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Pop goes parody

Pop music has been eating itself for decades. So what's new about today?

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Politics

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One of the most cherished myths about the pop industry is that, whereas in the 1960s the charts were full of genuine artists singing wholly new songs, today we are suffocating under a barrage of fake, artistically modified bands who are incapable of writing their own music.

This is a distorted, nostalgic view. The entire Western canon has always involved degrees of borrowing, plagiarism and even conscious self-referentiality.

Bill Wyman has bemoaned the current batch of tweenagers clogging up the charts: ‘These boys and girls are not real musicians, they are just pretty young people somebody has discovered. They don’t write the songs they sing.’ (1) This comes from the bassist whose band, the Rolling Stones, came to attention in the mid-1960s with such melodies as ‘Carol’ (composed by Chuck Berry), ‘Not Fade Away’ (Norman Petty and Charles Hardin), ‘Poison Ivy’ (Lieber/Stoller) and ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ (Lennon/McCartney).

It has always been a question of degree, but what does mark out today’s pop climate is the fact that not only has inauthenticity become all the more pervasive, but that we positively bask in it. Thirty-five years ago the Monkees tried desperately to convince pundits that they were indeed a genuine group; today Hear’Say entirely revel in their artificial status. Pop has always been eating itself, but only now does it seem that the meal is on its last course.

There are three explanations for the thesis that pop music is losing its capacity to be fresh and original. First is the gradual transformation of the global industry into an oligopoly, comprised of fewer and fewer huge companies that stifle creativity in the name of profit-chasing.

The second is that we are simply running out of tunes. A decent pop ditty needs a basic memorable melody, which in turn requires simple tonality and a series of tonal relations over a regular four-four beat. All the good melodies have been used up and any new tunes are merely scraping the barrel of the remainder.

Thirdly, as a response to this, is that the advent of the digital sampler has made regurgitation and pastiche (in dance music, for instance) far simpler and more appealing.

The ‘first rap tune’, the Sugar Hill Gang’s 1979 seminal hit ‘Rapper’s Delight’, is often cited as signalling the end of authenticity. In mainly comprising the continual looping of a section of Chic’s ‘Good Times’, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was upfront about the fact that it was not an original composition; it merely borrowed and appropriated.

‘Rapper’s Delight’ heralded the tradition among the hip-hop and later the dance scene, that whereas songs had previously had a singer and a subject, the two had now collapsed upon each other. For The Sugar Hill Gang in 1979, as with Eminem in 2001, rapped about how they rap. Or in their own words, ‘Now what you hear is not a test – I’m rappin’ to the beat/And me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet’.

Yet Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Mahler were likewise partial to a bit of self-reference. And as far as borrowing from others goes, both Richard Strauss (in his Salome) and Debussy (in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande) offer up direct Wagnerian motifs; Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony similarly and quite blatantly borrows from Rossini’s William Tell Overture; and where would Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture be without the enduring leitmotif of the Marseillaise?

As for pop music, the notion of absolute artistic authorship and integrity is an illusion. In its heyday of the 1960s, the producer Berry Gordy played a considerable part in creating the Motown sound, as did Phil Spector with mainstream pop. Meanwhile, George Martin’s technical innovations contributed considerably to the late-Beatles sound. Even the Fab Four, in their White Album (1968), give us four sides of self-reference (see ‘Glass Onion’, with Lennon reminding us ‘I told you about Strawberry Fields’), or deliberate musical mimicry (see the oh-so-Beach Boysesque ‘Back in the USSR’).

Yet even if there has always been pressure from recording companies, substantial input from producers and degrees of mimicry, what is clear now is that their influence is far more substantial. Cover versions, boy bands, techno-plagiarism and tribute bands now proliferate.

Three groups have emerged in recent weeks that tell us a lot about a pop scene now obsessed with regurgitation, parody and irony. The first is Gorillaz, the pet project of Blur frontman Damon Albarn; the second is Hear’Say, the ostentatiously artificial teen group spawned by the ITV series Popstars. And thirdly, according to the Sun (April 27), Near’Say, a tribute band to Hear’Say, who are set to go on tour ahead of the ‘real thing’. All three are self-consciously fake groups, but in radically different ways.

Hear’Say’s agenda is to merely attain stardom. Indeed their guided road to fame is intrinsic to their appeal and their very aura. They were never meant to be about talent, but fame, and what’s more, feeling.

Fans like listening to their cover versions of Paul Simon’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and The Mamas and the Papas’ ‘Monday, Monday’ because they remind us of the traumatic scenes in the TV series in which hopefuls were gradually whittled away. We are meant to feel their pain at their being the stoical survivors of a heartless Darwinian selection process. Their narrative is more important than their music.

Gorillaz, however, are making a self-conscious gesture. Albarn and his fellow musicians have created for themselves cartoon characters who ‘are’ the band: Murdoc, Noodle, 2-D and Russell, complete with their own concocted ‘personalities’ and ‘histories’. At their debut appearance at the Scala last month, the actual musicians appeared in character behind a large silhouette. But unlike Hear’Say, they do not work within the system, but aim to criticise it from without. Albarn and co are mimicking and mocking the woeful state of an industry that produces artificial bands.

Gorillaz are, of course, not the first to do as much. The Sex Pistols boasted that they were a bunch of talentless no-hopers put together by Malcolm McLaren, and of course Spinal Tap played with the idea of fake groups, making the hyperreal journey from the artificial to the real: after the actors appeared as a band in the film of the same name, in 1992, as musicians, they actually went on tour.

If Hear’Say represent the intellectual bankruptcy of the music industry, and Gorillaz express dissatisfaction at its artistic impoverishment, Near’Say belie modern culture’s lazy obsession with irony. Whereas ‘genuine’ tribute bands indicate a longing for talented groups from the 1960s and 70s, Near’Say are the in-joke, a fake band imitating a fake band who sing other people’s songs: pop music lost in a hall of mirrors. Pop music for a cynical generation for whom endless irony has replaced principle.

If Gorillaz seem a little sixth-form in their intellectual posturing, then at least they are attempting to question the system (unlike Blur’s tiresome Small Facesesque faux-cockney ditties). And to the dance music scene’s credit, it is there that one is likely to come across fresh ideas and new sounds, even if, paradoxically, because the genre is willing to borrow and blend to create them. The mainstream scene merely borrows to regurgitate old sounds because celebrity and youth is more interesting than music.

Hear’Say and their imitators suggest an unhealthy level of narcissism and lamentable preoccupation with fame. We are expected to feel their pain. I would indulge them in that if only they were a bit more honest, and called themselves The Mamas and the Papas and Nasty Nigel.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

Read on:

Why the Popstars can’t be popstars, by Jennie Bristow

(1) London Evening Standard, 8 May 2001

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