Genre, Values Hierarchies, & Intentionality in Pop

I.

Does intentionality matter? Critical consequentialism put to the ultimate test: David Cooper Moore’s “The Scary, Misunderstood Power of a ‘Teen Mom’ Star’s Album”  discusses Farrah Abraham’s infamous pop record My Teenage Dream Ended:

It’s tempting to consider My Teenage Dream Ended alongside other reality TV star vanity albums, like Paris Hilton’s excellent (and unfairly derided) dance-pop album Paris from 2006 or projects by Heidi Montag, Brooke Hogan, and Kim Kardashian that range from uneven to inept.

But the album also begs comparisons to a different set of niche celebrities— “outsider” artists.

On the I Love Music message board, music obsessives imagined the album as outsider art in the mold of cult favorite Jandek or indie press darling Ariel Pink. Other curious listeners noted similarities to briefly trendy “witch house” music, a self-consciously lo-fi subgenre of electronic dance music. In the Village Voice, music editor Maura Johnston compared Abraham to witch-house group Salem:”If [‘Rock Bottom’] had been serviced to certain music outlets under a different artist name and by a particularly influential publicist, you’d probably be reading bland praise of its ‘electro influences’ right now.”

Phil Freeman wrote about the album as a “brilliantly baffling and alienating” experimental work in his io9 review. Freeman hedged his references to Peaches, Laurie Anderson, and Le Tigre with a disclaimer that his loftiest claim was sarcastic: “Abraham has taken a form — the therapeutic/confessional pop song-seemingly inextricably bound by cliché and, through the imaginative use of technology, broken it free and dragged it into the future.”

Johnston’s quote seems to summarize the gist best — this idea that how an artwork is framed and conceptualized has a major impact on how it’s received. This has to do with values hierarchies and critical frameworks/reagents, and it’s why I think genres are both inevitable and important. It’s part of why, I’ve argued, Lana Del Rey’s critical reception has shifted so drastically the past few years, or why hybrid genres can really struggle with garnering critical praise. There is no idea of absolute “success” or “effectiveness” for a piece of art: success requires criteria by which to be successful. Art is only effective at doing something, and whether or not a critic finds a work to be effective depends almost entirely on what he thinks it’s trying to do.

An example: A rock fan who thinks a successful rock song is effective at: (A) getting stuck in your head (B) accompanying a road trip or boring car rides (C) expressing angsty romantic failures or disappointment (D) making your head bang up and down — this rock fan would see Kid A as a tremendous failure. Critics who heralded Kid A as the best rock record of 2000 wouldn’t dispute the rock fan’s observations about the record, wouldn’t argue that it really is about angsty rejection and that if the rock fan just listened harder his hair would be flying all over his face. The difference in opinion stems from the fact that these rock critics have a very different (and broader) conception of what a rock song should or can do — the parameters within which it can be successful, the things it can be effective at “doing.” Their list of possible “doings” probably include: challenging existing genre constraints; reflecting contemporary sociocultural climate; presenting a unique perspective for viewing the world; bringing beauty into the listener’s life; challenging how the listener thinks about the genre and/or music as a whole and/or art as a whole. When this rock fan says “Thom Yorke sucks,” he thinks Yorke sucks at writing good hooks. “People must be pretending they like Thom Yorke.” This happens a lot, especially, when music snobs belittle Billboard pop because its lyrics “aren’t deep.” They’re expecting it be successful at something it isn’t trying to do, and get confused in thinking it’s just really bad at doing that thing. “You’d have to be an idiot to think Beyoncé writes clever, encoded deep lyrics.” No, just knowledgeable enough to recognize that Beyoncé isn’t trying to do write deep, encoded lyrics, but is trying to put out universally applicable, emotionally resonant ones.

Of course, it’s possible the rock fan doesn’t, in fact, expect Thom Yorke’s lyrics to get his head banging, or dispute that Kid A is successful or effective at challenging musical norms. He might also not expect encoded lines from pop artists, or dispute that Beyoncé (and her songwriting staff) is incredibly competent at writing universal, emotionally resonant lyrics. He’s just not interested in music or art which is doing these things. These effects aren’t a part of his Values Hierarchies for rock and/or pop and/or music in general. Maybe these effects even count in his negatives column, while their exact opposites rank high. Which is why, among many old-school rock fans, avant-garde and experimental music is seen as “weird” in a derogatory, rather than complimentary, way, but there’s a shared recognition between them and the Kid A fetishists that the music is experimental.

OK, so everything seems mostly intuitive and/or obvious so far.

II.

Let’s get back to a prior claim that I kind of dropped into the mix and then moved away from re: genres. Specifically that they’re both “inevitable and important.” If this doesn’t seem like a controversial claim, it’s worth noting that in music criticism, it is currently conventional wisdom — religious dogma, even — that genres are bad for the industry and the art. Often there’s some argument about categories constraining innovation or stifling creativity. But I’d argue exactly the opposite is true — that interesting, meaningful transgression and deviation requires rules and categories, and that without genre frameworks within which to work, artistic innovation would be, if not impossible, vastly harder to accomplish and vastly harder to identify (and thus extract value from). Moreover, genres and categories are necessary for critical judgment to take place in the first place. While the example earlier demonstrated personal disparities in hierarchies within a genre (the anti-experimental rock fan vs. the Radiohead-loving critic), each genre itself comes with its own set of critical and artistic priorities that are fairly common across in-group fans and critics. This allows community consensus about what’s allowed within the boundaries of the category, and moreover what the paragons of achievement with the category will be. Narrower subgenres and scenes of course have stricter guidelines and more consistent community consensus.

As I mentioned in “The New Rockism,” for rock music these shared priorities traditionally include personal authenticity, essentialist authenticity, self-expression/confession, guitar virtuosity, a certain defiant or rebellious attitude (especially towards capitalism, labels, “the man,” older generations), etc etc. Often, expression should be particular and specific rather than archetypal, general, or vague (hence rock’s condescension towards lyrical clichés). It’s often cynical or sneering vs. optimistic and naive (though rock, for what it’s worth, has its own forms of naivete). Pop music, meanwhile, is much more accepting of the cliché, of the universal, of the “empowerment anthem.”  It places a lot of weight on melodic appeal and instantaneous accessibility. Vocal ability is crucial, and more important than affect (which is arguably rock’s only prerequisite for its successful singers). Bluegrass puts more weight on personal talent and instrumental virtuosity in all its forms. Hip-hop prizes wordplay, technical delivery as much as pathos; its forms of authenticity are often essentialist rather than personal, and certainly more essentialist than modern rock authenticity models are. Obviously, all this is incredibly reductive given how broad these categories, histories, and scenes are. Obviously there are exceptions; genres aren’t monoliths, etc. But even despite these inherent shortcomings, look how much values hierarchies can tell us about the genres and critical judgments, especially if we get a bit more specific —

Lou Reed is a consensus, all-time-great rock singer. What makes him consensus great within rock communities? He’s successful and effective. What’s he successful and effective at? Certainly not hitting high notes, maintaining an accurate pitch, or accomplishing any of the beautiful interval jumps that make pop songs great. He’s successful because he has affect, and he’s effective because that affect — the voice’s gravel and it’s low rumbling masculinity — enhances the expressive communication and confessional quality of his lyrics, which are themselves specific and particular (speaking to a very narrow New York lifestyle and existence). We don’t have to feel like Reed stands for all of us, or understands all of us, or that we necessarily understand him, but we do get the distinct feeling listening to his vocal delivery that he really has been through the traumatic situations his lyrics mention, that he’s suffered and struggled and is struggling still. And we get the feeling, therefore as well, that as a teacher (a communicator of experience) he has authority and experience; he knows what he’s talking about; we can trust him when we learn how to live our own lives out of his experiences.

Maybe an easier example (though potentially equally or more reductive): modern art is really bad at representation. Pop art is really bad at inspiring feelings of religious awe in its viewers. And by “really bad” I mean they’re not effective at achieving an end goal, be it depicting realistically a subject or triggering the brain chemicals which make one feel divine presence. But Pollock and Kandinsky, Hamilton and Oldenburg, to name the more name-brand-recognizable of examples, aren’t ineffective artists. They’re just effective at something specific and different than religious awe/mimetic representation.

What genres and movements (and schools) do is provide a heuristic framework for figuring out the specific way in which a piece of music is trying to be effective. It’s not perfect, but it helps. By knowing the tradition within which a band is working, we can then figure out the ways that (A) they’re conforming to, and referencing, a tradition and (B) that they’re breaking from or challenging tradition. B is often where critics assign a lot of artistic value, though self-conscious/reflexive referencing garners its own fair share of postmodern praise. But without knowing the norm for the genre, it’s difficult or impossible to spot these “breaks” in lineage and tradition. It’s like trying to identify psychosis in a human being without first knowing or establishing how an average human being acts. The American Psych Association’s DSM-V is as much about determining what “normal” human behavior looks like as it is about diagnosing what “erratic” behavior looks like.

Or maybe it’s a little like moving to a new country and slowly learning its language. Only when you really get a grasp on it and become fluent can you recognize and appreciate all the unique intricacies and nuances, personal affectations and expressions, in the way your friends, neighbors, or coworkers speak. Before I had really listened to any metal, my overwhelming impression was that it all sounded the same. The real issue was that I wasn’t yet familiar with the genre’s common elements, and therefore couldn’t appreciate different artists’ individual variation and individuality. It’s a bit like how, when I was younger, I always struggled to find my friends’ houses in the suburbs. They were always the same colors, the same general builds and models, the same sizes. Obviously they all had doors, windows, yards. Of course my friends themselves never struggled. They’d learned to spot the minor variations, the subtle differences. They knew what to look for. They knew which elements were all the exact same across the housing development, and they knew which ones owners were able to customize, the ones the contractors had given a bit more variation. Similarly, because we’re finely tuned to what a general, generic human being looks like, we can look past all the common qualities — the chest and limbs and shoulders, the way all humans have skin and ears — and appreciate variety, beauty, excellence, the specific ratios of cheek curvature or shades of irises.

 

III.

It’s not exactly that genres are necessary for a thriving culture to exist. It’s just that genres provide default, well-established and well-understood values hierarchies and assessment-understanding frameworks for consumers, critics, and artists alike. Maybe a better way of illustrating the importance of genres’ built-in hierarchies is to show you what happens when said hierarchies fail, or are absent entirely.

Pop music has finally garnered critical praise and acceptance in the so-called “poptimism” era. Critical outlets from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork are singing the praises of everyone from Beyoncé to Bieber. This is a success story for values hierarchies: critics have finally stopped judging pop music by rock standards (a ridiculous practice, judging one genre by another’s standards; think back to the aforementioned example of Lou Reed as an unsuccessful/ineffective pop artist for an example why); now, they can appreciate pop on its own terms of melodic and vocal achievement without bemoaning the recent Taylor Swift album for not being raw and unplugged enough.

(Rock music was always lauded by popular music critics, being itself the genre which spawned popular music criticism, and its critical/artistic priorities were essentially the de facto critical hierarchies for all popular music for most of the 20th century.)

What about pop-rock though? The list of hyphenated genre acts. The Killers. Coldplay. Folk rock: The Lumineers, Mumford & Sons. They’re among some of the most critically trashed music groups of the last fifteen years, and bad music means neither successful nor effective. Is this really true? Or are critics using the wrong values hierarchies to assess these acts?

In chemistry, there’s a process called reagent testing. You add a reagent — Chemical A — to a reactant — Chemical B — and see if a reaction takes place. If B is an unknown chemical, and we’re trying to figure out whether it’s chlorine, we add the correct reagent. If it is, in fact, chlorine, Chemical B will turn (let’s say) bright green. If it isn’t chlorine, it might turn a host of different colors, or no color at all.

Obviously, if you add the incorrect reagent (Chemical A) to the chlorine, it might be perfectly good and high quality, 100% chlorine, but it still won’t turn bright green. Similarly, if you apply the improper values hierarchy when judging a record, it won’t come back with a proper reading. The assessment will be flawed; it will yield either bad results, misleading/opposite results, or no results at all.

If we apply the reagent for Good Pop Vocals (testing for: vocal range, smooth transitions, doesn’t break or crack, proper breathing technique) to Lou Reed, we get the result “poor quality reactant.” Ineffective. Unsuccessful. Not just plainly but extraordinarily bad.

With hybrid genres like folk-rock or pop-rock, critics are left with some ambiguity as to which reagent (values hierarchy) they should apply. Rock standards? Pop standards? Must a pop-rock acts like Camera Obscura succeed by both genres’ values hierarchies to be effective? Must Mumford & Sons succeed by all of pop, rock and folk’s? Can they succeed within the parameters of just one? Can they mix and match different characteristics and priorities?

Which reagent you employ will determine which color you get back. Apply a few drops of folk standards and the band’s simple harmonic progressions, clichéd lyrics, and slightly autotuned lyrics yield a muddy black of failure and poor quality. Yet assess these characteristics with the pop reagent and suddenly they are all strength: the progressions are predictable and accessible, which triggers dopamine releases among even first-time listeners (ideal for radio play); the lyrics are not clichéd but universal, appealing to mass audience base of listeners in all age brackets; the vocal line stays on pitch in a sonically agreeable way. “Little Lion Man” is fantastically successful as a pop song. By folk or rock standards, it crumples: it is pretentious and vague, flawed from its very conception.

(I understand endorsing “Little Lion Man” in any form is contentious/controversial, and I’m not even sure if I personally like the song — when I apply my own personal values hierarchy [V.H.] atop of the pop hierarchy, it probably falls short. But there are plenty other examples of genre cross-over which, once controversial, are now canonized. To name a few: Bob Dylan at the Newport folk festival, Kanye West crossing into pop with MBDTF, and, of course, Radiohead’s Kid A moving into electronica at the turn of the century.)

This confusion — this mismatch of reagent to reactant — occurs when an act straddles only two or three genres. Now imagine a music culture sans genre, sans any designation of approach or intentionality, sans any standard and framework by which to judge effectiveness and success. How could we say anything at all about what was good and bad art?

A dangerous potential implication of this argument is that with the right reagent applied, all or any music/art can be successful/effective/great. It’s probably the argument that a lot of critics skeptical of Farrah Abraham might make about her aforementioned “art album.” That seems both sort of right and very dangerous and I don’t think I can answer it now.


Links:

The Velvet Underground: “I’m Beginning to See the Light”

Pitchfork’s Kid A review

Papillae:

Want to experience dramatic defamiliarization? Watch a film of one genre as if it were of another, that is, seriously pretend, no, behave and think as if, for instance, a drama were a comedy. Treat it fully and committedly; watch as the most serious, sincere moments transform into self-parody or else hyberbolic farce, simply by modifying their classification.

From Ann C. Hall’s Phantom Variations (ft. Elizabeth Wollman):

Phantom_Variations.html

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