Pop Culture

A Shape Of Things To Come: Popular Music In 2014

“Radioactive” Formats

The country format has gone from owning 1% of the real estate on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2007 (Taylor Swift’s first hit) to over 15% for the last three years straight. While the days of bigtime-American-freedom-town-party songs are surely numbered (death, taxes, etc.), that number is not 2014. Look for more and bigger country-pop hits this year. As for the generic authenticity of those hits, they are perfectly indicative of the only 21st century genre that really matters: pop, which is characterized by loud mastering, formal unity, and being catchy as fuck. The glorious beer commercial “Cruise” is no more a country song than hee-haw Macklemore’s Thrift Shop is a rap song, but they’re both fabulous pop songs.

Billboard now considers streaming data when calculating its charts, so expect to experience not only the meteoric flash of the PSYs and Baauers of the world, but plan also to endure them for another hit or two while the hype dies down. YouTube has already emerged as a multimedia “radio” format of its own, so we can expect more artists for whom the seeing is as important as the hearing. So, if you play violin okay and you dance okay and you look okay, you can be the next Lindsay Stirling.


“Thrift Shop” of Genre

While formats still survive into the new year, actual genre will not. The deaths of old genres like blues, country, and rock are harbingers for the imminent deaths of indie, R&B, and rap—no respective analogues intended. This is a corollary of globalization. Genres are like mom-and-pop shops that just can’t keep up with the WalMart of pop. While certain pop stars will borrow ideas from the old jamz (i.e. Rihanna from R&B, Fall Out Boy from rock, Drake from rap), these old stores of sound will no longer be able to afford to pay the rent on their own brick-and-mortars. This is not a bad thing, because these respective genres have failed to produce enough good ideas to maintain their relevance. With the exception of a few bright spots, for the last five to ten years the few individual efforts that have stylistically aligned strictly to either blues, country, folk, indie rock, jazz, rap, R&B, reggae, or rock have either been terrible relative to the best efforts of yore or boring at best. It happens—things fall apart.

But what about Vampire Weekend, Kacey Musgraves, Kendrick Lamar, and all that other shit that sucks less than the shit that actually makes money? Considering how little most music writers know about the craft of making music (cf. everything published by Slate, Noisey, AV Club, etc.), current critical acclaim has little to do with musical merit. But these artists do and will serve a very important purpose: martyrdom. Acts like Queens of the Stone Age will continue to live in monastic isolation and amuse folks who like cool guitar tones and chromatic mediant chord progressions. Depending on which of these kinds of artists—people following their arrow, so to speak—have the most imaginative and zealous fans, a couple of them will eventually be lionized to mythological proportions, and their music will surely seem to have some influence on the emerging music of tomorrow. What these artists don’t realize is that the music of tomorrow will by necessity be extremely homogenized compared to today, akin to the difference between Classical Era music and the stylistically more disparate Baroque Era. The Rock Era (roughly 1950-2025) will eventually be seen as a cultural analogue to the diverse and weird Medieval Era, and the story of 21st century music will be an entropic race toward a more stylistically standardized form, much like sonata-allegro form did for Western classical music. Music will be better and more complex in the future, and less people will pursue it because it will require more talent than most musicians currently have.


The “Blurred Lines” of Intellectual Property

Nobody will argue that Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit isn’t a direct nod to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” But the controversy lies in whether he had the right or whether the Gayes stake a legal claim to the spirit of that old record. Everybody hates Shia LeBeouf right now, but I kinda sympathize with the outspoken plagiarist’s point of view on the increasing irrelevance of intellectual property. In this historical era of permanent revolution*, the idea of creating for posterity (literally and figuratively) is a curiosity of old times. The Singularity, the imminent tipping point at which technology and culture will evolve so rapidly that it will be impossible and irrelevant to predict the future, brings with it three key consequences. Politically, the “state/market/collective,” which has already usurped the family for most economic needs, will be rendered useless as all problems of liberty and equality will have been absorbed. The trans-sapiens familial community will serve to provide for the emotional needs of abstract-cellular spawn by algorithm, as will algorithm preempt all archaic political and economical issues. Culturally, it will be pointless for the artist to consider his or her work as an offering to an audience. The artist and the audience will be One, and so all creativity will progress in unison.

Spiritually, and this is the most important consequence (at least as far as popular music is concerned), the sapient ego will become extinct. All existence will enter a collective consciousness, a mass organism that thinks and feels as one, where healthy ideas are routinely farmed into the network and unhealthy ones are rejected as if by immunity. Technology will uncap infinite sources of energy, rendering a collective spirit free to create beauty as quickly and abundantly as the brightest child, as deftly and elegantly as the greatest master. No more will vanity fuel desire for the thrill of exploitation, will sloth staple scraps to a grid for the satisfaction of getting it done, will greed paint a smile on a pusher for the acquisition of a dollar. Julia Holter, Cynthia Ozick, and Paris Hilton will be unanimously elected chief matriarchs of the Intergalactic Spirit Counsel, and all defense funding will be appropriated by our mission to explore the abstract continuum to disseminate love and peace.

I reckon all this will happen around, like, this April or May.


*I’m using this term more generally than Marx or Trotsky. Consider permanent revolution to be the point where industrial and socio-political aspects of society change so rapidly that no set pattern can be discerned (cf. Yuval Harari. De Animais a Deuses: História Breve da Humanidade. Braga: Vogais, 2013). I like to think of “permanent revolution” as eddying water before life as we know it disappears into “Singularity” (cf. Ray Kurzweil. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Viking. 2005).

Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.