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.
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.
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
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 Will.i.am: expert
programmers of artificial excitement,
architects of crescendo and explosion. Eli's a big Sweet fan too.