Guest Blog: Pop songs make terrible cultural ambassadors

SIMON SWEETMAN
Last updated 08:51 12/11/2013

What? Another guest blog? I thought the inmates were no longer running the asylum? We've had it with Right This Blog! It finished - rightly - with some absurd idea that Blind Melon was somehow underrated/forgotten, right? Yes, that's true. But then James Robinson - you may remember him from the Voyages in America blog that used to be here at Stuff.co.nz - asked if he could contribute an idea and plug his Kickstarter campaign. And I said yes. So here it is...a music topic worthy of discussion. And a cheap shill to follow. But if you can spare a dime, as it were, or can help spread the word then help a brother (in law) out...

My relationship with New Zealand music within American airspace - across almost 10 years of visiting and more than three years of living here - incorporates only a handful of events.

I once heard a feelers song at the gym I go to down the road from my home in Oakland, California.

When I was a student in Boston I was driving with a classmate to film an event for our multimedia journalism class and whilst making small talk on the way there she expressed to me a warm appreciation for the music of Brooke Fraser.  

I wore an old Flying Nun t-shirt into San Francisco's (deservedly) cooler-than-thou Amoeba Records in 2007 and the guy who served me flipped out and told me it was the greatest shirt he'd ever seen.

Whilst heavily inebriated a few months back, a friend of mine brought Bic Runga up in conversation and I kept the conversation going way longer than I should have out of pure excitement. And I'm not that into Bic Runga.  

Throw a couple of muted conversations about Fat Freddy's Drop into the mix and trips to see both The Bats and The Naked and Famous live and that's nearly a complete inventory of my experiences with New Zealand music in America that didn't originate from my own iPod.

As a New Zealander living in America there is no universal musical touch point. There's really only two cultural touch points, total: Flight of the Conchords and Lord of the Rings movies.

You reassess here the cultural impact of local superstars that we're trained to believe are international juggernauts.

I had a conversation this weekend gone by with an American who asked me, "Who was the New Zealand pop star who always had the red lipstick on?"

Cue several minutes of fumbling conversation. The answer, of course, was Kimbra. Remember her? She won a Grammy. Last year.

Americans would recognise Crowded House if you hummed Don't Dream Its Over for them, but no one under the age of 40 could talk you through Neil Finn's geographical lineage. Everyone knows OMC's How Bizarre but no one knows that OMC stands for Otara Millionaire's Club.

The collected message being that pop songs make terrible cultural ambassadors. Subtext is everything with music: who the listener is, where they're listening, how they're coming across this particular song.

No matter what it means to New Zealand and the pride we have in its success, to the naked, untrained ear, there's none of our national DNA in pop music.

Which takes me of course to Lorde, because given the times every New Zealand-related music discussion must find its way to her.

I like Pure Heroine enough. I think it's a three-and-a-half star pop album (my wife and I had a conversation in the weekend about how it is equally as listenable as Tegan and Sara's Heartthrob, if that means anything to you) that has had a lucky break due to certain novelty elements (internationally speaking she really did come from nowhere, she's young and she's from New Zealand).

But what I think about the album is irrelevant. I've been thrown into a direct relationship with it because Lorde and I are both New Zealanders and I live overseas.

New Zealand is invisible in America. When you encounter Americans you've never met, they will want to run through the list of things they know about New Zealand, or people they met there and such.

I get asked about Lorde a lot, like both being from New Zealand is the same as being in the same book club, or something. 

People turn to me like I'm qualified to offer the skinny on her. I wake up to texts such as this from good friends of mine (quoted in verbatim): Does the ghetto "torn up town" that Lorde sings about even exist in New Zealand?

Lorde is ubiquitous in America. In the last week or so, I heard Royals in my local, pretense-less Japanese restaurant that plays an edgeless mix of More FM-level tunes, a petrol station, a second-hand store and countless times on the radio.

I like my little reminders of home. I get a nice jolt from seeing New Zealand mentioned in the newspaper. Just as I was trained to find it intriguing when an American unexpectedly brings Brooke Fraser up in conversation, so these little public Lorde run-ins stick with me.

Still, there's a good chance I like Lorde less than the average New Zealander. I've addressed this in several loud discussions with friends and colleagues.

All are mere differences of opinions, mostly over what I view as the absurd subtext being read into her work. All the 'such sharp critiques of commercialism' and 'next Bjork' talk sits uncomfortably with me, but time might well prove me wrong.

I worry though, that we now want our meaning that we've invested into Lorde to translate overseas.

Lorde's rise is a feel good story and the success is breathtaking. Great role model for young New Zealanders, sure.

But it does nothing for the idea of New Zealand in America, or internationally, where Royals ends up as mere product.Not so different

Royals may be marginally better written but it exists effortlessly in the same top-40 arena as songs such as Miley Cyrus' We Can't Stop. (Which is similarly catchy.)

Royals is one of the dozen songs that are allowed to be popular at any point in time here. Which is a truly gargantuan effort, I can't state that enough. But it's an inherently culture-less win for New Zealand in America.

Last week, New Zealand-writer Duncan Grieve implored readers on The Guardian website that Royals deserved nuanced critique as a 'direct response to the sensation of being overwhelmed by overseas culture, particularly that which glories in excess and wealth.'

I liked the piece, but I couldn't get on board with that. Since the implementation of local airplay quotas many years ago now so much of our local music, from Opshop to Fast Crew to the feelers to Smashproof and into ad nauseam has been saddled with a desperate, awkward need to sound ever so commercial and American.

We're not culturally overwhelmed. We're eager to fit in.

Lorde's entry into the pop-cultural spectrum in America has been epic. But in Royals, I only hear the sound of the first New Zealander to figure out how to sound seamlessly international. Its greatest asset is not sounding like it came from anywhere that isn't America.

But like I said, pop songs make terrible cultural ambassadors. They're three-minute distractions ten billion times more than they're ripped apart for meaning and context.

Just trust me on this. They'll never love Lorde like you love Lorde.

James Robinson is the former author of Stuff.co.nz's Voyages in America blog, which can still be found bubbling away in elemental form on Facebook. He's currently dangerously close to successfully completing a Kickstarter campaign (ending Friday at 9am) to turn Voyages in America into a book. You're very welcome to help him out with this goal.  

Blog on the Tracks is on Facebook and Twitter.

You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts.

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