Deaf to the Backbeat

Ultra Dance 09

Every year around this time, the New York City subway system is deluged with posters advertising Ultra Dance—a two-CD set released annually containing “the year’s hottest dance tracks.” The ads always feature the seemingly requisite ultra-slutty looking girl wearing minimal clothing and a shortlist of artists featured on the compilation. Years ago, Frank came into work very confused about the Ultra Dance 06 advert, bemoaning the fact that he had never even heard of a single name listed as supposed selling points for the album. Well, at least this year Frank’s recognition factor is showing some sign of improvement: He somehow knew the name Nelly Furtado, and when asked about her gender, he did guess correctly, but he’s almost certain that he’s never heard any of her music.

Although I’m not a follower of the scene, I usually recognize at least half of the recording artists featured on the compilation’s tacky posters. How could I not? Just walking around Manhattan you’re bound to hear the ubiquitous tunes featured on Ultra Dance 09 in restaurants, bars, clubs, at a friend’s party, blaring from car radios stopped at traffic signals, and even at a post-concert reception after a new music performance. I just don’t understand how Frank manages to avoid hearing this music, especially without the use of mediating tools such as an MP3 player or earplugs.

Truth be told, I bet this music actually does reach Frank’s ears, and given the fact that he’s one of the most genuinely curious people I know—especially when it comes to music—he’d probably try to learn everything about the artists on Ultra Dance 09 if something piqued his interest and he had the time to do the research. But I know a few colleagues who would scoff at wasting a single brain cell on anything by Rihanna or Daft Punk. Pardon me for oversimplifying, but given the fact that classical music wasn’t totally “unpopular” in its heyday, I can’t fathom any reason why a composer, no matter what genre(s) they work in, would tune out today’s music-cultural zeitgeist—especially those who purport that their work is an extension of classical music’s lineage. I’m not suggesting that we all get a subscription to Billboard, but I do think that composers who close themselves off from a particular sonic possibility—especially a “new” or “popular” one—are doing themselves and their music a disservice.

10 thoughts on “Deaf to the Backbeat

  1. rtanaka

    Probably the biggest turn-off for a lot of people is the rampant sex and drug culture that tends to surround popular music. Outside of the recordings themselves, its primarily facilitated through the bar and club atmospheres, which generally is surrounded by a lot of partying and loud music…people getting wasted, looking for a mate, largely not conversing but judging each other purely based on looks alone. I think at first any kind of music has sort of a neutral quality to them, but you begin to develop preferences in tastes depending on what, where, and whom you affliate the music with. Then it becomes more than just the sounds, because it points to something external, or in memory. Maybe some people are just bitter because they were unable to fit in, hah.

    I never had much luck with those places so I don’t really have a strong pro- or anti- attitude toward pop music in general. But there are a lot of musics within the popular medium that transcends the usual cliches and genuinely have some interesting things to say. And it seems like those are the ones that last over a longer period of time, staying in people’s ipods a little bit longer.

    Music (or art in general) I think serves a purpose in gathering like-minded people together. Sometimes what surrounds the music itself is more interesting than the work itself, because its often reflective of something that exists within society. I mean, if you look at some of the stuff the former members of the NWA (Ice Cube, LL Cool J, etc.) are making, now, it’s a huge change. From about killing cops to about family relationships — priorities change, it seems.

    But, part of this lies in the fact that these guys were able to escape poverty through their music through the commercial system. Also, I believe that the controversies surrounding hip-hop music managed to bring to light of the dire social problems that were largely left ignored prior to its popularity. Pop music has its problems but I think to dismiss it entirely is fairly simplistic…sometimes the bad things have to be brought to light, in order to force people to deal with the truth.

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  2. mdwcomposer

    Probably the biggest turn-off for a lot of people is the rampant sex and drug culture that tends to surround popular music.

    I always thought that was one of its biggest turn-ons . . . [are my 60’s roots showing?]

       – Mark Winges

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  3. rtanaka

    I always thought that was one of its biggest turn-ons . . .

    For people who claim to despise pop music, I mean. :) Heck, even the Beatles were all up into that sort of thing, if you read into their lyrics a little bit. (Some of those concepts I doubt you’d be able to come up with without being on some sort of substance…)

    There’s a reason why the record labels target and make the majority of their profits (or at least a large chunk, so I’ve heard) from the youth market. It’s whats on most young people’s minds, so the music is a reflection of that. Some people think these musics are a “bad influence” on the youth, but I tend to think opposite — the desire is already there, and the music just manages to bring it out. But some people simply aren’t interested or lose interest after a while, or maybe their priorities change, or maybe they feel unfulfilled, or maybe they feel some regret in regards to these matters. There’s some legitimacy in those criticisms — being around Hollywood for the last few years I know that the culture can be very shallow and superficial at times.

    After a few bad experiences I’ll admit that for a while I was pretty disillusioned with the medium as well. But having distanced myself from them somewhat, I can now at least sort of see that some good things have come out of the process. Sometimes it can be difficult to see, though, because the bread and butter of the record labels tend to be the sort of MTV culture that people tend to associate with when they think of “pop music”.

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  4. Colin Holter

    I do think that composers who close themselves off from a particular sonic possibility—especially a “new” or “popular” one—are doing themselves and their music a disservice.

    But what, if I may play l’avocat du diable, in dance music represents a “new sonic possibility?” I can think of a few new sounds–the fake guitar solo in Daft Punk’s “Digital Love,” one of my all-time favorite tracks, is one–but in what sense is that a “sonic possibility” rather than a cool synth patch combined with a quirky approach to guitar solo idiom?

    Fundamentally I agree with you, but I’d phrase it differently: I think composers have a responsibility–a responsibility that all composers will necessarily neglect to some degree–to have an informed opinion about and indeed be able to critique (in musical form, if possible) all contemporary music. Obviously this is quixotic, but it’s something to which to aspire.

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  5. JimB

    Bad influences
    “Some people think these musics are a “bad influence” on the youth, but I tend to think opposite –“. Exactly – youth is a bad influence on music. That’s what we’re complaining about here…

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  6. rtanaka

    Exactly – youth is a bad influence on music.

    What I liked the most about popular music is that it tends to be a lot more honest in regards to its intentions. If the song is about fucking and getting fucked up, then its fans tend to be usually pretty honest about it. (Been seeing a lot of weird intellectual justifications about some pop music coming out of academia, though…) Sometimes the message itself isn’t very good, but at least its direct and honest most of the time.

    One composer I talked to said that one way to please a producer or director is to figure out what period of time he or she was a teenager, and imitate that as a soundtrack. So the “good times” they had as an adolescence is triggered as a result of its correlation with the music they listed to during that time period. A bit cynical, perhaps, but it works to some extent if you’re dealing with a self-obsessed director, which they usually are. New music composers don’t give Hollywood and film composers enough credit, if you ask me…they have to deal with the day to day difficulties of working within the system and dealing with the tastes of the general public.

    The anti-commercial attitudes do have an ideological basis for sure, and a lot of it is indeed legitimate. But I don’t think the antagonism would be quite as strong without some sort of personal connection or reaction to the sounds themselves. I see Jim Tenney’s Blue Suede Shoes as a statement against popular culture rather than all of the supposed scientific and intellectual justifications that went on behind them.

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  7. McDuff

    Heck, even the Beatles were all up into that sort of thing, if you read into their lyrics a little bit.

    Sorry, “even” the Beatles were into sex and drugs if you “read into their lyrics”? Is this a parallel universe where the Beatles weren’t famous for being on drugs?

    Anyway, by and large I find that most people claim to not like pop music for the simplest of reasons – snobbery. To be fair, it’s just the flip side of why a lot of young people don’t like classical music, but on the other hand the whippersnappers are going through a growth phase where they have to dislike what their parents dislike in order to establish their own psychological identity and the grouchy old farts should know better by now.

    Is 90% of pop music rubbish? Yes, but 90% of all music is rubbish. 90% of everything is rubbish. While it’s understandable that someone might well like to identify themselves as being someone who only listens to opera and not the loud noises made by smelly youths with their long hair, it’s not clear at all what arguments of musical merit are to be made in favour of tedious tosh like Elgar over the really rather sublime musical stylings of DJ Shadow.

    I do, of course, understand that time (unlike music) is a finite resource and that nobody can be aware of all music, popular or otherwise, but this is a weakness and a limitation. Those who try to pass it off as a strength are clearly buying into some kind of elitist hype, and are thus clearly missing out on just how amazing Britney Spears’ Toxic was. More fool them, I say.

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  8. rtanaka

    Is this a parallel universe where the Beatles weren’t famous for being on drugs?

    Maybe its a generational thing, but I find that a lot of time people’s perceptions of the band tends to be fairly “clean”, as opposed to who and what they actually did as people. I mean, some of the more “out there” lyrics was probably done while on LSD.

    There’s also some theoretical analysis being done on these songs…sort of deducing them scientifically and talking about their timbre or motivic similarities with piece x and such…this is common in academic writing in general, but I think these things are read way too much into the details miss what’s obvious. It’s mostly about people having a good time — nothing wrong with that in itself, but why over-intellectualize it, really?

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