When it came time for me to write a column, I was unsure of whether I could maintain any sort of train of thought without casually referencing some musical group people were not familiar with. It sounds pretentious now, but spending three years of high school abstaining from communication with girls in favor of listening to music on the internet will do that to you. So, to make it easier and more enjoyable for you, the reader, I’ve decided to preface each one of my columns with some required listening (hence the name). You guys will be a little bit more informed about whatever the hell I’m talking about, and I’ll grant myself the license to talk about whatever my little brain is pondering at the time, regardless of how inane or irrelevant it is. Maybe you’ll even pick up some new tunes you’ll like. Or, more likely, you’ll shake your hands at the sky, cursing my name for my perceived pretention.
Required Listening: Parklife by Blur, Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks, “When The Sun Goes Down” by The Arctic Monkeys and “Back In The Game” by Jamie T.
At some point in time, British music easily traversed the membrane of the Atlantic Ocean and gained widespread popular and critical acclaim. From the arrival of The Beatles onward, popular British groups could expect a fairly warm welcome here in the States. Alas, the glorious days of the British Invasion are long over. Barring the occasional trans-Atlantic breakthrough (Oasis, Adele and Taio Cruz come to mind), British music has failed to penetrate American audiences in the same way it once did. Perhaps their initial success was due to a certain exotic mystique surrounding the British rock groups of the 70’s. Or perhaps the newfound rift between the Mother Country and her naughty child is due to a more decisively “English” way of making music. Starting with Britpop groups like The Stone Roses and Blur, more and more groups began recording music that unabashedly flaunted regional accents and slang. Critics spoke of a desire to continue a certain British legacy of songwriting that started with The Kinks; Blur wrote songs like “Magic America” that mocked American commercialism and sloth; and, as mass culture began to dominate globally, consumers in the United Kingdom sought out art and music that dealt with subjects that were more relevant to their day-to-day lives. The Arctic Monkeys became an overnight sensation thanks in large part to Alex Turner’s conversational, relatable lyrics. References to Tesco Value and chavs abound, speaking more directly to the British experience. This newfound obsession with the minutia of modern British life undoubtedly alienated mainstream American audiences.
This I’m okay with. The American mainstream is pretty clear-cut these days: All-American girls like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift dominate, and hip-hop is a definitively American art-form. Still, one would think that alternative music publications would be a little more open to these regionally preoccupied Brits. I mean, if hipsters can get over the abrasive recording methods of shitgaze (think Wavves and Vivian Girls) and convoluted lyrics abundant with non-sequiturs (Beck), they can get over a British accent and references to taking a “twos” on a cigarette.
Regardless of what logic dictates, there remains a steadfast divide between NME-approved Brit-rock and the jams emanating from the headphones of your run-of-the-mill hipster. Only British bands that forgo the jingoism and regional turns of phrase — Radiohead or Muse, for instance — crack the upper echelons of popularity here. In fact, I would say that cultural vagueness and broad strokes are what sell in the United States. Whereas a song like The Arctic Monkey’s “When The Sun Goes Down,” about prostitution in their home city of Sheffield, can become a chart-topper in their home country, American pop is centralized about universal, nonspecific themes. Katy Perry talks about “Last Friday Night”; The Black Eyed Peas “Just Can’t Get Enough”; and Lady Gaga waxes poetic about “The Edge of Glory,” whatever the hell that is.
While these axioms are effect in speaking to a lot of people, they also can seem grating and patronizing. Seriously, what the hell is “The Edge of Glory?” Listeners can either buy into the artists’ attempts at writing sweeping epics that say something to everyone, or they can refuse to identify with it and, instead, search for alternatives. Perhaps this explains why chart numbers are down: as people feel more and more obscured by society’s vastness, they want to feel like there is art being made for them. Indie rock is experience something of a Renaissance now, and perhaps it’s because it seems a little more intimate and thoughtful. Even the staunchest anti-hipster has to admit that a Bon Iver song hits a little closer to home than some song inciting the listener to party it up in some club.
Still, absent is any sort of American regional scene that is self-referential in both persons and location. Cultural associations, if present, are vague: The Strokes invoke this New York cool or Snoop Dogg gives Midwest kids a chance to experience Californian mellowness. This may be evidence of a greater American movement towards mass culture — somewhere, right now, a Mom and Pop Shop is being replaced by a Walmart — but it belays our local habits and beliefs. Without art to immortalize our colloquialisms, who is going to remember them? Pop music may be responsible for communicating big messages to big crowds, but it must also crystallize a moment in time. Sure, some embarrassing things may be crystallized — the 1980’s come to mind — but, unless people start recording things that speak to localized phenomena, we’re not going to have them back. Plus, do we really want to be known as the generation that listened to club music despite rarely going to clubs?