August 8th, 2009


2 POP EUREKA moments

Did I grow out of my fascination with pop music? Did the world grow out of its fascination with pop music? Did pop music die, stealthily, somewhere? Did I become too old and conservative for pop music, or did pop music become too old and conservative for me? Did playlists and personal all-time Top 100s and endless repetition of classics exhaust us all? Was pop's ubiquity pop's abyss? Or did filesharing really kill it? Was Michael Jackson "the last king of pop", and did it die with him? Was it the Ladytron lighting list? Did people making pop stop being the most creative people around, and did the creative people left making pop get ever-more-marginalised and powerless? Or is it something to do with the decline of the West's belief in itself?

Whatever happened, there's almost nothing that excites me in pop music right now. (We'll come back to that saving "almost".) Days and weeks can go by in which I don't hear pop, or experience it only as an irrititant in a cafe, an earworm in a supermarket. It's a reason to leave, not a reason to live. As I write these words -- as if to taunt me -- someone has started our communal courtyard throbbing with an awful power ballad. It's nothing I can identify, nothing I've ever heard before, but has a chord sequence (G minor, E sharp, A sharp, F) I've heard a million times before. I close the window -- this is what super-efficient German double-glazing was invented for -- but the bassline still ebbs in, filling the room with an infectious banality I can't quite filter out of my soul. Phew! It's stopped, mid-song. The perp was evidently as bored with the ballad as I was. Birdsong. Planes. Voices. Doors banging. I re-open the window. These sounds are welcome.

But I miss pop. I do. What I miss most, I think, is the idea of pop music signaling the future -- the new, exciting, strange shapes and forms of a future society beckoning people in the present to its bosom. Because pop music used to do that. It used to feel avant, ahead. I also miss what I call "the shoplifting impulse" -- that moment when you hear an idea so fresh and bold that you instantly want to steal it. That "shoplifting impulse" is just appetite, but -- like all appetite -- it concerns the immediate future. "I want to eat. I will eat." In the case of music, it would be: "I want to make music that sounds like that. God, what great music! What a game-changer! What a life-changer!"

Okay, I've been exaggerating a bit. This isn't a new feeling, for a start. I remember the same sense of pop's staleness when I was 23. I lost interest in UK pop entirely. Only Jacques Brel mattered for me. Or, you know, I'm 14 and only David Bowie matters a damn. Kick out all the rest! But -- just when you think you've purged your appetite for pop trash -- EUREKA! Pop comes back, stronger than ever. It does something that only pop can do. Your eyes pop in your skull. Your appetite is rekindled. The return of the repressed. There is a future after all! For the medium, for society, for you-in-the-medium, and for you-in-society.

Over the past month -- a month in which I've been, officially, indifferent to pop -- I've nevertheless had two POP EUREKA moments. One was when I heard this Echo Nest remix by yhancik of Devo's Time Out For Fun. What was exciting, initially, was that it restored the original sense of strangeness I got from early Devo; it defamiliarised. It was also exciting that this had been achieved via a new piece of software, so if offered the possibility that one could write relatively conventional songs and then press a "strip every third bar" button or a "put this into 5/8 time" button and get something a lot more interesting. If there's an "I could do something with this!" angle, naturally, things are twice as exciting. Being a pop producer -- even an imaginary one -- makes being a pop consumer a lot more relevant.

The other POP EUREKA moment happened just the other day. Franck Stofer from the Sonore label posted a video of Oorutaichi live in performance at Superdeluxe in Tokyo. Here it is (I'm pretty sure you can see that even without logging in to Facebook). It's a really extraordinary track in which the Japanese eccentric (he's touring Europe later this year) seems to be channeling Indonesian pop -- the kind of thing you can hear in the great cassette pop compilations on the Sublime Frequencies label, or in your local Thai supermarket, if you have one, or in the work of Jonny Olsen, the "American Taliban" of the music world, who left California to become a pop star in Thailand and Laos.

What I really love in the Oorutaichi track is how it clearly has a structure, but it's not one I understand or can anticipate. Avant noodling structurelessness is as boring as the over-familiar bassline ebbing through my double-glazing, but this track has the best of both worlds: a structure that could never have been arrived at randomly (it's clearly a structure which has evolved in the folk songs of some Indonesian land), but that can't be predicted according to any musical model already existing in my brain. In this way, it shares something with the Echo Nest remix of Devo: my unfamiliarity with Indonesian pop means that I interpret the folk structures in the Oorutaichi track as something avant garde (and Oorutaichi's sonic processing encourages that). And yet avant garde music is rarely as interestingly-structured as this. There has to be a folk tradition and an avant garde tradition to get this result. And there has to be Indonesia too. Indonesia -- or rather my unfamiliarity with its music -- is acting on this music like the algorithms in the Echo Nest software.