Pop and Circumstance


A few years ago, Harper’s printed an essay by the late David Foster Wallace about a week on a Caribbean cruise ship. The idea was that the magazine would send him on the trip and get him to write about the experience. Nice work if you can get it, you might say – but as it panned out, he hated it, and the resultant essay (republished as the title piece in his excellent non-fiction anthology A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) is classic Wallace: acerbic, perceptive and frequently hilarious.

A few paragraphs in, Wallace describes the experience of standing up on the deck after dark, after everyone else has gone to bed:

“There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the [ship] – especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased – I felt despair. The word’s over-used and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture – a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death.”

There are plenty of examples of Wallace’s spectacular prose throughout the essay, but this particular excerpt got me thinking about how experiences that are supposed to be Just A Bit Of Fun can induce a profound sense of futility and dread. New Year’s Eve is a good example – the institutionalised hedonism, the crushing weight of expectation to have the best night of the year, the fact that it never, ever happens.

The example I want to discuss here, though, is a similarly incongruous, ostensibly enjoyable commodity that makes me feel pretty much exactly the same way that poor DFW did up on the deserted deck of the cruise ship: pop music. This may well sound overly dramatic – it may in fact be overly dramatic – but still, bear with me, because I think that the music we listen to, and/or the music we’re supposed to want to listen to, says a great deal about us and the world we live in.

The most frequent accusation bandied at chart pop is that it’s “formulaic”, and has little to do with creativity or artistic expression. In one sense, this isn’t so much an accusation as a truism. The whole idea of the four-minute chart single is kinda an accident of history, dictated by the technical limitations of the 7” gramophone disc. The format has stuck, and decades of refinement have contributed to the evolution of what today we call the pop song. This accumulated experience can certainly be distilled into a set of de facto rules about what works and what doesn’t. A formula, if you will.

But still, it’s worth thinking about exactly what this means. The idea that music can be analysed so reductively has some uncomfortable implications: ie. that the nature of the things we enjoy can be quantified, evaluated and distilled into some ideal form, designed for optimum effect and mass appeal. (This touches on another David Foster Wallace idea, specifically the eponymous videotape in Infinite Jest, which reduces viewers to a catatonic state in which they want nothing more than to watch it again, and again, and again.)

Idealists would argue that a song should be written purely as self-expression, with no thought of an audience. This, clearly, is horseshit – everyone wants to be heard. But, as regards pop music, the balance has shifted so dramatically that any semblance of self-expression is gone. The music has been produced for precisely one reason: to sell. It has nothing to say beyond “Buy me”. In the same way that fast food companies do their best to design their food to keep you coming back, pop music is designed to keep you listening and buying – particularly if you fall into the key demographic that only buys a few records a year.

The ideal end product is a “classic”, which in this context basically means a record that never stops selling. When everything comes together, you get a song like, say, Cher’s ‘Believe’, which by almost anyone’s standard is a fucking dreadful song, but has nevertheless sold gazillions of copies worldwide on the back of a then-novel AutoTune vocal effect, which has since been heard on basically every subsequent chart hit in an effort to reproduce the commercial magic.

Commercial songwriters and producers are constantly searching for a similarly poptastic philosopher’s stone. This doesn’t, of course, mean that any of this theory is guaranteed to work – in the same way that there are plenty of big budget films that have stiffed, plenty of expensively-produced albums that have sold disastrously. The public are a fickle bunch. But that’s beside the point. If a large volume of music is made with the same intention, there’s inevitably a homogenisation, a leaning towards features that do work, or have worked – hence the AutoTune epidemic, which shows no sign of abating some 10 years after ‘Believe’ unleashed it on the world.

It’s generally at about this point in discussions about pop music that people start calling me a miserable bastard, and telling me that it’s all Just A Bit Of Fun, and that I should lighten up. All three points are probably valid, but so is this one: I submit that music is something we should take seriously. Not seriously in a beard-stroking Dylan fan kind of way, but seriously in the sense that it is serious art. It’s powerful. It’s unique in that it can affect you viscerally and cerebrally, and sometimes both at the same time. It can make you dance and make you think.

This isn’t, I hasten to add, an argument that music – or art – should always be po-faced and serious. Maudlin Céline Dion balladry can be just as emotionally manipulative and hollow as four-to-the-floor let’s-get-this-party-started anthemry. The point is this: if music is nothing more than a disposable background soundtrack; if art is nothing more than pretty pictures to hang on the walls; if photography is happy snaps from last night to put on Facebook; if words are a distraction on the subway or forms to fill out; then what is the point of any of it? If art has nothing to say, then what is it for?

The answer, presumably, is that it’s Just A Bit Of Fun – nothing more, nothing less. This, I think, is desperately sad. And “desperately”, in this case, comes straight from “despair”.

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