Music IS Commerce.
September 9, 2000 2:22 AM   Subscribe

Music IS Commerce. Awright. I'm sick of this. It is beyond trendy to lump in Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Backstreet etc. as "non-music" because they're "corporate" and exist to make money.

So? What's the big deal? It's fun music. Why is it there's one generation who refuses to acknowledge what the masses like? Why is it as soon as something reaches critical mass, it is no longer of any "artistic" value?
posted by owillis (39 comments total)
For instance, I listen to Eminem, Britney Spears, The Beatles, and Grateful Dead. It's all music to me.
posted by owillis at 2:24 AM on September 9, 2000

Britney Spears (et al) didn't "reach critical mass", so to speak... she was designed to attract a lucrative target market. That motivation doesn't often produce art which appeals to me.
posted by sudama at 3:02 AM on September 9, 2000

Why is it as soon as something reaches critical mass, it is no longer of any "artistic" value?

Have you considered that perhaps it had no artistic merit to begin with, and that the popularity of such music brings to light its utterly vaccuous nature?

Unless of course you consider making money to be a measure of artistic merit.
posted by queequeg at 6:49 AM on September 9, 2000

These bands and celebrities (note I'm not using the word "artist" :) were forced into critical mass. As sudama said, extensive marketing research was probably performed to make Britney Spears' image appeal to everyone from little girls to dirty old men. Does it work? Obviously.

But you've got your Britney, you've got your Latin Britney (Christina Aguilera), male heartthrob groups (N*Sync, Backstreet Boys), and your "I hate all of those groups and I've got an attitude" rapper in Eminem.

It's all planned too well. It's like living in the "planned communities" of suburbia where all the houses look the same, but might have different miniblinds or awnings; they're all the same inside and all poorly constructed.
posted by hijinx at 6:59 AM on September 9, 2000

I'm probably going to do a risky parallelism here, but please don't get me wrong.

Music is *like* religion, *in a way*. You won't stop listening to it because someone thinks it's bad, as you won't stop believing in your God if someone doubts about Him.

And I want to believe that everyone has realised what I mean when I said that music is like religion, ok?
posted by kchristidis at 7:42 AM on September 9, 2000

Like everyone's already said, it's true. It may be music, but it's corporately produced and shoved down the throats of pre-teen america for the sole purpose of making a buck. Real music is music that exists for the music. Bands and performers who worked their way to the top and continue to do it because they love what they do. People like Dave Matthews, for instance, who attained 100% of their popularity through word of mouth, touring, and putting on great shows night after night, showing the world that they love what they do.
posted by tomorama at 10:13 AM on September 9, 2000

But you make it sound like Dave Matthews, etc. is doing music solely for the love of doing music. Dave is making quite a nice living from it, and he obviously wants to sell records - what with his numerous videos (commercials) on MTV/VH1. How is this any different than Britney Spears?

How does this make him more of an "artist"? Who's to say who's an artist and isn't?
posted by owillis at 10:17 AM on September 9, 2000

hijinx: but didn't groups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc. continually change their image to what was "cool" at the time to be more marketable? Elvis was as prepackaged as you could get. Same for about a million music groups throughout time (Jackson 5, etc.). How are they any better or worse? I don't see it.
posted by owillis at 10:20 AM on September 9, 2000

Okay, here's my question. Would Britney, N'Sync, etc., still be doing music if they weren't getting paid? If they weren't famous? If they were just friends doing their dance moves in dad's garage?

That's what separates the artist from the huckster. Artists produce art because they must. They're driven to it. They have no choice, despite lack of pay or fame.

If these kids fit that category, I say more power to 'em.

posted by frykitty at 10:26 AM on September 9, 2000

owillis: The Beatles were certainly marketed heavily during their heyday, but to begin, they weren't put together by a producer. They made themselves and then rose up and eventually found their manager and producer who marketed them to respond to the audience they had already gained themselves. They had proven themselves before the pillowcases and toothpicks and lunchboxes were made.

Also, I would never accuse the Beatles themselves of trying to be more marketable. They stopped touring! They essentially said, "Poop on the fans, we want to sit in a studio in a haze of pot smoke and record our goofy concept album." And please point out to me which Britney or N'Sync album will become the next Sgt. Pepper.

The Stones and the Beatles were the "rock stars" that dictated what was cool or were already a part of the cool movement. Teenybopper groups of today seem to have a staff conducting polls of what kids think is cool, not unlike the office that George Harrison finds himself in during "A Hard Day's Night."
posted by stefnet at 11:30 AM on September 9, 2000

owillis, stefnet pretty much beat me to the punch. As with any art that people want to do for a living, there is a line between making a living and doing what you love. It seems to me that artists like the Beatles, Stones, and even DMB have done it the "right" way (in my mind): put out solid music, stick to it, watch the fan base and popularity (and $$$) grow.

OTOH, the manufactured pop stars just come out of nowhere. Recruited by producers to explicitly make money. I highly doubt that the Britney songs are out there to make an emotional impact in listeners; that may be a side effect, but I feel that pop stars like her are out there for two things only: money and publicity. And again, as stefnet said, the marketing comes first. The dolls, the party favors, the t-shirts, the blankets, whatever.

The lack of quality in the music, I feel, backs me up on this. The songs are just as manufactured. You've got the heartbreak songs, the "I'm in love" songs, the "I'm gonna love you forever" songs, and then there's always the "we're (band name) and we're cool!" anthems. It's so formulaic.

Insofar as image goes, bands change their image all the time. That's internal, though, in most cases and I think that many people can pick out when it's not. Heck, Sgt. Pepper was so far gone from anything else out at the time... if they were bowing to what would sell records instantly, I'm sure the Fab Four wouldn't've released such an esoteric record. (Of course, they sold bazillions of copies, but that's because they were an established, quality group, and people wanted to hear their next thing.)

The only modern day "popular" equivalents I can think of are Radiohead, and to a lesser extent, U2 and R.E.M.
posted by hijinx at 12:22 PM on September 9, 2000

"in my house", hell; I want Britney to dance like that in my bed. Well, horizontally, I guess, but y'know. :-)

BTW, on an unrelated topic, thanks to the Saxman for mailing me a copy of that issue of Seattle's answer to Creative Loafing, "The Stranger" which was an entire novel, shoehorned into the format of the normal paper.

It got here in one piece, in an entirely too spiffy Tyvek envelope... with "via Metafilter" in the return address block. I wonder what the posties thought of *that*... :-)

Thanks, Sax.
posted by baylink at 12:28 PM on September 9, 2000

you're welcome, baylink :-)

sorry it took so long.

posted by Mars Saxman at 1:32 PM on September 9, 2000

I wonder how many people that chided those performers out to make a buck wouldn't do the exact same if given a chance.
posted by john at 2:05 PM on September 9, 2000

Not many people really have a problem with a performer making money. But we just don't like to see them created with the sole purpose of making money or losing their artistic sensibilities over it.
posted by stefnet at 3:30 PM on September 9, 2000

I've been thinking about this for a while now.. This and napster... so excuse me if I rant.
See, the way I figure, none of the aforementioned bands could ever be considered 'artists'... Or even bands, really... They are *companies*... They don't make their own style, they derive it from market research. They don't write their own lyrics, they have a team of writers.

The only reason they're where they are is because they had money to start.
There are thousands of indie bands with more talent than any of the people on MTV's top 10, and the only reason they aren't widely known is that they don't have the money for advertising and PR shit.

It's a fucked system... And it's going downhill quick... The 'art' will eventually be lost to 'pop'... Sure, there will still be artists, we've been making music for 5000 years, you can't stop that... but the huge music companies will make damn sure that they're the only ones making money.

With that said, I've been thinking about the anti-napster propaganda I've heard lately... and the funny thing is, it's all true.
The RIAA, all the people who make their livings off music, could all potentially lose their jobs to napster..
...but if they do, only the truly good bands would become popular.
if the whole system breaks down, only the stong will survive.
The N'sync's and the Brittany's would have nowhere to stand because you won't be able to buy popularity any more.

So.. thousands of people might lose their jobs... and amoung them is the RIAA and the Backstreet Boys... But it'd be easier to find people like Beck... true artists, doing it because that's what they do.

I'm not saying the loss of thousands of jobs is a good thing... but it certainly doesn't mean it's a bad thing.
posted by Bane at 3:50 PM on September 9, 2000

"Think of it this way:
You could either be successful or be us!" ( -- B+S)

Does Music have to be Commerce? Well, bad music is often good commerce, but what about good music? If you took the money out of music, would good music die?

That seems very unlikely to me. Most good musicians do not start making music with the expectation of getting rich. They may end up rich, but that's not the primary motivation. Whereas, in the case of the Spice Girls or Backstreet Boys, the whole raison d'etre is to make money for shareholders. Literally, there was a business meeting at which the Spice Girls "concept" was put forward and -- tragically -- approved.

However profitable this approach may be as a business strategy, it tends not to produce the most memorable music.
posted by johnb at 3:53 PM on September 9, 2000

what really bugs me are the bands like korn and limp bizkit and eminem, that say "oh, we're all indie, and hate everything", when they're just picking up the market that the teenyboppers didn't get...harsh
posted by starduck at 4:17 PM on September 9, 2000

I rarely discuss this just because I know one of the most picked upon artists personally (Christina Aguilera) but that is why I'm bothering now.

From the time she was about seven, she recognised that she had a talent (a rather remarkable one when not hidden behind crap material) and decided that she wanted to be a star. She looked at Mariah Carey and said "That's who I want to be, that's what I want." And it was about the recognition and the fame built on the talent, not the money, to be sure. (Her family has not hurt for cash in her lifetime.)

Every move that she's made in life since that time, with her parents' blessing and guidance, has been in furtherance of that idea.

So I could trash her for selling out, to some extent, in order to attain the stardom she has craved for 2/3 of her young life. She has a beautiful R&B power ballad voice which shouldn't be masked with crap like Genie in a Bottle, but such is the route to stardom -- she saw it and took it, and made her dreams come true. And hence, I can't trash her because she did exactly what she set out to do -- not many of us can say that.

And if it's drivel, it's drivel, it will have no staying power and it'll be gone when the next musical trend washes in. And she (and everyone else) will be faced with fading away or reinventing herself in order to continue her career -- just like the Beatles, the Stones or Elvis.

I personally dislike the Stones and Elvis just as much as I dislike Christina's music or Eminem, and you know what, I don't listen. It works. Try it.
posted by Dreama at 7:30 PM on September 9, 2000

Dreama, that's the first and probably last time I will ever agree with something you said.
posted by chicobangs at 8:06 PM on September 9, 2000

There's a first time for everything, chicobangs. But don't sell either of us that short, there's always common ground somewhere.
posted by Dreama at 8:12 PM on September 9, 2000

Yeah, you're right, I guess. Also, I should have elaborated on my point, but I was running out the door.

I worship Elvis, and I also dig the 1910 Fruitgum Company, Eric Carmen and Hayzi Fantayzee, to name three I don't suspect I'll ever see again. They (and hundreds more) were laughed at in their time for being pointless or stupid or blatantly commercial, and ... so what?

Last year, something like 70,000 new CDs were released.

We're having the same problem as in the political arena. There is a virtually endless array of choice out there. Just throw the popular press out the window and dig in the underground, just a little bit. I guarantee you there's something out there to float your boat.

I couldn't tell Christina Aguilera from Britney Spears from Dido, nor 'N Sync from 98 Degrees from whatever. I hear the stuff and it's fine for what it is, and when I need mindless pop, I'm glad it's there. Just like I'm glad I have a Jethro Tull album.

No one's asking anyone to only listen to one record for the rest of their lives. This kind of snobbery serves no one.
posted by chicobangs at 10:06 PM on September 9, 2000

Dreama- What you wrote brings up a point: Are we all so up in arms over Christina herself or Britney as a person or each of the individual Backstreet Boys or N'Sync or is it more that we're just sick of the idea that there is a machine out there concocting bands for us?

I agree with you. Each of these people has a talent and a drive to succeed. I don't doubt that they all wouldn't have ended up famous anyway. But maybe it would just be better if every band and every musician had to fight for the public's attention instead of being created by outside forces for a demographic.
posted by stefnet at 8:47 AM on September 10, 2000

I suspect that the quality of the songs gets diluted the more a band tries to position itself for a market share and that is more irritating then the motivations of the band.

It is the point where you create to cultivate an audience rather then push your musical talent that annoys me. Why don't bands experiment more? Make your pop hit track and then try and expand throughout the rest of the album, oh wait, that might resemble something like work...
posted by john at 10:53 AM on September 10, 2000

stefnet, I think you've got it - nobody seems to mind it when a musician makes their own way to the top. There's sort of a feeling that they worked hard for it, so they deserve it. I never hear anyone whining about David Bowie, for example, and he's sitting on a pretty respectable pile of cash. But they have to work for it, they have to pay their dues, then they can have the money and fame and we won't resent them for it.

It's when random nobodies (who are undoubtedly hard working talented people who happened to get the right peoples' attention) go screeching to the top for no reason other than to pad out a record company's bottom line for the next two years that people start griping, because it feels unfair. We don't want to be reminded that it's a machine, and a rigged machine at that.

posted by Mars Saxman at 11:06 AM on September 10, 2000

why do you guys care so much? if you don't like the music, don't listen to it (which i personally don't, but i have to admit some of the manufactured songs are catchy...ugg)

Is our purpose in life to sit and criticize every fucking thing that comes through popular culture? Who gives a rats ass if any of these artists are huge and make millions, let their fans enjoy them and you can enjoy the bands you like.

My question is: Why do you people care?

Are you jealous that they're rich and famous? I bet some of you would stop liking your favorite indie band if they got huge like nsync, just because they're not cool and underground anymore.

People need to stop criticizing everything and enjoy life and the things they love.
posted by physics at 12:40 PM on September 10, 2000

We criticise things because people ask our opinion of them, because we want to know how other people think about the things we like, and dislike.

It's the same reason we talk about sports, or why a site's content is good or bad.

As a general rule, humans like talking, like exploring each others' personalities. True, if you don't like something that's not forced upon you it's easy to click away, or change the station, or whatever, but that really isn't the issue.

In this specific instance, though, it's being talked about because we were asked why we think some bands have more 'cred' than others. :-)
posted by cCranium at 12:55 PM on September 10, 2000

These bands don't care about quote cred unquote. That's not their business. The only cred they need is with a certain demographic, that happens to have a lot of spare cash and not a lot of imagination.

The problem is not with the bands, nor even with the media monopolies that push them up and down the charts like faders on a mixing board, but with getting huge masses of people who may have never had a coherent thought in their lives to actually kick start their minds long enough to find out that there's other stuff out there that maybe 'speaks' to them better than this ooey-gooey stuff. [breathes in]

That battle has always had to be fought, since the ancient greeks and probably before, and when Britney's great granddaughter is old and gray, people will still be complaining that good stuff isn't getting heard as much as corporate crap.

So go find some local indie music that you like better. Or better yet, make some yourself. It's that easy, you know.
posted by chicobangs at 1:16 PM on September 10, 2000

Or better yet, make some yourself. It's that easy, you know.

If only.

-Mars, who still wimps out after half an hour blowing a sax
posted by Mars Saxman at 8:16 PM on September 10, 2000

I don't diss on Britney Spears because I'm jealous of her. I diss on her because her music sucks. I don't cringe when people tell me I look like Lance from N Sync because I wish I was him. I cringe because they're so fucking cheesy, and their music is so annoying.

It's not very complicated.
posted by ookamaka at 10:53 PM on September 10, 2000

Right on, ookamaka. I hate to go to restaurants or the grocery store because they play that crap on their in-store Muzak. In particular, that song "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You" disgusts me deeply and it seems like I hear it everywhere, along with that overblown goddamn bombastic Celine Dion song about "When I touch you like this..."

I love pop music, I have no problem with light, happy, bubblegum tunes, but listening to those songs is like listening to a cash register bleep and bloop as numbers are punched in. It's so calculated and soulless it doesn't even seem right to call it "music". Celine Dion has a good voice-- I was a fan of hers back when she couldn't speak much English-- but I was soon disappointed because to make it in the US, she chose to sing terrible manufactured "hits" rather than actual songs. I swear, I wouldn't mind if she were just doing pop songs-- I like some of Shania Twain's music, which is pretty damn lightweight, but at least Twain sounds like she's trying to make you happy with her music, she sounds like she's trying to charm you, even if it doesn't always work. (And I hate country music, so there's no real explanation for why I like Twain's stuff, except it strikes me as pop with some actual songsmithing & production talent behind it.) It's the formulaic "people like love songs, I'll churn out another shitty grandiose ballad" from Dion or "People like lame dancey sexy songs, I'll sing ten functionally identical lame dancey sexy songs and sell 3 million copies of my album" from Spears that I can't stand to hear. You can almost hear them punching a time clock right before they start singing.

Anyway, like ookamaka says, it's not very complicated. It disgusts me that huge amounts of record label money are spent creating acts like Spears and N'Sync, auditioning teenagers, promoting the hell out of them, sending their singles to every radio station in the free world, ads on TV, huge budgets for their videos... and meanwhile, artists like the Judybats and Aimee Mann lose their record contracts because of 'lack of sales' because their labels don't promote their music. Luckily, the Web is allowing them to get their music out for themselves now.

Even though I don't like the music of groups like the Goo Goo Dolls, them I can say "live and let live"-- they're an actual band that's been around for a while, people like their music, I don't like their music but I don't begrudge them their success. And I realize loads of teenagers really do love crappy music for some reason; when I was a teen, New Kids on the Block were huge. But when I was a teen, I hated New Kids and everything else that was on the radio, and I had no way of knowing what else was out there (small town), so I just didn't listen to music much in high school. I hope with the Web and Napster and resources like that, teenagers now who hate crappy music can find something they like, something good, instead of having to go on music strike for four years like I did.
posted by wiremommy at 12:58 AM on September 11, 2000

Completely, wiremommy.

Remember the feeling you get when you're in a car, or a cafe, or a friend's house, and a song comes on the radio that you really like, but haven't heard in ages? Or one that reminds you of a happy time in your life? Or one that's completely new, but makes you warm and fuzzy inside, and has you humming the tune for the next week without resenting it?

Wouldn't it be nice if that happened just a little more often than the opposite: the "oh god no" song which has you reaching to change the channel?

Because music can be product, like a burger or a box of macaroni cheese, but it can also be a subtle, complex nine-course banquet for the soul. And there's no reason why it can't be like that more often.
posted by holgate at 8:33 AM on September 11, 2000

Though we're going through a terrible lull in good music right now, I refuse to panic. In fact, I'm a little excited. Why?

These things are cyclical. Sure, I'm afraid to turn on the radio right now, but soon (probably in the next year or so) something will happen. The Beatles. The Sex Pistols. The Police. Nirvana. Someone will get fed up and break through, and make it all exciting again.

I just wish they'd hurry.
posted by frykitty at 9:00 AM on September 11, 2000

>>I wonder how many people that chided those performers out to make a buck wouldn't do the exact same if given a chance.

true enough, but that doesn't make it art, which is really what we're debating here.

the art is already lost in pop. pop 'culture' (which i love in many ways) is drowning out legitimate sources of and attention for real art.

if your music's not saying anything, save it for the elevator.

does this conversation mean the masses are asses? i'm reluctant to say it. however, i won't settle for the argument that no one can define what art is. that's lame ultrarelativism.

yes, much of the motivation is not to do art but to achieve fame. i think Britney et al. would keep doing it without the money as long as there was still fame. that's the prime mover.

we care because what is art matters. it's not okay to call just everything art, and it takes a critical attitude to weed out the art from the crap. sure, everyone can choose, but discernment is important, too, and maybe we can help someone improve the quality of their life along the way by learning more about real art.

posted by Sean Meade at 10:39 AM on September 11, 2000

Sure, I'm afraid to turn on the radio right now, but soon (probably in the next year or so) something will happen. The Beatles. The Sex Pistols. The Police. Nirvana. Someone will get fed up and break through, and make it all exciting again.

Have you considered that the next big thing might not turn out to be a white guy with a guitar? There have been some pretty exciting things happening in hip hop for several years now.
posted by sudama at 1:21 PM on September 11, 2000

Wasn't even thinking about the racial composition of those breakthrough groups. You're correct of course. What distinguishes these groups is that they break the radio-pap monopoly. Because we live in a racist nation, so far that's been done by white guys with guitars.

A change would be most refreshing, and we are primed for it. Radio segregation is not quite as bad as it was a decade ago.

That said, I don't know if it's coming from the hip-hop corner. There have been great things going on in electronica for several years as well, but they haven't loosened the strangle-hold of the fluffsters on the airwaves.

I'm hoping for something completely unexpected. I don't care where it comes from.
posted by frykitty at 1:33 PM on September 11, 2000

I have to wonder about the success of Moby's new album, since I don't think it's as good as his previous work and yet it's a huge commercial success. I was not aware of the commercialization of it before, so I didn't not like it because of that. Perhaps he has made it for mass appeal unconsciously.

Quality hovers somewhere between the objective and the subjective. If there is anything close to a standard of taste, it would seem to be a construct of societal conditioning. Therefore, corporations set standards will the whole purpose of selling more albums and we need to counter with standards based on better music.
posted by john at 1:35 PM on September 11, 2000

It's frustrating that hip-hop stays confined to a musical ghetto... in the past year or so there have been so many great albums in hip-hop-- I really loved Black Star and The Roots' last lps, and I'm not even that big into hip-hop! Meanwhile &$%6ing Everlast is all over the radio. Yet another example of disgusting use of promotion dollars by major labels. Yet another reason to avoid buying RIAA music and support independent labels and artists.

As for your comments John, I think it's clear that Moby was influenced by the success of Fatboy Slim and made his music more radio-friendly and more Slim-esque to get some of that audience. I have nothing against Fatboy Slim, I like some of his stuff, but it's kind of repetitive... and when Moby started using the same kind of R&B samples it seemed like he was riding Slim's coattails a bit. Then again, his recent album has had two of his loveliest, almost ambient songs on it-- "Porcelain" is my favorite song he's ever done.
posted by wiremommy at 2:06 PM on September 11, 2000

There seems to me to be one thing that hasn't been discussed in all of this - the audience for 'pop' music is getting younger. The Spice Girls are specifically aimed at pre-teen girls, they're marketed like Pokemon and other media product / toy tie ins. Britney, N'Sync et al. are aimed at the slightly older 12 - 14 age group, they're the ones who buy singles, chart position plays an important part in radio airplay and so a large number of people who maybe only buy 5 - 10 albums a year hear these mindless, manufactured songs constantly and this is what forms their view of music today.
It's like AOL-ers not venturing further than what their portal shows them, they don't see music as food for the soul, just the soundtrack behind their life, like lift music, it's just there to drown out the silence. People who only buy a few CDs a year won't take a chance on anything they don't know, they don't see the point. If they want ballads they buy Celine, if they want up-tempo they buy Britney, if they want to be a bit 'dangerous' they buy Eminem because it's what they know and they won't be wasting money.
This is what the record companies know and they engineer the situation so that this is reinforced.
There are two kinds of people, those who buy what they know and don't wish to experiment, and those of us who see music as an artform to be explored and it's boundaries pushed - I'm happy to be in the latter.
posted by Markb at 2:02 AM on September 12, 2000

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