New spectator sport: the sheer, horrible desperation of the music business. As American labels float a call for artists to put fewer songs on a CD (which, as someone pointed out to me, is an excellent way to reduce royalty payments to artists), the British business is now anointing a new Next Big Thing every single week. This week it's Razorlight, a bunch of pale insipidities who would sound like the worst Strokes song you ever heard, if the Strokes had forgotten what little they learned about making a song from their rich daddies' record collections. "Rip It Up" is an embarrassing two-minute lurch from pillar to post, four bladdered pub kids who sound like they forgot what the song was halfway through. Scrubbed clean to within an inch of its life by Steve Lillywhite, it's safe guitar music for the Pop Idol generation. Have a fucking ringtone.
Record sales continue to decline in Britain as in America, and I'm coming to believe it's got fuck all to do with KaZaA and everything to do with these hideous musical years we're living through. Over here, I can cheerfully lay it at the feet of Pop Idol, Pop Academy and whatever the other fucking things are. TV shows specifically designed to manufacture the absolute least offensive pop product through game-show structure and the application of telephone democracy. If you're dumb enough to be able to sit through those shows without the front of your head filling with tumours, you get to vote for the performer who is retarded enough to be a comfort to you. Loathesome as they were, even the Spice Girls delivered with some character. I remember novelist and critic Nik Cohn saying he never would have been so hard on Bob Dylan if he'd known Bruce Springsteen was around the corner. People railed about the Spice Girls being a manufactured band, but who knew there was a TV-powered pod-person hothouse around the corner?
And, God, look at the "alternative" choices the machine offers up. Travis and Coldplay. Stubbly weaklings who wear socks as hats and would die of fright if someone played them something as rude and vulgar as a melody. Formless, sensitive strumming, riff-free and invisible to memory, and a belief that their vaunted "songwriting" requires nought but muttering lots and lots of words without actually saying anything at all. These people would vaporise if subjected to an honest thought. When did we stop wanting our music and our bands to be vivid?
My friend the music writer/games writer/comics writer Kieron Gillen has this to say about the Vines, and it fits here too;
"Some poor kid is going to buy into the Vines and end up laying down eighth-rate memories of how good pop music can be, and thus ending up dismissing it as inconsequential. By wasting their first rush on the Vines, they're going to be the ageing house-wife who doesn't think sex is a big deal because they've only ever experienced a premature gimp trying to reach their cervix with desperate, spasming thrusts.
"If the Vines are your first favourite band, you're fucked from the start. You're the pop-equivalent of a thalidomide baby."
The American music industry, from my perception here in Britain, seems to have sunk into a bizarre obsession with paedophilia. Britney Spears has gone from schoolgirl gear to a deeply strange hentai look, little-girl head stuck above great shiny plastic boobs, singing in a Minnie Mouse voice. No wonder she was being stalked by a shifty-looking middle-aged Japanese bloke. He probably had a suitcase full of tentacles to use on her. Christina Aguilera gifts us with the vision of a twelve-year-old girl in leather chaps and a rubber bra. Justin Timberlake, who appears to travel with a group of black people whose job is to introduce him on stage and proclaim how "real" and "street" he is, looks about fifteen in a good light and has the pearly grin and vacant eyes of an old variety act. Give him ten years and he'll be playing the Dean Jones role in "Herbie The Love Bug" remakes. Maybe his voice will have broken by then. Maybe Timbaland and his miserly, thin productions will have been run out of town on a rail by then.
No, these horrors aren't the be-all and end-all of the music industry. But they're perceived to be the engines that drive it, that put the lion's share of the capital in the record company coffers and keep them in business. Mainstream pop music is almost always bad., it's a given. But, God, can you remember a time when the most popular acts were this empty? It's like that awful vacuum before punk, when people were buying Dean Friedman records just to have something to buy, and poster companies were printing off six-foot long images of Nana Mouskouri and Demis Roussos just to have something to sell. Or that space in the 80s before acid house broke (and, at the same time, there was some of the best guitar music ever), when pop music lost its bass and went horribly toppy and starved-sounding. I'm getting a little sick of living through these dead zones.
So what's new and good? You really have to look in the corners, right now. Or, at least, I do. One of my last remaining vices is buying singles. I use an independent music shop in Manchester called Piccadilly Records who provide a flawless mail-order service. Over the last several months, I've heard:
|"White Russian Galaxy" by the Crimea is the most fucking swaggering thing I've heard all year. The Wannadies -- of all people -- released a single called "Skin" that's from a parallel world where the Pixies only appeared this year and they were all Nobel Prize-winning supermodels. And drunk. The Kills elevated sleaze into the perfect artform with the caustic "Black Rooster (Fuck And Fight)" and the transcendently dirty "Fried My Little Brains." The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, probably the most famous band I'm going to mention, recorded "Maps" and "Date With The Night" and can die now. Secret Machines topped off a solid EP with an instrumental called "Marconi's Radio" that just rewires the front of your brain. It's like rediscovering joy. Fiel Garvie's "I Didn't Say" is close to the most beautiful thing I've heard this year (and if it's not, it's "Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl," found on Broken Social Scene's album, YOU FORGOT IT IN PEOPLE), all lambent with languid sex and lazy evil. Ambulance released an EP with two huge moments in the stomping psycho-mantra "I Am A Star I Am An Angel" and the berserk techno brain-seizure "Hey! Beat Takeshi", which has the verse of the year, and which I'm going to leave you with:
"Hey! Beat Takeshi
I'm sitting in an English garden
The flowers are black
And the sun has been attacked
And that baby's never gonna sing..."