November 9, 2010

2010 in Music: An Argument for Singles

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Aside from morally conscious uber-geeks or your parents, what casual music fan has bought an album in the past year? Unless we’re discussing My World 2.0 or Speak Now, the only things that people have legitimately bought in 2010 have been singles. The idea that a single’s success translates to success in album sales is moot; my good friend Flo Rida (we’re weekend squash partners) disproves this.  The man is behind two multi-platinum singles (“Right Round” and “Low”), two merely mono-platinum singles (“In The Ayer” and “Sugar”) and two gold singles (“Elevator” and “Club Can’t Handle Me”), one of which is still getting heavy airplay on pop radio. Despite his chart success singles-wise, not a single one of Mr. Rida’s albums is approved even silver in the United States. Compare this to the old industry of the ‘90s, where Hanson rode their double platinum single “MMMBop” to extreme success in the sale of their major label debut Middle of Nowhere, which was certified quintuple platinum. Do you even know another Hanson song? No you don’t, you fucking liar. But people bought the album anyway.

Now, one can merely blame the demise of the record store and the concurrent rise of iTunes and illegal downloads for our lack of investment in our artists, and maybe, just maybe, they are a little bit right.  But can’t we give the American consumer a little credit? Maybe he or she was tired of buying Marcy Playground records (see, you don’t even remember who they were!) and have, instead of being duped, realized that sometimes one good song is just one good song. A 99 cent payment (or whatever ridiculous price Steve Jobs is having people pay now) for something you know you like is a much more fiscally responsible move than throwing down 12 bucks for what could very well be a pile of shit (except, of course, “Sex and Candy”).  Maybe, contrary to what our alarmist media keeps telling us, Americans are getting smarter.

So, consumer trends aside, what does this mean for the artist? Well, firstly, singles are taking a more central role in the development of a pop artist’s identity. No longer will there be records like Nevermind or Millenium that will be in everyone’s record collection and stand as definitive artistic statements for a pop musician; instead, it’s all about occupying the precious spots on someone’s iPod. Cee Lo Green, a recent visitor to Ithaca, fully understands this sea change. Ask someone what his or her favorite album of his is, and you will likely get a blank stare. But start singing, “See you driving downtown with the girl I love,” and you will get an emphatic chorus of sorority girls screaming, “Fuck you” at each other. Mr. Green does not get haughty about his album-only tracks. While others, in the classic Kurt-Cobain-hating-“Smells Like Teen Spirit” way, spurn their singles, Mr. Green embraces them, reaching back in his Saturday set at Barton Hall to the Gnarls Barkley smash “Crazy”, which promptly made the audience go batshit insane. Mr. Green’s identity is shaped by his two hits, and that’s not a bad thing. It means that some artists are prone to swing for the fences so that they can create three-minute slices of glory.

Luckily, artists who have previously devoted their time to pumping out albums are beginning to realize the value of singles and other shorter releases. Swedish pop sensation Robyn has picked up critical and popular steam through the release of her three-part Body Talk series. Each of these releases have been short (eight songs), feature excellent singles as their centerpieces and preview the next offering’s single in an acoustic form. Robyn’s fans are attracted by the singles, enticed by the acoustic demos and kept satisfied by the short intervals between releases. Robyn has ridden such a method to great success, culminating in sold out shows in New York, an impending appearance at the 2010 Nobel Prize Concert, a performance at the VMAs and, most importantly, a featured spot on the television show Gossip Girl. Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Friday series has worked on a similar level. The steady stream of new music has fans salivating for the next release, and the hype for his next album could not be greater. Mr. West, ever focused on maintaining his cultural prominence, has found a method of attracting attention that does not involve disgracing presidents or nude pictures (though, luckily for music blogs everywhere, he throws those in for free). In our Twitter-happy times, the single is the perfect musical complement to 140-character limits, and far more attention grabbing.

Original Author: James Rainis