We pride ourselves at The FADER on scouring the globe to introduce you to some of the most left-field music around. But in our monthly column Popping Off, Aimee Cliff takes the temperature of mainstream pop music.
America says we love a chorus / But don’t get complicated and bore us, / Though the meaning might be missing / We need to know the words after just one listen. These are the sage words of YouTube-comedian-turned-IRL-comedian Bo Burnham on his song “Repeat Stuff,” a parody of the pop music industry at large, cracking the age-old chestnut that any vacuous words with a fun rhythm can be spun into Top 40 gold if the right chords and attitude accompany it. Burnham’s been sending up pop music in the same way for a few years now: he found fame as a teenager by uploading videos of himself deadpanning his way through jaunty acoustic pop songs that were stuffed with incongruous, jarring jokes and politically incorrect characters. But these words caught my attention in particular this week, in the wake of parody king Weird Al’s return to the cultural zeitgeist as his new album Mandatory Fun instantly hit the No.1 spot on the Billboard charts. If parodies of pop music time and time again draw attention to that same idea—that radio-ready tunes are just vessels waiting to be filled with any inane or offensive sentiment—how is the thirst for them still so ripe in 2014?
Weird Al has been in the parody game since 1976, and recently said himself to the Guardian, “If you'd asked me 30 years ago whether I'd still be making parody albums, I'd have laughed.” The formula has changed remarkably little in all that time: avoiding political commentary and personal attacks, Al goes for the surreal and the absurd rather than the mean, and so has the adoration of his fans and the artists he covers alike. It’s a rare thing for someone who’s found their niche in sending up the work of others to be so universally beloved, but it seems like that might actually be the crucial mast of Al’s career: the reason he’s flying so high in 2014 is that his comedy, and the way he’s now distributing it, captures something very specific about our current cultural mood.
Today, we don’t just consume stuff online, we document every second of our interaction with said stuff. Within seconds of its release we re-produce it, screenshot it, memeify it and attach emojis to it (you don’t have to look much further than Nicki’s “Anaconda” cover for an example). Our culture is a feedback loop, and by that logic we no longer need parody artists to exist, feeding top-down satirical interpretations of pop cultural phenomena to us, because pop, high and parody culture all exist together in one entangled knot. So how does Weird Al make sense? Firstly, because he gets it. He made a video for every single one of his new tracks, and he’s distributed them daily in the build-up to the release of his new record. He’s tapped into the instantaneous-reponse mindset of his audience by providing a new piece of content to gratify his followers every single day, and he’s even managed to pull off the near-impossible feat of releasing a parody of a song while that song (Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”) was still No.1 in the US charts.
But there’s a sense of timeliness to this release that’s greater than a well-oiled marketing campaign. Everywhere I look in 2014, I see sincerity and ironic humour, originals and re-intepretations, mainstream and underground co-existing in pop music. Take Drake, whose memeification seems to sustain his career as much as it mocks it; if anything, he feeds the “Drake the type…” feedback machine with songs that cut closer and closer to the line between self-revelation and self-parody. Remember one night I went to Erykah Badu’s house / She made tea for me / We talked about love and what life could really be for me—that’s a line I can imagine popping up in a Funny Or Die sketch about Drake as readily as I could imagine it in an actual Drake song (in this case, "Days in the East.") Not to mention, he recently took a stab at parody songs himself as the host at the 2014 ESPYS, and is constantly making hooks out of hashtags on trend-catching tracks like "0 to 100" and "2 On/Thotful." That’s something that all the best big ticket artists of right now are adept at: just a few days ago Beyonce delivered the ultimate light-hearted punchline (pun intended) on her husband and sister’s headline-dominating elevator brawl, waiting until the rest of the internet had had a pitch before knocking it out of the park (Of course, sometimes shit goes down when there’s a billion dollars on the elevator).
This endless back-and-forth creates stacked levels of awareness in our day-to-day digestion of pop music; as an audience, we’ve developed a multi-layered, metamodern lens through which to read things. Metamodernism, in the words of British artist Luke Turner (or his collaborator Shia LaBeouf, if you prefer) is all about oscillation: it’s the “mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons.” In other words, it’s a movement of art and criticism that takes itself seriously and also doesn’t—it’s all the ironic distance and excruciating self-awareness of postmodernism with all the open-spirited capacity for enjoyment that came before. It’s about being enlightened and also light. Hence the knowingly flowery language used to describe it with a wink, and hence my knowingly including said language in what’s supposed to be a light-hearted column about Weird Al. It’s this half-kidding, sorry-not-sorry attitude that I see most of today’s most successful popstars adapting to in order to succeed in a constant stream of feedback and re-tweets. Just this past week, Chance the Rapper dropped a lush, choral cover of a children’s cartoon theme tune, and it was possibly the most sincere and reverent thing I’ve heard all year. “Wonderful Everyday” makes me want to cry and to tweet something snide all at once, and I can’t think of anything more indicative of the current cultural mood.
This is the way we hear music now. We feel attached to it and we also stand apart from it.
To flip the pop music gaze upside down, it’s also an attitude that’s re-shaping the underground: while mainstream artists are injecting their work with wry jokes at their own expense and nods to Twitter memes, underground artists are going after chart sounds with an unabashed sincerity and open-mindedness unlike ever before. That’s how it felt for me last Thursday night, anyway, at a PC Music night in north London where the basement walls seem to sweat glitter and lip gloss as label boss A. G. Cook, Danny L Harle and Kane West blasted through happy hardcore and dance-pop in direct conversation with their own manipulations on the genres. Right now I’m kind of obsessed with the aggressively infantilised music and Twitter account of GFOTY, the PC Music artist who’s the living, breathing voice of online manifestations of femininity, retweeting quotes from The Notebook and spurting lines on the brilliant PC Music x DisOwn mix (listen below) that sound like they could have been ripped straight from a “things girls like” Tumblr: I like hot guys. Long walks on the beach with hot guys. PC Music are as joyous in their embracing of pop culture as they are implicitly critical of that world’s hazards, presenting them so jarringly and cleanly that all the sharp edges are exposed. This bunch of '90s kids working through their own memories of the pop music they were raised on via the medium of a thrillingly experimental (and just plain, physically thrilling) label is crucial to the mood of 2014: this is the way we hear music now. We feel attached to it and we also stand apart from it. We read music websites that post about major label star Ariana Grande on the same day they post about Brooklyn experimental label L.I.E.S. We’re able to enjoy and to criticise at the same damn time, without either response diminishing our capacity for the other.
It’s also indicative of a guiltless culture. On The Quietus last week, Robert Barry took a long hard look at Spotify’s decision to compile the ultimate “Guilty Pleasures” playlist with skepticism, arguing that the 'guilt' attached to such pleasures as Lou Bega and Journey is not really felt in 2014; if anything, these tunes are worn like badges of honour. “Had I attended those Guilty Pleasures clubs of the mid-00s, I feel fairly sure I would not have seen dancers looking shame-faced and furtive," writes Barry. "The people who make public Spotify playlists labelled 'Guilty Pleasures' are not hiding some secret predilection from prying eyes—they are making a very public declaration. They're not stupid. They know this.” The alternative attitude he suggested we now embody was the “punching the air” enjoyment of camp, but I’d say the current appetite for parody is totally metamodern. Camp is specifically an aesthetic joy, detached from critical and political engagement: but it’s 2014, and we’re more engaged than ever.
Which brings us back to Weird Al. Where PC Music take popular songs and amp them up to 11, stuffing them with nonsensical bratty lyrics and jarring sounds, Al—similarly—takes popular songs and re-writes them to have lyrics about banal or bizarre topics in order to up the comedic value, following the same formula laid out by Burnham in “Repeat Stuff.” What Burnham does is totally metamodern in the sense that he passionately throws himself into creating well-structured and entertaining performances while also undermining the very simple structures those performances are built on: he makes it look somehow hard and easy at once. That’s a quality he shares with his comedic ancestor Weird Al. But Al takes it even a step further, placing himself in the information flow by actively choosing to re-work tracks that have already been endlessly dissected and covered online, such as “Blurred Lines” and “Happy,” as well as taking on “Fancy” while it was still at the top of the charts.
In fact, “Blurred Lines” (or, in Al's version, “Word Crimes”) in particular is where we find the essence of his totally on-the-pulse appeal: Al highlights the controversy that surrounded the track by presenting what is possibly the only parody in existence that totally omits any kind of satirical comment on the content of the original. It lets you off the hook guilt-wise, leaving you free to enjoy the music, and yet still pokes fun at Robin Thicke, and makes what’s perhaps a super-implicit dig at the ultimate “word crime” that is his offensive lyricism. In 2014, the lines between parody and the subjects it goes after are increasingly, imperceptibly blurred, and the fact that both Thicke and Al can get to the top of the charts is proof that the feedback loop is complete. We want our pop music as fun and mindless as we want it satirical and self-referential: we have our cake and we “Eat It,” too.