The kids are off at Grandma and Grandpa’s, so Kate and I went out for a nice dinner Thursday night, and I found myself with a bit of time to blog… but no particular substantive ideas. The whole “publishers behaving badly” theme of last week seems to have run its course, between Random House re-thinking its awful ebook contracts and the whole wrestling-with-pigs argument over paying people to write stuff for the web has kind of exhausted itself. And I don’t have the time or energy to write up serious science in detail (it’s the last week of classes, and between grading and end-of-term administrative nonsense, I’m wiped out). so I’ll witter about pop music for a while (it’s in the tagline for the blog, after all, but I’ve been short on pop culture content lately).
I usually have music playing in the background while I’m doing whatever I’m doing, particularly if I’m at the computer, and I try to keep up with what’s big in music to some degree. I’m not a big dance music guy, so there’s a lot of current pop that just doesn’t work for me, but I try to give highly critically praised stuff a chance, even when it’s outside my usual comfort zone, musically. And I keep running into the same basic problem.
One of the albums topping everybody’s “Best of 2012” lists was Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange (see, for example, the AV Club review), so I picked that up and listened to it for a while. And it’s… fine.
The problem with it, though, is that it just sort of… slides by. He’s got a good voice, and when I can force myself to pay attention to the lyrics, he’s often talking about some serious stuff. At the same time, though, I find myself thinking “I could probably knock this backing track together on my iPad.” It just doesn’t end up grabbing me in a way that makes me pay enough attention to even rate it on iTunes.
In a similar vein, there was a period of a couple of weeks where Ta-Nehisi Coates wouldn’t stop talking about Kendrick Lamar’s oddly punctuated good kid m.A.A.d. city (AV Club review), which is currently in shuffle play with a bunch of other stuff.
And again, I have kind of the same problem– not quite to the same extent, as there are a few tracks that are sonically a lot more distinctive than on Channel Orange. Unfortunately, those songs are mostly gratingly annoying. The ones that aren’t actively irritating, though, have the same problem: when I force myself to pay attention, the lyrics are good, but I have to force myself to pay attention, and I suspect my iPad could provide the backing track.
What really threw this into relief for me was a couple of weeks back when the shuffle play on my iPad at work threw up a Kanye West track:
The video takes a while to get to the song, but when it does, there’s no sliding past. It’s not like much of anything else, and provokes an immediate “What is that, so I know how to find it again?” reaction when it comes on. Of course, it suffers from an entirely different problem, namely that West is a self-obsessed douchebag of epic proportions, and whenever I catch a bit of the lyrics, it’s hard to stop rolling my eyes. (This is actually one of his less narcissistic tracks…)
What I wish I could find, and don’t really know enough about current popular music to track down, is somebody who puts together the more serious lyrical content of Ocean and Lamar with West’s production talents. I’m sure I’m missing some subgenre distinction between these artists, though, that makes this nonsensical, sort of like saying “Bob Dylan would be awesome if he just had George Clinton’s band backing him” or whatever. It’s very frustrating, though, that the stuff I find arresting musically is coupled with such douche-tastic lyrics, while the stuff that’s got good lyrics is so boring musically to me.
This is, of course, a problem that could be solved with money and time– I could just start buying a whole bunch of hip-hop albums and going through them to find what works for me– but my limited experience suggests that the signal-to-noise in the genre, as it were, is not terribly high. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of good new stuff involving guys with guitars, which is basically my home, genre-wise. Those best-of-2012 lists also included the Japandroids’ Celebration Rock, which is awesome:
But, you know, it’s kind of frustrating to feel completely out of touch with the dominant musical forms of the moment. Which probably goes in the “what a drag it is getting old” file (to further date myself/ place myself in a particular cultural milieu)… Maybe it’s just an inevitable decoupling from younger people’s music, but I still feel like this is a problem that ought to be crackable.
Also, to head off the criticism that it’s just being loud that grabs my attention, I’ll throw in another track that the shuffle-play threw up at work that never fails to catch my ear despite being quiet:
I’m not sure what it is, exactly– if I could nail that down in a systematic way, I’d get out of physics and make billions as a music impresario– but something about that sound is just as arresting to me as the Japandroids’ buzzing guitars. And it catches my attention well enough to get me to listen to the lyrics, which are dense with references to other songs, which is also right up my alley. And, hey, new Josh Ritter album coming soon, so again, it’s not like I’m utterly bereft of stuff to listen to…
Feel free to suggest stuff that I ought to listen to in the comments, though. I’d be thrilled to have a wider variety of good stuff…