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Notebook: Criticizing the criticism of electronic pop

RCA

By Gregory Hicks, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 30, 2012

“(Insert modern music genre here) is not real music!” shouts 19-year-old music expert John Smith in his Musicology 101 class. This is one of the most common phrases to ever be uttered, heard and overheard. Musical style changes every decade, and with those changes comes the same argument.

Let’s dispel the not-real-music theory. A brilliant way to summarize this concept comes from musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez, who said in his book “Music and Discourse” that “the border between music and noise is always culturally defined — which implies that, even within a single society, this border does not always pass through the same place; in short, there is rarely a consensus.”

Rarely a consensus indeed, Mr. Nattiez. People have become much too picky about their art. Music is a genre that mostly deals with pitches and rhythms, so to say that something loses its artistry because of a change in medium — the medium being sound — is silly.

“Electronic instrumentation makes all music sound the same!” bellows Katie Johnson, a listener who only needs to hear two whole songs on an album before coming to a unique conclusion like this. It seems as though many people today are gifted like Katie. But something doesn’t line up here. If computerized instrumentation has given artists access to an almost infinite number of new instruments, then why has it become monotonous? It hasn’t. But the artists have, and that’s where the confusion appears.

Back in the day, a person could expect jazzy pop from Frank Sinatra and some rock from Sting and the Police. Translate this into the modern day. It would be ridiculous if someone said, “Hey! There was a saxophone in Frank Sinatra’s other song too. All of his stuff sounds the same.” Society has become so spoiled by the new abundance of possible sounds in music that it has come to expect no two sounds to be remotely similar.

This drives music artists like Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears and Ke$ha to end up with 50 people trying to write and produce their albums. Each song ends up sounding completely different from the next, making it hard to distinguish the style that the artist is going for — thereby, ironically, becoming pooled together.

“I have microphones and computer software, so I don’t even need a record deal to make my music!” says Cindy Lou Who in excitement. “She has microphones and computer software, so she doesn’t even need a record deal to make her music,” says her friend Steve in horror when asked about tone-deaf Cindy. America is praised as the land of opportunity, but there appears to be nothing but complaint with regard to the opportunities technology has given to famous American music artists. Words like “Auto-Tune,” “overproduced” and “crap” are often associated with artists who have jumped on the electronic bandwagon.

Auto-Tune is not some magical gift from the gods that morphs a person into a talented singer. Think about the bigger picture. The different bells and whistles heard in songs are a typical means to an end for supporting someone’s most notable qualities. Katy Perry is a pretty face, Britney Spears is a performer (better or worse at times) and Ke$ha is a talented songwriter — even if you don’t always hear it.

These seem like poor excuses for being a mediocre singer, but here’s the long-forgotten truth: Musical artists were never the greatest singers. Nobody listens to the Beatles and says, “Damn, those are some powerhouse vocalists.” They’re great songwriters and instrumentalists, but not so heavy on the voices. Think back to rock ‘n’ roll and realize the voice was degraded long before technology came around.

“This song reminds me of this song, which sounds like this song and that song,” Preston Weaston comments after spending too much time on Pandora. Admittedly, there is some truth in that the producer has become the new instrumentalist, thanks to the disappearance of tangible instruments in a track. There are many famous music producers out there, each with their own distinct sound. Timbaland has his dark, thumping beats while Dr. Luke has his mix of guitar with a light dubstep. When the distinct sound of a producer is heard on the albums of six different artists though, a lot of fingers will point to say that one singer is copying the other.

Even though there's access to an infinite number of potential noises, they don’t just fall out of the sky. People work to engineer them, and when it comes to finding out what fits with a song, there’s a lot of throwing paint against the wall to see what sticks.

There’s the additional element of finding a singer’s voice that fits with the electronic style. Selena Gomez is a good example of an artist whose voice must be beaten to death with processing effects before it blends in with the genre. And Rihanna is an example of a voice that needs very little tampering to fit in.

It’s much more common for a person to pick up an actual instrument during their lifetime than it is to generate electronic music. Regardless, there is a large amount of effort involved and the charts continually indicate that people enjoy listening to it, so cut down on the “death of music” and “horrible quality” comments. Art is already too full of opinions imitating facts.


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