Pop & Non-Pop After The Conceptual Turn How pop’s appetite for itself has led to a taste for the sacred

This essay is the second in a semi-regular series of slightly longer pieces exploring some of the ideas and conceptual strategies we think are at the heart of music production and reception today.

Our last piece, “The Trouble with Contemporary Music Criticism,” was about history. We argued that contemporary music writing often fails to think about history adequately because of its commitment to a mostly unacknowledged ideology of progress. This is particularly problematic, we said, when so much of the strongest music being made today seems to take history itself as its main point of orientation. Musicians keep presenting us with alternatives to this default idea of music as the endless progression of the new, and we keep missing it. The best in contemporary music is often much smarter than we think it is — and much more productive too.

Contemporary music is often accused of a kind of passivity: of refusing to be sufficiently “political,” of failing to “innovate,” of capitulating to the stultifying forces of retro-culture, of being little more than a composite of historical references. But in order to think that way, you need to commit to a pretty narrow view of “politics” and “innovation”. It is, by contrast, perfectly possible to listen to contemporary music and hear something extremely active: music that, in its best instances, is right in the thick of both questioning and rethinking ideas and hegemonies (like history and progress) that underpin art, culture, and social life. For this reason, it is also robustly political. It really does matter.

But our last essay left a lot of key terms unaccounted for. What did we mean by “contemporary music criticism,” for instance? Or, for that matter, “contemporary music”? If the answers to these questions seem self-evident, or if the questions themselves seem redundant, they shouldn’t. The assumptions we make about each of these key terms are directly bound up with how we write and listen.

We’ll look at the question of criticism next time. In this essay, we’d like to tackle the question “What is contemporary music?” The answer to this question will unfold in two parts. First, we’re going to argue that the key to this question is the relationship between pop and non-pop: a relationship that contemporary music, with increasing intensity, is actually already investigating itself. And second, we’re going to argue that it is this investigation that has laid the groundwork for some of the most inventive musical experiments in recent years.


Pop Eats Itself1

If you asked yourself what sort of music you tend to listen to and read about on sites like Tiny Mix Tapes, what would you say? Underground music? Experimental music? Terms like these are always either too specific or too vague. Usually, the easiest method is to answer by putting the music we like into dialogue with what it is not — whatever I listen to, it’s predominantly not pop music. This pairing is the most common way that music in the 20th century has been defined — popular vs. serious music, pop vs. experimental, mainstream vs. underground.

But by defining pop by what it is not, we often ignore the fact that pop music has always had a bit of a knack for defining itself.

In 1957, Chuck Berry released a song called “Rock and Roll Music.” It went, “Just let me hear some of that Rock And Roll Music/ Any old way you choose it/ It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it/ Any old time you use it/ It’s gotta be Rock And Roll Music/ If you want to dance with me/ If you want to dance with me.” The song peaked at #8 in the US charts and, in obvious tribute to an artist and a genre they loved, would go on to be covered by the likes of Bill Haley & The Comets, The Beatles, and The Beach Boys. All of them were making rock & roll about rock & roll.

Without listing endless examples, what we’re suggesting is that, from its very beginnings in the 1950s and 1960s, the modern form of pop music has always had a certain self-reflexive quality. It drew its own boundaries to some extent, defined itself in the process of its own embodiment and production.

What’s most striking, however, is just how much pop seems to have upped the ante in this respect over the last 60 years.

Let’s take three examples from last year. In September 2013, 14-year-old US pop star Madison Beer released “Melodies.” The video starts with Justin Bieber listening to the song on a set of purple Beats speakers. “You hear that, Ryan?” he asks. “That’s a smash.” He signs a set of matching purple headphones, puts them in a big red box, and we cut to Madison opening said box somewhere in middle America. She takes out her newly Bieber-pimped Beats, puts them on, and hears herself singing. “I hear melodies in my head, hear melodies in my head, hear melodies in my head… My heart is a beating drum, repeating my favorite song.” This, then, is an earworm about the fact that it’s an earworm. This is pop eating itself.

Or have a listen to Zendaya’s “Replay” (released in July). Here, the chorus is “I wanna put you on repeat, play you everywhere I go… e-e-everywhere I go, play you everywhere I go…” and then, “Ya-ay, wanna put this song on replay, I can listen to it all day, I can listen to you all day, ye-ah all day.” And this chorus is, of course, repeated endlessly.

Both songs are incredibly catchy. Importantly, though — and this is something that arguments about pop as simple standardization generally miss — both are also about the experience of listening to catchy songs. At the level of structure and content, these examples present themselves as somehow epitomizing the contemporary pop song, which is to say endless, surface-level enjoyment. Moreover, they’re also hyper-aware of how they are going to be listened to — the socio-technological assemblage of contemporary listening practices: headphones, MP3s, iPhones, pause, loop, >>, <<. These are songs that know their own media-environment.

One Direction’s “Best Song Ever,” another release from July, goes one step further. Lyrically, we’re in a similar ballpark. The song is about “dancing all night to the best song ever,” as the listener is interpolated into doing the same. “I think it went oh, oh, oh, I think it went yeah, yeah, yeah, I think it goes… Woo!” But this time, not only does the video depict One Direction making a pop video, which also cuts regularly to recorded footage of the band being adored as pop stars, this video also introduces a dance, precisely for you to “dance all night to,” in an extremely self-conscious way. The video finishes with the boys painting the words “This is us!!!” on a photo of themselves.

They’re right, of course. This is exactly what One Direction is: a representation inside a representation. As if to say, in the pop present, it’s simulacra all the way down. And what’s more, it knows it.

1. Thanks to Jonathan Dean, who mentioned the Madison Beer and Zendaya examples to me a few months ago on Facebook and who at the time used the phrase “pop eats itself.”

Pop Eats Art

Two further releases however, indicate that, in 2013, something slightly more complicated was going on in the world of pop.

First, Lady Gaga’s much-anticipated ARTPOP was released. Whereas the teenyboppers were making pop that laid out the parameters of their music from the inside, Gaga’s release was explicit in its attempts to make pop that was not just about itself, but about something else as well: pop that was also “art.” As the press release triumphantly announced, this was an album that would “bring ARTculture into POP in a reverse Warholian expedition” — “Pop culture was in art; now art’s in pop culture, in me.” According to Gaga, it was her “dream” that “art and pop should come together” (without the slightest recognition that the thought had occurred to anyone before).

To realize “her” dream, Gaga collaborated with contemporary pop artist Jeff Koons (who else?) to host a so-called “ArtRave” in Brooklyn for a few hundred lucky “Monsters” and industry-types wherein people danced to Gaga surrounded by gigantic sculptures and photographs made by Koons, mostly of Gaga. On the album cover (also by Koons), a naked Gaga sits surrounded by jagged fragments of classical sculpture and Sandro Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus, while cradling between her loins a giant blue sphere — one of many that adorned Koons’ new body of work in 2013 — in whose reflection we see the art studio or gallery in which Gaga is sitting. The message here is hard to miss: this album is not just about pop — this is pop about pop being pop and art.

Earlier on in the year, by way of promotion for his latest release Magna Carta… Holy Grail, Jay Z exhibited copies of the album alongside one of only four surviving copies of the original Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral. Soon after, he released “Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film,” which had been recorded live at a New York contemporary art gallery and which saw the founder of Roc-A-Fella records performing the album track “Picasso Baby” to individual audience members, one after another, over a period of six hours: a glitzy hip-hop re-imagining of Marina Abramovic’s well-known “The Artist is Present.” And self-consciously so. Abramovic really was present.

In 2013, then, pop not only continued to perform its own pop-ness (Madison Beer, Zendaya, One Direction), but, in the histrionics of Gaga and Jay Z, this project became the music’s main goal. Indeed, this project was pursued to what some considered the sacrifice of the music itself — Gaga’s album in particular was not only panned by critics, but also seemingly by her fans and the market as well2. Jay-Z and Lady Gaga turned all their attention to the question of their music’s “pop” status, not by performing its musical attributes, but by attempting rhetorically to frame their popness, to step outside pop to some extent and hold pop up against something else — in this case art3.

Art Eats Pop

The mobilization of music’s art and/or pop status has not only occurred on the pop side of the fence.

In June 2013, Nick Newlin, a Chicago-based musician and student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, released Revengeance under the name Yen Tech. It’s an extremely weird listen. Revengeance glistens with all the hallmarks of a contemporary mega-pop chart-topper — thumping euro-trance beats, rushing synth buildups, and the slick tones of Yen Tech’s hyper-produced voice delivering the kind of self-reinforcing banalities we discussed above: “Feel the rush of the wave/ You’ve got one life/ Go hard to the end, ye-eah/ I play the game to win/ I’m gonna set it off/ I’m goin’ up, goin’ up, goin’ o-off/ I take my drink and I raise it up/ We got one life, gotta live it up.”

Pretty quickly, the record becomes hard to listen to. It’s just too much, like being force fed can after can of Red Bull. Although Yen Tech’s music comes very close to being indistinguishable from a mainstream pop release, it’s this sense of overload, this excessive quality — in a pop landscape, moreover, which is already excessive — that alerts the listener to the fact that it is not, or not only, pop. Something else is going on here.

As Adam Harper points out, Yen Tech’s album is an artistic pastiche of pop music. However, as Harper explains, it inhabits pop music’s affects and discourses to such an extent that the gap between pop and art becomes almost indistinguishable — there are only a few clues (Newlin’s enrollment in an art school, his links to the deliberately arty and ironic DIS magazine, YouTube hits4) that the album is indeed not just another pop album. Yen Tech is, of course, only the most recent in a train of such performances, including HD-Boyz and ADR. In the best tradition of pop art, from Andy Warhol to 1980s appropriation artists and musicians, to Jeff Koons himself, these artists are playing with the almost imperceptible line between pop and art, reducing this gap until it is so thin that we can’t even really hear it any more; we can only think it. The difference is more a matter of attitude than sonics.

But when considered in a broader context, what is most interesting about Yen Tech et al.’s conceptualization of pop into art is that it is occurring at a time in which pop itself not only already conceptualizes itself, but also very publicly tries to move in the other direction, conceptualizing pop so that it can also be art. So no longer is it only art that is blurring the line between art and pop — pop is (however naively) attempting it too.

We All Eat Everything

Before we finish the first part of this essay, it’s worth zooming out one more time to consider the technological context in which both of these musical maneuvers (pop eats art, art eats pop) are taking place.

Whatever the web’s many sins, it is still at least mostly neutral when it comes to content. The result is a kind of equivalence in terms of accessibility between the popular and the not-so-popular. One result of this equivalence has been a massive increase in the accessibility of independent culture. Even Spotify doesn’t care whether you listen to Katy Perry or Keith Fullerton Whitman, so long as you’re not on BitTorrent or iTunes. And the result is that it’s become increasingly easy in recent years to simply switch off: quite literally to tune pop out.

However, the paradoxical result of this new pop/non-pop parallelism has been a kind of exoticization of the mainstream. If you spend enough time with all that noise, drone, UK dubstep, and minimal techno, if you tune out from the mainstream for long enough, then suddenly it’s the Top 40 that starts to sound foreign, to exert a certain exotic allure. After so much time away, it’s hard not to develop a certain appreciation for the finely calibrated pop hook, which no longer seems so debased. And if it’s hooks you’re into, why stop with either the present or the local? After all, there’s a good 50-odd years’ worth out there on YouTube to be mined if you’re interested. And plenty happening in Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere, in the present tense too.

Sure enough, we’ve seen a parallel embrace of these sounds by critics: a kind of latter-day global popism. Look at this very publication, for instance (in particular the work of Max Power), with its continued commitment to theorizing the likes of Gaga, Beyoncé, Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, J- and K-Pop in and amongst all the weirdness. Or consider Pitchfork’s unashamed canonization of pop sounds.

In 2014, pop and non-pop feel closer than ever. Everyone loves pop these days. And they’re not ashamed to admit it.

2. In its first week, it sold only 25% of what Born This Way did in the equivalent period. And sales dropped by another 81% the following week.
3. The failure of both albums was due not only to the deficiencies of the music itself, but also to the fact that both artists placed such emphasis on the startling novelty of their rhetorical maneuvers, something that anyone with a passing familiarity with the history of art and music over the past 100 years was sure to find hard to stomach.
4. Whereas “Applause” from ARTPOP currently clocks in at around 140 million views on YouTube and “Bad Romance” has already notched up over half a billion, Yen Tech’s most popular video “Forever Ballin” has just 41,000, which is a couple of thousand less than this video of “Romeo the Skateboarding Cat.”


Ferraro, Lopatin, Blunt

To sum up our argument so far: it’s difficult to define the music we listen to, because one of the key ways to do this — the old duality of pop vs. non-pop — is breaking down. This is in part due to changes in how we listen, but also due to what we would call a “conceptual turn” in music: contemporary music, both pop and non-pop, is increasingly concerned with not only how it sounds, but also how it is conceptualized and framed. Not only have the categories of pop and non-pop become extremely blurred, but both pop and non-pop are also increasingly about this blurring, resulting in a potentially endless hall-of-mirrors in which pop is about art which is about pop which is about art…

To ask the question “What is contemporary music?,” then, is to ask a question that the music is already asking itself.

If this is the case, then we must necessarily move on to different questions. Who’s asking this question best? Which artists are saying the most interesting things about how music sounds today, the ways in which it is made and how it relates to the social and musical world in which it emerges?

In the final section of this essay, we’re going to focus on three artists: James Ferraro, Daniel Lopatin, and Dean Blunt. These three artists are not necessarily the only ones answering these questions in interesting ways - 2014 has already seen a wave of new talents working with similar strategies and techniques, from E+E to CLEANERS, to in a different way, Actress.

Nevertheless, over the past few years it is undoubtedly these three artists who have engaged most consistently with this dissolution of the pop/non-pop distinction — a condition that they have not only been involved in developing, but also upon which they’ve grounded their subsequent experiments. In doing so, each of them has also moved beyond a simple conceptual gesture to produce music that is also musically compelling and has enabled them to capture the collective critical imagination in a way that makes them, we think, exemplary of the present moment in music.

Let’s start with New York-based musician James Ferraro. In 2011, Ferraro released Far Side Virtual. Originally intended to be released as a series of mobile ringtones, Ferraro’s album is an agglomeration of smooth corporate training video synths, familiar Skype and Windows sound effects, and shopping mall muzak. Ferraro’s method was not to simply sample such sounds — to frame and critique them, á la vaporwave — but rather to deploy them in such a way that they appear as a kind of sonic still-life of the present moment. As Ferraro put it:

Far Side Virtual mainly designates a space in society, or a mode of behaving. All of these things operating in synchronicity: like ringtones, flat-screens, theater, cuisine, fashion, sushi. I don’t want to call it “virtual reality,” so I call it Far Side Virtual. If you really want to understand Far Side, first off, listen to [Claude] Debussy, and secondly, go into a frozen yogurt shop. Afterwards, go into an Apple store and just fool around, hang out in there. Afterwards, go to Starbucks and get a gift card. They have a book there on the history of Starbucks — buy this book and go home. If you do all these things you’ll understand what Far Side Virtual is — because people kind of live in it already.

In Far Side Virtual, high and low culture were all brought into simple and uncomplex communion with each other. Unlike Yen Tech, the album did not try to perform pop culture, but instead drew a dead-pan picture of high and low culture’s radical equivalence in contemporary life. That such a move had not been made before is what made the album sound at once so definitively contemporary and yet paradoxically futuristic.

In his subsequent work, Ferraro extended this project into other realms of popular culture, occupying the monikers BEBETUNE$ and Bodyguard to tackle trap, hip-hop, and Auto-Tune, even teaming up with Dean Blunt to perform an odd tribute to distracted hotel lobby music. Ferraro’s experimentation across each of these fields must be read in the context of his work as a whole, each one another cultural reference point that has been flattened and brought into equivalence with the others. In this sense, it is tempting to read each new album as simply another page in the project opened up by Far Side Virtual, which may now have reached its apocalyptic endpoint with 2013’s NYC, HELL 3:00 AM, as we’ll see in a moment.

Ferraro’s project of painting a sonic still-life has also been taken up, in a slightly different way, by the New York musician Daniel Lopatin a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never. Like Ferraro, Oneohtrix Point Never’s albums of the past few years have explored the newly loosened palette of sounds opened up by the flattening of the pop and non-pop divide. Speaking of his superb 2013 release R Plus Seven, Lopatin explained that “I like the potential of reducing clichés down into some kind of weird, molten texture.” With the aid of a Korg M1 synthesizer, the album melded sonorous church organs, chopped MIDI vocals, tinny shamizens, and cheap-sounding brass tones. While some reviews linked the album’s sound to 1980s and 1990s electric and computer music, others were perspicacious enough to note that nostalgia was not Lopatin’s intent: the album instead revealed the deeply musical explorations of an artist reveling in a new suite of sounds. Lopatin is responding to a world in which everything — from voices to horns, church organs to beats — are now presets. Pop is no longer a sound that can be critiqued or inhabited, but an instrument that can also be played, composed for, improvised on, and even made beautiful.

One of the most interesting experimenters after the conceptual turns has been the cryptic figure of Dean Blunt, through his work as half of Hype Williams (with Inga Copeland) and most recently his solo releases.

Like Ferraro and Lopatin, Blunt’s music is evocative of music’s recent past, ranging from slow keyboard-driven jams, to psychedelia, to 1990s hip-hop. However, Blunt’s appropriation of these styles is far more blatant than Ferraro or Lopatin. 2013’s The Redeemer, most emblematic of Blunt’s recent work, opens with a stirring string refrain — a disarmingly lovely moment, until you work out that Blunt lifted it entirely from K-Ci and Jojo’s R&B track “All My Life.” The album continues with tracks blending Blunt’s dreary vocals with sea sounds, tinny keyboard strings, and grungy guitars, and then breaks inexplicably into a delicate folk song, sung by his now regular collaborator Joanne Robertson.

In trying to come to grips with Blunt’s work, the analogy with Warhol is useful — and indeed, something that Blunt himself is actively playing with. Unlike Ferraro or Lopatin, whose albums emerge as consciously crafted “works,” Blunt’s unorthodox release tactics (2013’s Stone Island was released unannounced on a blog in Russia) and his utterly cryptic engagement with the press leave his albums in a realm of ambiguity. It is never really clear how seriously we are meant to take his music, which you begin to get the feeling is precisely the point.

Blunt’s undecidability, coupled with his notable musical ability, leave the listener in a realm of self-reflexivity: we are drawn in by the lush strings of “I Run New York” and the folk strains of “Imperial Gold,” but we must constantly ask ourselves: on what grounds? We never quite know whether we are meant to adopt this music on its own terms or as critique or both. While Ferraro and Lopatin paint a picture of the newly integrated cultural sphere, Blunt digs at the anxieties that lurk at its edges.

The New Sacred

What is it that makes Ferraro, Lopatin, and Blunt’s music so interesting and, what’s more, so definitively of the moment?

One answer to that question, we think, might be that they have all been able to move so successfully beyond the sort of self-reflexive handwringing and ironizing outlined above. Like the teenyboppers, Gaga, Jay Z, Yen Tech, and the pastichers at DIS, these artists’ music has a certain “aboutness” to it. But it also has something else: a kind of artfulness, a sublime or even sacred quality, which has more in common with, say, Mozart or Talk Talk than most of the music currently being made by their peers. It is a kind of anachronistic affinity with the tropes of religion and romanticism in combination with musical strategies more familiar to sample-culture and postmodernism that marks Ferraro, Lopatin, and Blunt out.

Listen again to R Plus Seven. Notice the prevalence of what sounds like (but is not) a church organ. Notice the way in which Lopatin’s juxtaposition of that organ sound with all the various chintzy presets serves both to level the playing field, to reveal the organ as just another preset, no more or less sacred than the rest, but also — and crucially — to draw on the seriousness it derives from its association with the church to give weight to his entire project of leveling. The message conveyed by this seriousness is that the leveled palette of high and low culture deployed in Lopatin’s work is itself a new platform for musical experimentation, a transcendental plain. And sure enough, in September 2013, Lopatin did in fact perform the album in a church in Brooklyn to a congregation of fans in thrall to its very real beauty.

James Ferraro is less optimistic. As we suggested above, his work since Far Side Virtual could be read as a whole: an expanding series of pictures depicting the sonic equivalences between high and low culture. For Lopatin, the endpoint of this journey is artistic possibility; however, in NYC, HELL 3:00 AM, this plain seethes with apocalyptic menace, linking the confusion of pop and non-pop with the decrepit commercialism of the city that never sleeps, New York City. The album opens with a drawling, mechanical voice — “money, money, money.” The transcendental plain of artistic possibility is, for Ferraro, that of capital. What for Lopatin is Heaven, for Ferraro is Hell.

Dean Blunt is, again, by far the hardest to pin down. Nonetheless, his recent releases are clearly gesturing in this direction — not only was the cover of The Redeemer adorned with a set of praying hands, but also its language deals explicitly with religion: “Seven Seals of Affirmation,” “Walls of Jericho,” “Demon,” “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” etc. And, as we’ve already discussed, the album plays more than his work ever has before with classically “beautiful” sounds: from stirring strings to lilting folk ballads, to the sample from the Rites of Spring on “Six” from Stone Island and the harp and choir voicings on “Eight.” For Blunt, this is not just one more element in the chain of confusing signification that makes his music so relentlessly interesting, but also what makes him always feel one step ahead.


Finally, then, the leveling of pop and non-pop along with the conceptual turn has led not only to music that is endlessly “about” itself (which can get old quickly), but also something else, something better and more interesting: a new sacredness, which is to say something beautiful and/or terrifying, a suggestion that the new conceptualism itself has something bigger at stake, a transcendental artistic value, or a sublime failure.

The conceptual turn we have described here, just as with the turn to history we described in our last essay, is not an argument about the end of history or the end of music, or anything so dramatic. Instead, what we are saying is that the best contemporary music is interesting precisely because it is not just making new sounds, but also interrogating the very conditions under which it is produced, and moreover deploying these discoveries to take music in exciting new directions.

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