Picture this. I am crammed into a hatchback with six women, all of them dressed for nightclubbing. It is my first couple of weeks in Argentina and my Spanish is barely existent, but in this moment it has ceased to be a cause for concern. You can’t be concerned when you’re flying through the night streets, caning red lights while you bask in the warm fuzz of too many beers inside you, the only guy in a car full of beautiful Argentine women in sharp dresses and high heels. You may be incommunicado but you still feel like a pimp. So I am crammed into a hatchback with six Argentine women, on our way to some sort of nightspot, when this song comes on the radio.“I got a feeling…(whoo whoo), that tonight’s gonna be a good night. That tonight’s gonna be a good night. That tonight’s gonna be a good, good night.” They all cheer and sing along with the cheesy nasal vocal. It’s not the worst song ever made, but one of the most inane. And confused. It wanders through shouty male verses, a sugar-slick female voice whose apparent chorus turns out to be a tacked-on verse/bridge hybrid, and keeps looping back to that bouncy intro refrain. The stupid and monosyllabic lyrics (“Let’s paint the town / Let’s shut it down”) make me assume it must be some lame South American rock, a bunch of cheesy MTV-Latin wannabes with terrible English. A bit of disposable fluff, surely. It will take eight months for me to learn that it was actually by the Black Eyed Peas (a band for whom, in the dim recesses of the past, I once had a few shreds of respect), and was a huge hit in countries across the world. Which doesn’t make it any less disposable fluff. But by then it will be firmly entrenched in my head as ‘the Argentina song.’
For those eight months, I hear this song every single day I leave the house. Multiple times. Supermarkets, taxis, shopping malls, bars, television stories, kids on the bus with their mobile phone speakers. “I got a feeling…(whoo whoo)…” Every nightclub is obliged to play it at least three times a night, in between whichever of Lady Gaga’s eight hit singles is having its turn at rotation. Argentina is a land of pop, though it’s hardly Robinson Crusoe’s island in that regard. The old folks and tourists might have their tango bars, but any place you go with younger people will invariably play MTV-sourced commercial pop music. And for most of my time here, whenever that has happened, I have done what I’ve always done in that situation: scowl and sigh, and grind my teeth, and bitch internally about how those of us with some kind of discernment are mistreated by the uneducated choices of the masses.
First, a bit of musical history. Strangely for someone who ended up writing music journalism, I wasn’t one of those lifelong fans. I never really listened to popular music as a kid. No mixtapes, no pop crushes, no mimicking of bad early 90s hair. I read books. You always hear those nice stories from whoever the latest R&B star is about how they grew up listening to all their parents’ old funk and soul records, and that made them the artist they are today. My parents had old records, but they didn’t listen often, and when they did it was classical, or the occasional bit of jazz, or the soundtrack to Les Miserables. I shit you not, when I was eight years old I knew every word to every song in that entire musical, and could rattle them off on long car trips. “Red, the blood of angry men / Black, the dark of ages past…” Rabbi and I, as friends with similarly geeky upbringings, are still known to break into renditions of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ when sufficiently intoxicated. That was all I knew as music. The closest thing my parents ever had to popular genres was a lone Melanie record (so at least when the Hilltop Hoods sampled her on ‘The Nosebleed Section’ in 2003, I knew exactly what was going on). Both my sisters left home the year I started high school, so the other traditional avenue of influence was also closed.
It wasn’t until I ended up at a boarding school in Year 9 that a bit of contemporary stuff started to find its way through. Even then it was only ‘Dammit’ by Blink 182, to which I learned all the words, and ‘What I Got’ by Sublime, and ‘Killing in the Name’, which my friend Hugo and I used to perform as a British-accented acapella. Otherwise I heard some Pearl Jam, some Fear Factory, some Pumpkins and Nirvana, none of which made much of an impression at the time. In Year 10 I made a handful of mp3s, through an intensely laborious ripping and encoding process, stored on the tiny hard drive of my 1998 laptop. ‘The Distance’ by Cake, ‘Sex and Candy’, ‘The Impression That I Get.’ Then in Year 11 my study companion Bates had a swish three-stacker CD player. We had exactly three CDs. Sublime’s greatest hits, Fatboy Slim’s You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, and a 33-minute effort from a German punk band called Wizo. It was called Uuaarrgh!, and contained such hits as (in translation) ‘Death at the Swimming Pool’, ‘Life Is a Dog’, and ‘The Golden Stick (of Shit)’. We played these consecutively on repeat for six months. Twelve years later and I can still sing every word of those albums. English and German.
That was enough to get me going. When I got back to a normal high school in Year 12, I started listening to Triple J for the first time (which for all the shit it cops, still introduced a huge amount of good music). I raided friends’ collections. I made radio mixtapes, hearing songs, tagging them mentally for later recording, then leaving the stereo primed and ready for an epic dive across the room to hit the button three days later when those first few bars finally came over the radio again. Mostly it was 18-year-old boy punk and rock: Grinspoon, Frenzal Rhomb, Superheist. I went to my first couple of music festivals. My mind got busted open.
In first and second years of uni, it was finding ecstasy, phat pants, Detroit tech and cheesy trance. Going deep into the world of electronic music, with its endless layers and subgenres. Psy-trance, breaks. At the same time I started getting into hip-hop, first through Foreign Legion showing me how fun it was, then through Sage Francis showing how powerful it can be. That interest exploded over the next few years, especially when I started writing spoken word and realised how naturally the two fit together, well before I was actually aware that hip-hop poetry was an existing genre. And when Hilltop Hoods took off with The Calling, it suddenly proved that rhyming in Australian accents with Australian in-jokes and references was possible, and it showed a level of multi-syllabic rhyming skill that dropped my jaw and fired my writing synapses for years to come. Strange as it seems, I would never have started writing poetry without Aussie hip-hop.
Towards the end of uni I also started getting interested in folkier and indie stuff, led in by the Mountain Goats and a few music-obsessive friends. Around the same time I started writing for an indie music site. Effectively for the first few months I was learning on the job. And indeed most of what I know about all the genres I’ve mentioned was done in retrospect, going back over things that my contemporaries already knew like the sound of their own footsteps. Finally discovering the Pumpkins a decade or more after they’d first emerged. Contemporary hip-hop leading me back to Public Enemy and RunDMC, not the other way around. Never listening to an Oasis album until this year. In a way I think it’s good. It lets me listen to music without being clouded by nostalgia or peer consensus or media schlock, and resorting to involuntary spasming band-fellatio. I can freely think that Radiohead are the most astonishingly overrated bunch of knobs in music history, an idea that would make any of my indie-music-geek friends’ heads explode. The point is, I’ve been making up for lost time, and these days there are all kinds of genres I’ve become passionate about.
But never pop. Throughout this whole process, the world of pop was always the enemy. It was the textureless flavourless pap boiled up until all the nutrients had been killed off. Of course I was aware of pop music, but in the way that you’re aware of a urinary tract infection. A nagging and often painful recurrence that one does one’s best to avoid. So it was very odd indeed when I started writing music reviews for Citysearch, and then for MTV. They sent me a bit of semi-indie stuff, more in my field. But they also sent me a lot of pop, pop-rock, commercial hip-hop. I’m talking Flo Rida. Chingy. Hello Monday. And I had to formulate a way to respond to this music. I was writing journalism, so I had to be objective. I couldn’t say, well, I don’t like pop music, therefore this is shit. Maybe for one or two reviews, but I wrote dozens. So I had to consider what this music was trying to do, how it went about it, and how successful it was. And be entertaining while doing this. While I wasn’t beyond trashing something that really warranted it, I actually took the job really seriously. I wanted to bring some decent analysis to the stuff.
Even so, it remained work. Something I engaged with intellectually, but not a part of my personal musical world. I still strenuously resisted ending up in commercial clubs and dancefloors, and still loudly noted my disdain of the form and all its attendant manifestations. I imagine at times I was fairly insufferable. But I was enacting the standard intellectual middle-class youth attitude to pop music: namely that we’re smart and worldly, so this stuff is beneath us, because it’s too simple and commercial and created for mass-consumption. We are above anything like that (though we still drink Coke and chew Extra and smoke Marlboro Reds). Rather, we’re so educated about music that we spend all our time trying to talk about bands that no-one else has heard of. The less-known they are, the more attendant cred they reflect onto us. The ideal band plays in a sealed-up soundproof bomb shelter in Sarajevo with no audience permitted to enter, and anyone who stumbles across it ruthlessly hunted down and silenced. The sole acceptable way to listen to or demonstrate enjoyment of pop music is with a massive self-absolving serve of irony on the side. It’s acceptable to play pop music at a party as long as it is all or nearly all more than fifteen years old – thus, Katrina and the Waves are now acceptable for roughly the same demographic who would have spat on them in the mid-80s. A very occasional piece of new pop can make its way into the mix, but only if we all dance with our ‘hey, look how ironic I’m being’ facial expressions and dance moves, essentially impersonations of an idiot dancing to this music rather than just people actually dancing to this music. If pop music plays in a venue where the playlist is out of our control, it’s acceptable to dance if one is extremely drunk, and if the same rules about irony are applied.
Pop music really raises the hackles of my demographic companions, and I’ve always been of the same mind. This article here, about Lady Gaga, is a perfect summation of the youth-alternative attitude. La Ga is, according to this correspondent, a horror and an abomination because the media lauds her as being daring and avant-garde, when in fact she’s really not. Rage rage rage. She used to be a mopey singer-songwriter, he says, and then she cravenly and cynically changed her image in an attempt to gain commercial success. The shockwaves are reverberating through the entertainment world to this day.
Because her image is self-aware and deliberately created, it constitutes a gimmick, a marketing pitch. Well, yes, it does. But does the fact that something is deliberately created automatically make it devoid of value? The same writer says Gaga’s pitch is a mix between Madonna’s and Marilyn Manson’s, in terms of trying to sell a certain image and use it to attract attention. But both those artists are generally lauded for being forward-thinking and somewhat visionary in the impact they had on popular culture. And even if you don’t rate those two, you know what? Everybody’s image is manufactured. Therefore everybody’s image is artificial. The broody independent-label groups, with their black and white band photos of their skinny jeans and moptops and middle-distance stares in different directions, the four of them arranged at varying distances from the camera and looking very serious, they’re just as concerned about their image as Lady Gaga or anyone else. It’s just that their image is a little more anti-mainstream. Ben Harper has his image as the homely rootsy earthy nice guy who doesn’t mind a toke. Even the best and least commercial rappers tend to dress in a way that associates them with hip-hop. Bands with an indie image usually have it because they know their type of music isn’t that conducive to mainstream success. It’s in their interest to cultivate an indie image to appeal to the indie fan-base they have. If they suddenly sniff an opportunity to cross over to a mainstream platform, a la Kings of Leon, they’re usually happy to make the jump, and tweak that image as required.
We say that’s cynical and insincere, therefore dismiss it. But does art have to be completely spontaneous and accidental before it has any value? Does someone have to trip over onto a guitar and accidentally yell out a Number One hit for it to be given credibility? And in that case, won’t all great songs be titled things like ‘Ouch My Knee’? Why should the intent behind something decide its value? And why are ideas immediately worthless if they have an obvious predecessor? In fact it’s only in the last couple of centuries that originality has become a desirable trait in Western art. Most classical art was about the best possible reproduction of existing pieces, or at most their translation into another medium. That’s why so many of the paintings are of the subjects of classical poems, and the sculptures are of subjects from the paintings, and the paintings are reworkings of other paintings, and the poems are about vases. When was the last time someone said “The Mona Lisa is shit! Some other dude already did a painting of a chick like fifty years before you. What a hack.”
Which is not to infer a comparison between Leonardo and Lady Gaga. The only thing they have in common is that they were both mostly made of meat. Yes, I’ll happily grant that Lady Gaga is not doing anything at the cutting edge of artistic expression. Basically she’s
wearing a bunch of stupid hats, which has been going on since ancient Egyptians decided to stick palm fronds in their hair and stare at the sun. It’s nothing new in the wider artistic world. (If you want real innovation in the world of pop, check out Janelle Monáe: the crazy futuristic short film/video clip Many Moons, or even better, the frankly astounding live performance on Letterman. Monáe described her album as “Musically, an epic James Bond film in outer space.” I’m buying the explanation and the record.) But Gaga’s schtick is pretty new in the world of high volume sales and commercial pop. Her pitch is at least more interesting than the next on the production line of dewy-eyed African-American songstress/divas with another record of squooshy love ballads. From Toni Braxton and Whitney Houston to Ashanti and Rihanna, they’ve all sort of blurred into one another in a great smeary melange of “oooooh mmmmm bay-bee.” None of them tried dressing up like Sauron in begonia crochet (see right). The fact that she’s not only getting away with it, but actually selling a shit-tin of records on the back of it, is actually pretty impressive in a world that’s afraid of anything different. Remember how they jumped on Bjork for being a freaking nutcase after the swan dress incident? Or how Lauryn Hill is a weirdo religious crank just because she doesn’t really want to be on MTV anymore? If Ga-face can do something a bit weird and get away with it like she has, I say more power to her.
Until recently I would have agreed with the dude who wrote that article. Every word. But now I think, who gives a shit about her image? Who gives a shit about the mechanism she uses to sell her product? It’s like bitching that you didn’t like the pizza delivery guy’s motorbike. The point is that she’s selling music, and while it’s indie-cred suicide to admit it, I’ve recently found that I like what she’s selling. It’s by no means great music. It’s not the work of inspiration or genius. It won’t replace any of the truly great musicians in my top ten lists. Love ballads still shit me up the wall, but this is just loud brassy fun pop music, and it beats the shit out of Justin Bieber. Does everything has to be amazing, or deep, or layered, just because some things are? I’ve eaten some of the best steak in the world, and roast duck, and Atlantic salmon, but after all of that I still like Redskins.
See, something has been happening to me in Argentina. Back in January I wrote with some disquiet about how I’d had a couple of pop songs stuck in my head to the point where I’d resorted to listening to them. (Fittingly, one of them was ‘Paparazzi’, by none other than Lady G.) Well, in creeping increments, the process has continued. As the months early this year went by, I found the music more and more tolerable. Then I started enjoying certain songs a little. Then a bit more. At parties I was feeling less self-conscious, more able to enjoy myself. Still with an entrenched residual self-consciousness, though. Still with the attendant well-practised broadcast of just how ironic my enjoyment was, thus making the act acceptable to my Brunswick values. Still with the need for heavy drinking to both prompt and excuse the behaviour. (Self-consciousness is incredibly lame when you write it down like this.)
But in Salta I felt the change. Verónica and her friends are nightclub fans, and not the type to brook any argument. In foreign countries you tend to follow your friends without much question. It beats sitting round by yourself at home. So the weekends have been multi-hour deluges of fiesta-pop. Lady Gaga is immense in South America. That contention made my friend Murphy imagine a giGaGantic Lady stomping over the continent like a Power Rangers villain, decimating cities with her eyes. With her wardrobe that isn’t actually much of a stretch. But what I meant is that she has more popular songs at one time than I can remember from any other artist in my life, and everywhere you go you hear her music. So last weekend was an overdose of her, and a raft of other stuff as well. Clanging Puerto Rican reggaeton. Don Omar. The several obligatory renditions of “I gotta feeling…(whoo whoo).” Katy Perry. And here’s the clincher – a Brazilian gangsta rap track of the early 90s remixed into a bumping party jam. Watch it, it’s hot.
I walked around town singing this in the streets all week long, intermittent bursts of “Para-papa-papapa! ” startling the locals. Then came home and listened to Daddy Yankee, and Kelly Rowland (‘When Love Takes Over’, which I would go so far as to call beautiful, and usually ends up in a laptop-based hands-in-the-air moment). Then got Katy Perry’s entire first album and listened to it all. Then deleted two love ballads and listened to it again. Then played Lady Gaga’s double album back to back. Yep. You heard it here first. Then tried to cure the miscellaneous club songs looping through my head by Googling misheard Spanish phrases, and tracking the songs down, and listening to them. And listening to them again. And queuing them up on a Grooveshark playlist and playing them through. Voluntarily. And…enjoying them. All week they brought back memories of the good time I’d had last weekend. And by the next weekend, in the same club, they were well and truly my songs. I even managed to raise a smile for the corniness of Pit Bull. “Uno, dos, tres, quatro…”
See, something has happened to me in Argentina, starting with that car ride back in December. When I heard “I gotta feeling” booming over the speakers in the nightclub on Saturday, I cheered. Then I danced. And I liked it. You don’t need to tell me that it’s a shitty song. I know it’s a shitty song. It didn’t stop me having some fun. Something has happened to me, a removal as clean and abrupt as an appendectomy. I’ve lost the elitism. I’ve lost the self-importance. I’ve lost the feeling that people need to be saved from their own poor choices. I went to a nightclub with a beautiful girl, and for five or six hours straight I just enjoyed myself. Without being ironic. Without getting myself so wasted I could hardly stand. And when I walked out with her at six o’clock that morning, I didn’t feel like I’d lost a thing.