When I was 16, I was trying really hard not to be. I wanted to have sophisticated taste in music. I wanted to know about cool, respectable bands. I bought London Calling that year, and started writing Radiohead lyrics in my school day planner instead of Foo Fighters’ ones. (I never planned in said planner.)
Since I was even younger, from the age of 10 at least, I realized that B96 radio wasn’t for me. But now, at the age of 24, my tastes are more and more aligned with that of pre-teens and teenagers. Record companies, through the middle-men of “independent record promoters,” still buy airtime on the radio (aka PAYOLA), and what’s played on top 40 stations are the predetermined ‘hits’ of our day. In turn, these radio ‘hits’ translate into $$ for record companies, since radio is still a decent way of getting people to buy recordings.
Who buys recordings? Is the record industry dead? Well, everyone is all in a huff about these questions. But any educated guesser knows that youngns are the most lucrative demographic of record buyers–the kids are the ones who have tons of disposable income in a recession, who buy mp3s for their hot-pink ipod touches, who bump to Jeremih in their mom’s car since they have nothing else to do, etc. And that’s why top 40 radio is for them. Pop music has always been for the kids, but now our system of payoffs and rakings-in ensures that this is so, since the kids are the ones with the dough.
And so it is with some incredulity that I admit I love a lot of songs on Payola radio. There seems to be no reason I should, as artists are not played on the radio because anyone actually wants to hear them. Rather, it works the other way around: we hear them, so we buy them, and then they become our ‘taste in music.’ Terrifying.
Obviously, this cycle does not exist for artists on independent labels and internet phenoms (Lily Allen, Kid Cudi); some democracy lingers in the music industry not corralled by the evil quadrumvirate of Sony, EMI, Universal and Warner.
Pop artists on major labels don’t really have to make good music. I can’t speak to the music industry’s nuances of marketing and promotion, but it is clear that other factors (and not talent and craft) determine what songs/artists record companies hawk at radio stations. And, yet! Despite our fucked up system of disseminating music, some of the stuff on the radio is good. This good music is the bright light at the end of a long, cold, dark, Orwellian tunnel, in which our aesthetics are controlled by basically five corporations (the four majors, along with radio’s ClearChannel).
For example: some geniuses on the radio all the time:
Example 1: THE-DREAM!??! The-Dream is a genius. I made fun of him when Love vs. Money came out, but really, this man is a great R&B producer, making clean, subtle tinkling rhythmz n’ beats, writing gorgeous harmonies (heard his track with Fabo?!), and lulling me and many a 14-year-old girl to sleep by means of his soft, earnest voice. Guess that’s why they called him the dream.
Example 2: Ne-Yo. This guy can really sing too! More importantly: the synths on “Miss Independent” are just as cool as anything you’ll hear on an M83 record, and the song’s poly-rhythmic shuffle is, you know, challenging.
Example 3: Jeremih. Granted, this guy is more low-baller than The-Dream and Ne-Yo, who both have decadently hyphenated names and access to more expensive recording equipment than the lowly Columbia drop-out (see above photo). And yet he(h) has an added “h” to his name, signifying he’s not just anybody, dammit. I firmly believe that “I’m a Star,” is a minimalist spoof of the regular power-money-jam. Listen to how slow it is. To how all signs of R&B’s current love affair with lush future noises and ’90s club are scaled back to a sad, warped violin string. What is going on there? Is Jeremih playing a huge joke on everyone? Nay–it’s just his playful wit and musical insight, and it’s just a lil too weird for top 40 to get, but too déclassé for more cultivated sources of criticism to get. But I got you, Jeremih. No worries.
Evidence presented. I’m sixteen again.