Sunday, November 12, 2023

Ibiza-ification of pop

The Ibiza-ification of pop

Guardian blog, 2011

by Simon Reynolds

The other day we were driving in the car, listening to one of Los Angeles's  Top 40 stations, and I turned to my wife and asked, "How come everything on the radio sounds like a peak-hour tune from Ibiza?"

All these smash hits have the AutoTuned big-chorus tune bolted on top. But underneath, the riffs and vamps, the pulses and pounding beats, the glistening synthetic textures and the overall banging boshing feel: it's like it's been beamed straight in from Gatecrasher or The Love Parade circa 1999.

This week The Quietus published a piece that pinpoints a particularly bludgeoning and tyrannical aspect of the now-pop, what writer Daniel Barrow calls "the Soar": the wooshing, upwards-ascending, hands-in-the-air chorus, which has been divorced from its original context (Nineties underground dance-and-drug culture) and repurposed as the trigger for a kind of release-without-release.

Barrow's references to steroids ("the steroided architecture of these tracks", etc) captures the unsettling "stacked" quality of these recordings. Like the images you find in bodybuilding magazines, the now-pop can often be at once grotesque and mesmerising.

Strangely Barrow makes no mention of the tune that seems like the now-pop's defining anthem and blueprint, a song that is still omnipresent many months after it first hit big: "Dynamite" by Taio Cruz. His name, with its odd unplaceable quality (it sounds like some kind of Asian-Hispanic hybrid) suits the Esperanto-like qualities of  the now-pop. Although  often described by hostile critics as Eurohouse, it is simply and purely international, post-geographical, panglobal.

(How apt that the video for "Dynamite" is preceded here by a commercial for Las Vegas tourism, since that city is both Mecca and model for a certain idea of "a really good time"  that is celebrated by so many of these in-the-club anthems).

I started out loathing "Dynamite". The "ay-o" bit in particular always made me think of "day-o" as in Harry Belafonte's "Banana-Boat Song." 

Gradually I succumbed--or perhaps I should say,  "submitted"--and started to think of "Dynamite" as possessing a certain dumb genius. Especially the line that goes "I'm wearing all my favourite brands brands brands brands".

But looking from the vantage point of my forthcoming book Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction To Its Own Past,  what's most striking and unsettling about the now-pop is its not-so-now-ness: the fact that in the year 2011, mainstream pop sounds like the late Nineties.

The Black Eyed Peas pioneered all this of course, creating a sort of 21st Century update of all that European "hip house" from even earlier in the 90s (Snap, Technotronic, et al) and working in some Eighties-retro flavours here and there.

"The Time (Dirty Bit)" also qualifies, abundantly, for the category of "dumb genius".
  And as with "Dynamite", there's that forced insistence that everyone's "having the time of their lives". So much of the now-pop has this vaguely coercive undercurrent. As Barrow notes, the producers know how to work your reflexes, they've got pop pleasure down to a science, they target those euphoria-centers of the brain as ruthlessly as soft drinks stoked with high-fructose corn syrup.

Kids love this kind of stuff, of course. At the Nickelodeon TV channel's  Kids' Choice Awards show in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, The Black Eyed Peas performed "The Time": what with the dazzling lights and deafening volume, it really was like a rave for children.  We were there with our own kids: five-year-old Eli in particular is totally into the now-pop.  Recently, driving in the car and flicking back and forth between pop stations and classic rock stations, he opined that Katy Perry was "rock'n'roll"  but was quite adamant that The Stones's "It's Only Rock'n'Roll" was "not rock'n'roll".   He wouldn't be budged.

Perhaps Eli is correct, in spirit.
  The substance of the now-pop has absolutely  nothing in common with rock'n'roll or indeed any form of live-band music.  But perhaps its blaring bombast is the true modern sound of teenage (and pre-teenage) rampage.  Maybe all this steroid-maxed uber-pop is just as artfully mindless and cunningly vacant as the records made by The Sweet with Chinn & Chapman,  the production team who were the Seventies equivalents to Dr. Luke and expert programmers of  artificial excitement, architects of crescendo and  explosion.  Eli's a big Sweet fan too.


Thursday, November 9, 2023

Let's Do The Time Warp Again (the Guardian, October 13th 1990)


Startled to be reminded just how long now - and how far back - I have been gnashing my teeth about retro-paralysis! 

And in fact there's a riff using the "re" that I would later use in Retromania - not recycling, though, I don't think - it just re-occurred to me. 

(And in fact someone else got there earlier, which I didn't know in 1990, or in 2010). 

(I guess reinventing the wheel would be no small achievement, if you never even saw a wheel in the first place). 

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Routes and futures


Various Artists

Routes from the Jungle: Escape Velocity Volume 1

Melody Maker, 1995

by Simon Reynolds 

Thursday, November 2, 2023

the trap decade

[alternate ending to this 2010s-surveying piece on the Trap Internationale for The Face]

At the moment, trap – indisputably the sonic vanguard of mainstream pop – is locked in a vicious cycle: the desire of the underclass to become overlords. MCs could hardly be more explicit in their declaration of this deadly intent. In her #1 single “Bodak Yellow”, Cardi B talks about leaving behind stripping for rapping just like her spouse Offset talks about leaving behind trapping for rapping: “I don't gotta dance, I make money move… I'm a boss, you a worker, bitch, I make bloody moves.”

Listening to trap is paradoxical: immense creativity, flair, flamboyance, life-force, slamming right up against a deadening set of thematic constraints, somehow magically rewriting and re-rewriting the stale script into inexhaustible freshness. An absolute wealth of brilliance, an utter poverty of imagination.  Rae Sremmurd may rap about being  “Black Beatles”, but we’re a million miles from “All You Need Is Love” and “Imagine.” 

The politics of trap revealed themselves, unfortunately, on the earlier Sremmurd single “Up Like Trump”, released in 2015. Swae Lee raps about reading Forbes like the Bible, Slim Jxmmi describes himself as a “money fiend,” and in the video, a Donald mask-wearing figure parties with the duo on the open top of a bus riding through Times Square. Speaking to Complex magazine at the time, Lee declared, “Donald Trump is cool…. I’m like, ‘That’s a cool motherfucker.’ He’s rich as fuck.”  In a Guardian profile after their role model was elected, the duo defined Trumpism as “owning businesses, being bossed up” and seemed to have no regrets about making the song. 

Rejecting party politics for apolitical partying, Jxmmi said that “young people wanna rage”. Sremmurd and their fans are about “living lit” and banging “our heads against the wall”. It’s a fitting cap to the trap decade: a President whose taste runs to nouveau riche glitz, who runs the White House like a Mafioso.