“This makes the pop song an indispensable mirror: The way in which a listener imposes himself upon the text, or transforms the text from generic to specific, shows that listener something about himself. He learns his yearnings, his sadnesses, his loves; he recognizes an emotional life which is otherwise elusive, and solidifies in time an emotional state which is otherwise ephemeral.”
One of the critical ideas I’ve found most interesting of late is a seeming contradiction: Just because it sounds like bad music doesn’t mean it is bad music. “Just because it reads like a bad novel doesn’t mean it’s a bad novel” is also sort of true, but a bit more complicated.
The tenability of the first statement, of course, is the result of specific parameters for what it means to sound bad versus be bad. Specifically, the phrasing of “sounding like bad music” is key: it opens the possibility, when X track sounds like bad music Y, that the sonic trappings and features which X shares with Y music are not in themselves bad; that the “bad music” in question is ineffective or unpleasant for reasons separate from its overlap with track X.
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.”
Camera Obscura’s breakthrough Let’s Get Out of This Country was released ten years ago this June. Had I known of the record at the time, it would likely have been relegated to the category of guilty pleasure: something to be listened to but not shared; something enjoyable but not worthy. Rock music, especially after a nineties-alt makeover, was still seen as one of the few genres worthy of critical seriousness. Let’s Get Out of This Country was a hybrid pop record low on existential angst, with a penchant for cute sentimentality in place of masculine affect.
Except it’s currently 2016, the so-called poptimist war waged and won, and some part of me still feels the same way as I would have then: reticent to endorse this album, conscious of social judgments against it. It is, today, entirely acceptable within circles of music snobbery to commend the merits of Beyoncé, Britney, and Bieber; positive reviews by traditional tastemakers from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork asserts as much. Cheesiness, cheeriness, and the cliché (if ironically attended to) are in vogue, and fandom of pop acts serves as a signifier of democratic discernment, of unbiased and open-minded opinions. As Lindsay Zoladz writes in her self-introduction as music editor to Vulture,
“I’ve recently started to suspect that bragging about cultural omnivorousness has become its own form of snobbery, and that the new face of music-nerd elitism is not the High Fidelity bro but instead the Twitter user who would very much like you to applaud him for listening to Ke$ha and Sunn O))) and Florida Georgia Line and Gucci Mane and …”