Friday, February 3, 2006

The end of pop?!

What a depressing era for music this is turning out to be. Top Of The Pops has been shunted off to BBC2, CD:UK has been cancelled, James Blunt has sold ten squillion records, and now Smash Hits is closing.

So, what's the problem? Has the UK lost all interest in music? Certainly, the tabloids have ditched all serious coverage of music. If it's not Kylie's Bum, Pete Doherty's hilarious antics with crack cocaine, or Cheryl Tweedy flashing her pants, it's not worth covering.

My theory is that the deliberate fragmentation of the record market has dealt a fatal blow to pop music. Noawadays, most artists are marketed to a particular demographic. Norah Jones is innofensive mum music, Black Eyed Peas is rap for slightly timid white kids, Daniel Powter is for all of satan's minions here on earth.

Our radio and TV stations reinforce this segregation. All of the national music radio stations take the view that rock is the only credible form of modern songcraft (although Radio One gives some breathing space to rap). Music television and in-store radio cater to the pop kids, and most local radio goes follow the easy-listening classics formula.

Thus, if you want to make it big, you have to straddle these genres. To do that, you play it safe. That's why Coldplay are the biggest new band of the last 5 years - because there is nothing suprising, offensive, or vaguely original about their corporate bland-rock. Mums, Dads, kids and introspective teenagers can all tolerate Coldplay together, without ever having to make any kind of emotional connection to the music itself.

Compare this to the 80s - the heyday of TOTP and Smash Hits. The crossover acts of the New Romantic era were Duran Duran, Soft Cell, The Human League, Dexy's Midnight Runners, etc. They were seedy, exciting, experimental bands, with a huge musical palette, and they managed to straddle the adult and teen market without diluting their style.

Somewhere along the line, then, pop became a dirty word. If you read through the BBC's "Your tributes to Smash Hits" messageboard, you'll discover that the majority of the public blames Stock, Aitken and Waterman for this turn of events. I disagree. SAW's best songs did have a broad appeal. You Spin Me Round Like a Record, for example, is due its third Top 20 appearance this Sunday. And who doesn't get up and dance like a lunatic when a DJ plays "Love In The First Degree"?

In my opinion, the real culprits here are New Kids On the Block. They were the first band to be precision-targetted at 13 year-olds. And their unqualified success is directly responsible for the likes of The Backstreet Boys, Take That and (shudder) Westlife.

NKTOB's dubious achievement was to make music so mind-numbingly, nursery-rhyme simple that it could only be tolerated by pre-teens on a candy cane sugar rush. Whereas parents had been able to appreciate the New Kids' forebears (The Osmonds, Jackson 5, New Edition), this music was so lacking in sophistication that pop suddenly seemed like alien territory. A bit like Jordan Knight's forehead.

This is partly what killed Smash Hits. Before the New Kids, the magazine could interview The Cure and The Flying Lizards. Afterwards, they were constantly chasing a market more interested in the free gel-pens on the cover than the music inside the magazine.

TOTP, paradoxically, has gone down the dumper because it tried to be all-inclusive. When they put Green Day side by side with DJ Casper, they ensure that everybody has a reason to turn off in the first five minutes. (Tim 'what's my line' Kash was of no great help here, either).

So, what's the answer? Well, as we alluded to earlier this week, acts like Arctic Monkeys don't seem to be afraid of dirtying their hands in the murky waters of pop. The Kaiser Chiefs and Franz Ferdinand seem to enjoy a bit of froth, too. All we need now is for our pop acts to raise their game in return. Surely there's room for more than one Sugababes?

And perhaps the greatest reason for hope is found in US radio. After years of strict formatting, station programmers have come to the shocking realisation that most people like more than one genre of music. This slapping-of-hands-onto-foreheads piece of insight is all down to the ipod. Noticing that the most-loved feature of the digital music player is it's shuffle function, all-rock or all-R&B playlists are being ditched in favour of a format they call "Jack" or, intriguingly, "Bob".

Turning on Bob radio, you might find U2, Michael Jackson, Whitney, the B52s, Scissor Sisters, Beyoncé or The Strokes... anything goes, as long as it's a hit. The success of these stations is mannah to marketing managers, who can suddenly advertise to several demographics at once. You should expect it to start appearing in the UK very soon.

If, over the next couple of years, we can make pop music relevant again, it would be an amazing turnaround. After all, music should be enjoyed universally - in the same way as film and literature - not squeezed into an increasingly small series of sub-genres.

Perhaps then we'll see the likes of Smash Hits and CD:UK again. Perhaps bands will be less afraid to push the envelope. Perhaps kids will once again gain some idea of our musical heritage. And, best of all, perhaps we can finally tell Coldplay to go away and stop bothering us.

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