Does it matter now? I guess it’s the difference between thousands loving what you love and millions doing so.

  25. 55
    Pete on 22 Apr 2009 #

    Is this a symptom of losing Top Of The Pops? Or is it a consequence? On TOTP the only thing asked of the pop stars was to do their job, so it gave them and even the Fat Magic Numbers a relatively level playing field: here you are now, entertain us. I know any TOTP performance was not purely about the music (thankfully) but there was the idea of doing a trun which existed BECAUSE of the music, not on the other side.

    Perhaps this is why people found Paris Hilton’s foray into pop offensive (despite some of it being good). She made clear the dirty truth that a large amount of pop is celebrity.

    However, what about the amount that isn’t.The fall and rise of Britney is an interesting one to decode. She had plenty of notoriety around Blackout, but surely that would not automatically equal record sales. Whilst at the, most of us who listened to it think its one of her* best albums.

    *Complex in as much as how much of the album actually is controlled co-ordinated and about Britney is variable.

  26. 56
    Steve Mannion on 22 Apr 2009 #

    We need a new pop Burial-Banksy.

  27. 57
    lex on 22 Apr 2009 #

    I have totally dug out the Paris Hilton album b/c of Pete’s mention of her. I love Paris in the springtime, it is PERFECT.

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    Pete on 22 Apr 2009 #

    Snap, I was just listening to it too and it feels perfect for a day like this.

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    Steve Mannion on 22 Apr 2009 #

    One time a few years ago Cooler Kids ‘All Around The World’ came on ipod shuffle and I couldn’t remember who it was and got excited at the possibility that it could’ve been Paris. Sadly not.

  30. 60
    Keith on 22 Apr 2009 #

    I think part of the ‘problem’ is the dilution/fragmentation, but it kind of goes further than the fact that nowadays there are many more TV and radio channels and you can choose your favourite, although this is undoubtedly part of the reason, as people aren’t as spoon fed as they were when there was one pop radio station and three or four pop programs a week on the television.

    Some months ago, I woke up in the morning to Radio 6 and they were playing “I guess that’s why they call it the blues” by Elton John. It immediately had me thinking that in the summer of 1983, I heard that song everywhere I went – often several times a day. That year, I was in Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, North Wales, Devon and France, and I heard it everywhere. You couldn’t get away from it. After that I noticed that I have absolutely no idea what’s in the charts at the moment, so then I asked people from work if they knew, which they didn’t, or even if they could hum a current popular tune (maybe they wouldn’t know its name – that would have been true at any time), but they couldn’t.

    So I guess I started thinking that it’s not just that you as an individual get to choose your TV channel or radio station, but it also affects what you here when you go places. Computers and iPods are probably contributing even more to this. Most pubs I go into now have a computer controlling the music; presumably the favourite stuff of the bar staff, not a jukebox that you get fifty popular tunes of the day. I rarely hear popular music in shops – the last I remember was that Zutons song (Valerie?) somewhere and that’s probably a couple of years old. Recently, I heard Slade’s “Far Far Away” in Tesco! If I were working in a shop I would definitely plug in my iPod… Wouldn’t most people?

    I talked this over with my friends who argued against me, and their main point was that I wasn’t looking in exactly the right places to find it. I couldn’t help thinking that they were arguing in favour of my position without realising it. In 1983, I didn’t need to go anywhere special; I didn’t need to ‘try’ or ‘look closer’, I just needed to wander around some places in a fairly random fashion. I think this is what made it ‘popular’.

  31. 61
    Steve Mannion on 23 Apr 2009 #

    I don’t know about that I think you still hear chart songs in public often enough. It’s true tho that there’s a wider range of stuff you can and will hear because of the democratisation (of individual tastes) you describe above tho. Whenever I heard someone’s phone music on the bus it was ALWAYS rap or rnb but hardly ever something I recognised from the charts (not always easy to tell when the sound quality is that poor tho). The expansion of sources and outlets for music surely does mean we actually hear a wider range of stuff (songs/artists at least, if not genres) tho yes.

  32. 62
    Keith on 23 Apr 2009 #

    Hi Steve,

    Often enough I guess is a subjective term. I certainly still hear some of it on occasion. My point is that I’m pretty sure I hear it far less (to the point where I don’t really know what ‘it’ is).

  33. 63
    AndyPandy on 23 Apr 2009 #

    Keith at 60 – i agree with what you’re saying I think it ties in with the death of “proper hits” up till I’d say the early 90s there were still tracks/albums you heard everywhere sometimes you hardly heard them they were just background music but you’d know they were big.

    Now theres music everywhere but its very fragmented eg supermarkets play “oldies”, many radios are tuned into oldies or specialist stations, its always bassline/happy hardcore/garage etc coming out of passing cars.

    Even if a song is supposedly a massive hit its very easy to never have heard it – back in the day there were no oldies stations, and far fewer stations usually playing the same few latest hits, pubs would have jukeboxes with these latest big hits which people would keep playing all the time the pubs were open, TOTP was still on and actually still watched by large audiences (with only 3 or 4 channels this was not surprising).
    Even people of my dad’s generation or older back then (ie in their late 40s/50s/60s etc) would know all the big hits now I’d say even a lot of those in their 20s and 30s wouldn’t have a clue what was in the charts

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