Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Exacting Standards

During my period of enforced sleeplessness a couple of nights ago I caught OK Go's latest music video, (embedding disabled).

I think it's an absolutely incredible video, but it's a bit of a nothingy song, isn't it? In fact, I didn't think much to Here It Goes Again, either. I'm definitely in the camp that says the only reason that song got into the US Top 40 was the video, which admittedly was freaking awesome.

I'm wondering whether this is a conscious choice, and how often this has happened before. How many bands have realised they're never going to rediscover their creative sparkle (whether they were once genuinely brilliant, or just got lucky, and OK Go's former status as pretty much one hit wonders perhaps implies the second), so attempt to keep themselves afloat with a string of brilliant videos? Working on this theory, I dug out the video of the single OK Go released in-between the two above.

Case closed.

We're certainly some way past the point that videos can be considered simple accessories to songs. I remember way back in 2001 Peter Buck lamenting that a video can never do anything but make you dislike a song. Even back then (oh so many years ago!) he sounded hopelessly outdated (to say nothing of ungrateful, since I doubt either Imitation Of Life or its parent album Reveal would have done nearly so well were it not for the awesome video to the former; I don't think the correlation is perfect, but I also don't think it's entirely coincidental that the most highly regarded lead single REM had had in four albums came attached to probably their best video throughout their career).

On one level, it feels kinda cheating to use other people's bright ideas to punch above your weight (this, by the way, is why I find it hard to be impressed by groups like Girls Aloud; I can appreciate their songs, but they'd have to be much, much better singers before I could genuinely appreciate them). Then again, ain't no-one getting conned, and I'm sure there are of plenty of talented directors out there who could do with the work. And it definitely beats the alternative methods by which people try to artificially keep themselves in the game; tepid covers and novelty songs (this is particularly obvious and depressing when someone's first hit was a novelty song, and they rapidly disappear in a storm of increasingly desperate attempts to seem amusing and whimsical; three and a half minutes of begging for the laugh).

Plus, I just got to watch a parade marching to the tune of a brass section in camo gear. What else can a man ask for?


BigHead said...

I have little time for music videos. Apart from ones by Within Temptation. But I'd happily watch those without any music at all...

Anything with Christopher Lee in is also OK, although for entirely different reasons.

Gooder said...

I was thinking about what you said about Girls Aloud which led me on to generally how a lot of people look down on pop acts because they perform other people's material.

It's a way of thinking that seems to only really come up in the music industry. I mean no one has a go at TV drama writers using actors to make a drama and vice versa.

Sitcom actors get appluded for their skill and aren't really looked down for not being the writers as well.

Just rambling really but I though it was interesting. Plus I suspect the Girls Aloud girls are technically better singers than alot of 'cooler' bands out there.

SpaceSquid said...

I think you've already hit it with the "technically better" comment. The equivalent actor would be better at enunciation, but not necessarily better at actually transmitting emotion, which is far more important to a lot of people, including me.

The reason why it's so desirable for people to perform their own songs is that the stories and emotions within them often work better when they are the singer's own. Or, more to the point, when you can believe they are their own (which is why those who record their own music can often manage cover versions very well too, which would initially seem like a contradiction to my general stance). The best actors are those who make you believe they are describing their own stories, not someone else's. This is by no means impossible for a singer to fake in a similar manner, but (speaking very generally) those that don't record their own material tend to sink or swim based on their technical ability, not their storytelling ability, in a way that simply isn't true with regard to actors.

Now, if a well-written and proficiently performed song is what you're looking for, more power to you. And, as I say, I can appreciate it being done well. It's just not the most important part of music for me, by a long way.

Tomsk said...

Squid - I agree with you that it is not useful to compare drama and music, but I think Gooder hit on it when he used the word 'cool'. I don't buy the idea that only the songwriters have a magic ability to put across the emotions of their songs. Before rock and roll came along it was standard for writing and performance in pop music to be separate, and the most popular artists (e.g. Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald) were celebrated as the best 'interpreters' of the songs. There are several factors that caused this to change, in particular the rise of the pop group as an indivisible unit (rather than singer+backing band) and the album as a musical artefact that showed off both songwriting ability and musicianship. The success of the Beatles and their competitors cemented this in place. Ultimately, though, it's the notion that it's cool - or 'authentic' - to perform your own songs that has kept the tradition going. This I think is due to a collision between 50's rock and roll, when music was first aimed specifically at teenagers and coolness/tribalism naturally became a large part of the equation, and the folk music tradition, where notions of authenticity have always been paramount. It's not surprising that the sectors of the music industry where coolness is not a selling point (e.g. soft-rock or boy bands/girl groups), there is far more separation between writer and performer. And this of course reinforces the opinions of people who don't like those sorts of music.

Personally I'm totally in favour of the DIY ethos of a band writing and performing their own songs, but I don't think this necessarily results in objectively better music.

SpaceSquid said...

I don't think it results in objectively better music either. I think that subjectively, it tends to result in music that I much prefer.

Tomsk said...

What is your evidence for that when there are no examples of the alternative model in the genre of music that you like? To say it results in music that you prefer assumes all other things being equal. But all other things are not equal, as the recording model is linked very strongly (via perceived coolness) to musical genre.

SpaceSquid said...

It's entirely possible that there's some external confounding. But if you want to compare like with like, you're looking at it from the wrong angle. The question is not "where does the hired gun exist outside of pop", it's "where does the singer-songwriter exist within it". It rather depends on what one means by "pop", of course, but it's certainly true that one can find plenty of what most people would consider poppy songs that are written by their performers.

In any case, even if there wasn't anything to be said for a performer using their own material, my interest in how someone's voice sounds is so low that at best I could see an argument for following specific pop writers as they moved from band to band. Had I been more impressed by Hit Me Baby One More Time than I was, it would be Max Martin I would be Googling, not Britney Spears. Thus, even if writer and performer can be separated without noticeable problems, that still gives me no reason to be partiularly impressed with the latter, beyonf the fact that one band may clearly tackle a given song better than another.

Tomsk said...

You're right that that would be a better angle, but I'd assumed that you didn't like any girl groups regardless of whether they write their own songs or not. If you have a songwriting girl group in mind, that would indeed make a useful comparison.

As for Max Martin, it confuses me that you would have no interest in the performance. Surely if your highest priority is a transmission of emotion, and a belief that the singer really is feeling the emotions they are singing about, then the quality of the performance is all-important?

Gooder said...

Some interesting thoughts, I was just musing on it like I said.

To throw a question in what if a performer takes on someone else's song that has a relevence to their life?

I think it's also perhaps worth thinking about how a lot of 'pop' music fills a different role. It's the lighter side of the scale like comedies are the lighter side of films.

The rom-com cloud pleaser to the emotional gut wringer drama. So does the believability of the emotion really carry that much weight if the tune is catchy?

I've no problem if it's not you're type of music and you're prefer other things, I'm just thinking aloud really.

And even the squid's music tastes have noticably started expanding beyond whiny white guys in some areas!

SpaceSquid said...

@Tomsk: I'll have to think whether I can come up with any singer-songwriters in the pop ouevre who I like (part of the problem is deciding what constitutes pop in the first place, of course).

And yes, I do seem to have contradicted myself. What I was attempting to convey is that both emotional delivery and competent writing are both superior to impressive technical delivery. We've been focussing on the first, but the second is important too; otherwise my favourite album possible would presumably be a 45 minute a capella primal scream (as oppose to a capella Primal Scream, which would be rubbish). My point was that even if one sets aside my interest in emotional connection, it would be the writers I ran to, not the best singers. Moreover, since Gooder introduced the concept of "technically better", it was in that sense I was discussing the quality of the performance. If a singer is capable of faking emotional connection where none exists, that is a different beast.

@ Gooder: "What if a performer takes on someone else's song that has a relevence to their life?"

My instinctive response to this would be that it depends upon whether or not they can make that connection obvious. Kylie, for example, could appropriate a song about cancer, and it would certainly have meaning for her. Whether or not that would lead to her singing conveying emotion (which to my mind she's never really managed, beyond some vague feeling of cheerfulness), I don't know.

Ultimately, it's all about the delivery. I'm down on bands like Girls Aloud because nothing they've offered up to date conveys anything to me (which is neither to say I can't recognise when they're singing well, nor that their tunes can be well-crafted and deeply catchy), but for all I know tomorrow they could bring swipe something from somewhere and sing their hearts out to it.

"The rom-com cloud pleaser to the emotional gut wringer drama. So does the believability of the emotion really carry that much weight if the tune is catchy?"

I think this is a pretty good analogy, not least because I don't generally like rom-coms because I don't think they really say or convey anything. Or rather, I can like a rom-com, but I wouldn't want to see it more than once, and I know there's much better out there.