Tuesday, August 05, 2008

8/5/08 - Trope Dissection - Whaa! Power pop never has hits! Whaa!

A popular trope in music criticism is referring to whatever power pop band the critic is referring to as having songs that "should be" or "would be" hits in some idealized alternate universe, while bemoaning the fact that melodic guitar pop songs just don't become massive hits anymore. I'm going to have to call BS on this assertion, and I think it's interesting to look at why it gets made so often about it and why it's so wrong. I was reminded of this when I heard "Hey Jealousy" the other day on the radio, and remembered how critics always cited the Gin Blossoms as one of the few bands to escape the power pop ghetto to have honest-to-God hit songs.

The cause for all this bemoaning is, I think, rooted in nostalgia - Pete Townshend apparently coined the term in 1967 to describe the early Who, and the bulk of the critics that I used to read were formed by the musical output and developments of the '60s and '70s. Nowadays, when music can be plucked from the air thanks to filesharing & iTunes, or sampled without cost on YouTube/muxtape/internet radio, there's much more cross-pollination and acceptance of genre, but until Napster broke everything wide open, I'd say that musical subgenre was still something that critics put a huge stake in. Since guitar pop was pretty much the name of the game until disco & punk broke, there's a vested interest in the part of critics whose musical tastes were formed in those decades to champion the form. It's the same way that I respond instantly to songs from the '90s grunge mode - music etches its deepest grooves in certain years.

So, nostalgia - critics feel that breezy guitar pop songs should be hits, because they used to be.

Secondly, the genre name is a misnomer. Power pop in its ideal is a fantastic idea - in its practical term, the bands that get the appellation are often practicing something much different from the platonic ideal. What Townshend was speaking to was the way that aggression and angst form such an aesthetically pleasing dialectic when paired with catchy hooks and shiny instrumental surfaces. What results is a kind of musical sucker punch - the sing-along melodies draw you in, but the naked aggression (of, in the case of something like "I Can't Explain" the drums and manipulativeness of the lyrical narrator) provides the cathartic, emotional release.

Most of what gets labeled power pop is anything but - it's just shiny, empty, major chord guitar pop without about as much staying power as the deep tracks on a T-Pain album. For the most part, what gets labeled as power pop is a whole lot of pop with very little power.

Let's take a touchstone - "I've Been Waiting" by Matthew Sweet. So, this is off of Girlfriend, which Allmusic.com says "melds all of Sweet's influences into one majestic, wrenching sound". Well, that would be nice, but there's nothing majestic or wrenching here. The song is about as saccharine as a ten-gallon bag of equal. Sweet hits every note without a trace of emotion, and the 12 string guitars jangle prettily, but it's pretty much all sweetness and light. Catchy it is, but there's no really no "power" to bounce the pop off of. Ok, he wants the girl, he's waiting, he may not get her, but nothing really feels at stake.

Contrast with "Sick of Myself:

This one's got more distortion driving the main riff, and the singalong chorus is a pure expression of self-loathing; instantly, much more dramatic friction around the same subject. Any wonder that "Sick of Myself" was Sweet's biggest hit?

In looking at the "power pop" bands/songs that have broken out and become hits, this comes into focus - either the instrumental parts are actually, you know, powerful and aggressive, or else the lyrics contain enough sleaze/depression/anger/sadness/twistedness to play off of the shiny surface of the instrumental part.

A sample:
"My Sharona", the Knack - all about leering at younger women.
"Hey Jealousy", Gin Blossoms - a drunk screw-up returns to his hometown to ask his ex-lover if he can crash at her place and maybe drive around and get chased by the cops.
"Semi-Charmed Life" - Third Eye Blind - crystal meth addiction
"Buddy Holly," Weezer - So what I'm a geek - I dig you, baby!

etc. etc. etc.

I would also argue that a lot of songs are classified as something else but should be power pop. Sorry, Kurt, but "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a classic case - sing-along song crammed full of hooks, with volume & lyrics about alienation to provide the friction. For some reason, power has come to mean 12 string jangly guitars in the critical vocab, when everyone knows power comes from power chords (duh, it's right there in the word itself!)

Other songs that actually fit the "power pop" literal definition, not the music criticism version:

"When I Come Around," Green Day.
"Mr. Brightside", the Killers
"All The Small Things", Blink-182
"Interstate Love Song", Stone Temple Pilots
"Last Nite", the Strokes
"Remember", the Raveonettes
"Stars" - Hum
"A Praise Chorus" - Jimmy Eat World
"I Got You (At the End of the Century) - Wilco.

Ah ha! All of the sudden it looks like we have a viable subgenre on our hands, doesn't it? So let's throw our Rickenbackers in the closet and play some rock and roll already.

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