The highs and lows of pop culture

16:00, Dec 22 2012
Around and around: Pop culture went full circle in 2012.

And so we come at last to the end of 2012. Christmas is just a few days away, and turkeys are living in fear. You can't walk into a shop without being assailed by carols and jingling sleighbells on the in-store sound system, presumably to mask the "ka-ching!" of busy cash registers.

What better time to contemplate the real "sound of 2012"? How did music affect the wider culture this year? Who toured and could they still remember the words to their old songs? Are we still stealing music on-line while songwriters subsist on two-minute noodles? Most importantly, has the Gangnam Style YouTube phenomenon penetrated so deeply into the mainstream that your dear old granny might bust out the horsie dance after one too many sherries on Christmas Day?

It was, in many ways, a funny old year for music, and nowhere more so than in the United Kingdom, distant seat of our colonial past. Forget the 1960s: 2012 was the year British pop culture dropped acid and unleashed upon the wider world two genuinely surreal musical extravaganzas.

Psy stages a global invasion with Gangnam Style.

In June, came the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Concert. Many blameless ditties took a right royal rogering as a pink-suited "Peter Pan of Pop" Cliff Richard shook his hips through a medley of dusty hits, Stevie Wonder knocked out a Liz-themed Isn't She Lovely? and Madness amended their lyrics to "Our House, in the middle of one's street" in honour of HRH's grammatical preferences.

At one point, Sirs Paul McCartney and Elton John stood reverently behind Prince Charles in thick stage make-up, looking like two elderly women waiting for a bus. Ever the sly dog, Prince Phillip had the good sense to contract a bladder infection earlier in the day and miss the whole thing.

A month later, the Brits were at it again with the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, a hilariously overblown spectacle in which the musical soundtrack of a generation - from pop to punk to glam rock and hip hop - was pulsed in a blender then splurged over a London stadium while millions gaped like goldfish in front of their tellies at home.


It was magnificently mental: a triumph of eccentricity over common sense. The London Symphony Orchestra jammed with Mr Bean. Stadium techno duo Underworld soundtracked a re-enactment of the Industrial Revolution. A song by The Smiths rang out as the Olympic Torch arrived in David Beckham's boat. The Sex Pistols' virulently sarcastic God Save the Queen was played . . . to the Queen! And then my head exploded.

Of course, the epicentre of global pop culture these days is not Britain but America, where glorified karaoke shows continued to set the mainstream musical agenda this year, with America's Got Talent, American Idol, The X Factor and The Voice dominating TV ratings, sending mediocre ballads rocketing up the charts, and foisting so-so spin-off artists such as Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Scotty McCreery and One Direction on to a perplexingly grateful public.

Here at home, you paid handsomely to be part of all this, as NZ On Air coughed up $1.6 million in taxpayer funding for NZ's Got Talent before announcing a further $1.6 million for an upcoming X Factor NZ series, all in the same year public service channel TVNZ 7 was canned for lack of cash.

They may revolve around overwrought regurgitations of tired old pop songs, but really, these foreign franchise "light ent" shows have very little to do with music. It's the combination of celebrity judges, manufactured tension and saturation bombing multi-media promotional campaigns that turns such shows into ratings juggernauts. Who cares about the songs? These shows are about the power of television to facilitate that magical transformation from small-town nobody to short-term star.

But the real pop star TV transformation this year didn't take place on the stage. Home viewers were offered a ringside seat as new X Factor USA judge Britney Spears fought her way back into the public's good books after the wilderness years spent shaving her head, forgetting her knickers, driving drunk and engaging in a string of very public meltdowns.

Tabloid tales of mental illness, addiction and poor parenting had turned Spears into a pop pariah, but here she was, post-rehab: clear-eyed and relatively coherent. A star was reborn.

In the meantime, Spears provided a robust metaphor for music reality shows in general, in that her career is a triumph of marketing over music. Like her musical idol Madonna, Spears' vocals are mediocre at best, often little more than "overprocessed babytalk and coital panting", as one critic put it, but by choosing the right producers and working the media like a pro, she has become a significant cultural force. And why not? Pop music has always been about image, artifice and drama. Real talent, sometimes, is incidental.

2012 was also the year that many people decided that actually owning music was incidental. Global music streaming service Spotify launched in New Zealand in May, allowing free, legal access to more than 20 million songs to subscribers prepared to stream these songs on demand rather than buying and storing copies of them.

Many rejoiced that they could finally just get on with listening to free music without being encumbered by the complex political, moral and legal issues surrounding music piracy. Musicians, however, were less enthusiastic, as Spotify's "per play" rebates were laughably small for any but the most high-profile artists. To earn decent cash, many musicians were forced to relentlessly tour the globe. The last few years have seen tours by everyone from underground darlings Radiohead, The Fall, Morrissey and The Pretty Things to cuddly mainstream money-spinners Coldplay and their colourful young proteges, The Wiggles.

The axing of Auckland's Big Day Out in January after 18 years in operation signalled the end of huge "one size fits all" festival events in favour of an increased number of individual artist tours and boutique "subculture specific" musical offerings such as Laneways, Splore-City and Womad.

Gig-goers were spoilt for choice and almost sent to the poorhouse by ticket prices, and this is set to continue for the foreseeable future, with The Stone Roses, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Wilco, Robert Plant, Santana, Black Sabbath, and the Michael-free Jacksons playing early in the New Year. Oh, and Gerry and The Pacemakers, which may by now be more a statement of fact than a snappy 60's band name.

The band reunion trend also continued apace, with a succession of long-defunct bands burying multiple hatchets and getting back together to turn nostalgia into cash. Alongside lucrative reunions by Blur, the Beach Boys, Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac and The Stone Roses, the cobwebs were also blown off a host of tragic bands we'd have quite happily never seen again, among them Bow Wow Wow, Blue, Take That, The Darkness, Steps, and Blink 182.

Most alarming of all this year was the NKOTBSB reunion tour by surviving members of two ageing man-bands, a gruesome phenomenon one reviewer called "a horrifying boyband conglomerate; a kind of Alien Vs Predator version of New Kids on the Block and Back Street Boys, whose acronym presumably means New Kids on the Back Street Boys, which sounds highly illegal".

In order to avoid great hairy throngs of touring musicians clogging our streets, many of us chose to stay home listening to music instead. Combining digital and traditional revenue, record sales actually increased this year, although the lion's share of that money went to a teensy pool of major artists.

A whopping 95 per cent of all new album releases last year sold fewer than 1000 copies, and 80 per cent sold fewer than 100 copies. As for singles, the year's biggest songs sold in astronomical quantities while everything else sold bugger all. Last year, more than eight million different songs were downloaded around the globe, but 94 per cent were downloaded fewer than 100 times. Amazingly, 30 per cent of all digital music released last year was downloaded only once or twice, presumably by the singer's supportive mum.

Many musicians made more money licensing songs to ads, TV shows and movies than selling them to listeners this year, treating digital distribution more as an audience-building promotional outlet than a serious earner, in the hope that they might later extract money from that audience by touring.

With this in mind, some commentators have suggested a musician's smartphone is now as important a tool in their musical career as their guitar, allowing fresh photos, videos and other content to be constantly fed to Facebook, Twitter or YouTube and then out to fans craving a feeling - however illusory - of personal connection. Ideally, these fans would then become a de facto sales team, promoting the musician's gigs, sharing their playlists, and keeping their public profile strong.

But some chose to turn their backs on digital music altogether. No longer the preserve of beardy jazz fans, hip-hop DJs and hi-fi fetishists, vinyl LPs continued to grow in popularity this year, with many buyers eschewing tinny CDs or over-compressed digital files in favour of an aesthetically pleasing physical artifact they could hold in their hands. Demand for vinyl has increased steadily since 2006, and this year people around the globe bought more vinyl records than at any time in the preceding two decades.

And what was the musical mainstream listening to? Adele, as it happens. Still. The album that wouldn't die just kept on selling, as did underwhelming pop albums from Justin Bieber, Madonna, One Direction, Mumford and Sons, Bruno Mars, David Guetta, Gotye and the late Whitney Houston. Taylor Swift continued to dominate the pop-country charts, and there was also an unexpected hit country album by former ceiling-dancer, Lionel Richie.

Meanwhile, mainstream hip-hop and R'n'B, key drivers of pop culture worldwide, fractured into myriad micro-styles, with electro, dubstep and Euro-house flavours all over the pop charts, and producers continued to be the true global pop stars, with studio knob-twiddlers such as The Dream, Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Max Martin, Dr Luke, Benny Blanco, Stargate and Mark Ronson fashioning huge hits for Rihanna, Beyonce, Adele, Katy Perry and anyone else with sufficient cash to hire them.

Some commentators celebrated the crumbling of traditional stylistic barriers between genres. New York magazine's Nitsuh Abebe believed 2012 was the year when easy access to diverse music across multiple platforms had really changed the way most of us related to music. "The world increasingly stopped worrying over the complex infrastructure of music - press, labels, scenes, career arcs, "relevance," chart performance - and embraced the notion of a messy, tangled wilderness one tramps through in search of meaningful experiences, not mapmaking."

My own mapless stumblings through popular music yeilded numerous rewarding discoveries this year. I loved the nerdy New York synthpop of Chairlift, the snarky lo-fi indie rock of Ohio's Cloud Nothings, the avant garde R'n'B of New Orleans singer, Frank Ocean.

The richly psychedelic Lonerism by Perth cosmic adventurer Tame Impala blew my tiny mind, and great New Zealand albums from Home Brew, The Golden Awesome, SJD, Opossum, The Close Readers, Lawrence Arabia and Heart Attack Alley made my chest swell with nationalistic pride. But the greatest musical pleasure came from an unexpected quarter this year. I fell back in love with hip-hop. Warm, sad and cerebral, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, m.A.A.d City was my album of the year. In fact, I can't think of a better record I've heard in the past decade.

Capitalism, peer pressure, lust, spiritual emptiness, crime, personal morality, fame, family: favouring analysis over anger and vulnerability over machismo, Lamar considered the big ticket themes of the modern age with intelligence and wit over plush backing tracks that dripped with soul.

For me, this album was a timely reminder of the power of music to cut through the background noise of modern life; it was a sonic culture bomb that had travelled a vast physical distance from its maker to eventually enter one set of grateful ears and set off sympathetic explosions in the receiver's imagination.

So what if mainstream radio is on its deathbed and TV is crammed with lowest common denominator karaoke shows? Records like this confirm that extraordinary, life-changing music continues to be made, and modern technology makes it easier than ever before to go out there and find it.

Sunday Star Times