Sound and Fury

The State of Pop

I am a confessed music snob. I like my music informed by history, complex and multi-layered. I like to listen to my music, not just hear it and move on. Put another way, I am the antithesis of the Britney Spears market. This was never my intention; but by the time I had realized it, it was too late to do anything about it, if there ever was anything that could be done. Personally, I think it may be genetic—an inbuilt allergy to supremely forgettable songs. An untrammeled enjoyment of pop music requires the ability to stop bad songs at the eardrum without letting them into the interior brain circuitry to gunk things up with sticky clichés.

Music snobs have a lot going for them—or at least they think they do. We get a lot of respect from other music snobs and always have an obscure band name to drop should the conversation flag. We get to listen to some really good music that most people don’t know exists, which is both pleasant in itself and provides a bewitching feeling of smarter-than-thou when a roommate throws on the same Dave Matthews album. But like many elite institutions, snobbery can breed weakness through its dedication to listening to everything, rather than just hearing it. Too much bubblegum pop music for a snob is like too much highly refined sweet stuff for a five year old: you’ll jump around, hit your little brother, whine when you can’t have your own spaceship and finally collapse in a pitiful heap, your synapses fused together by pink strands of sugar.

This makes enjoying pop music very difficult. I have nothing against pop music in itself; some of my best friends are pop songs. But pop songs that are not the inbred cousinmotherbrothers of at least ten other cross-eyed, bucktoothed pop songs and can therefore be listened to safely are few and far between. I can understand that this must be reassuring to some: things never change much, the song remains the same. But for the snob, the challenge is to find sublime needle in the cotton candy haystack without forever tainting the ear drums.

The best pop songs are just different enough to surprise without requiring any attention to detail. Remember Coldplay’s “Yellow”? Or Missy Elliott’s “Work It” with the elephant noise? These are the gems that make the incipient brain death worth it for the snob. Perhaps for the true pop fanatic/musical egalitarian, all songs are created equal. But even for such democratic listeners, some songs must be more equal than others.

“Hey Ya!” gets my vote for “Most Equal Pop Song” of the year. It’s tricky to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes the song so catchy—the magic is hidden somewhere between the corny backbeat, those southern handclaps and Andre’s delirious vocal fills and grunts. “Lend me some sugar, I am your neighbor” may be the best breakdown line yet created. Somewhere, James Brown’s hair is going kinky with jealousy. Even a snob can’t help but appreciate the fascinating juxtaposition of ’60’s rock with a millennial hip-hop sensibility before getting down on the dance floor.

It also can’t hurt to have the video, with the cloned and grinning Andre twitching, shaking and grooving in 10 different incarnations, playing in the back of your mind. Both video and music support the theory that all great pop songs are really songs that the Beatles never lasted long enough to write. All pop flows from the same secret spring which the Beatles first learned to bottle commercially.

Inevitably, another song must soon take over as the mantle of most equal of all songs. Given the amount of buzz they’ve been generating in the music press (the snob’s Bible), perhaps The Strokes are likely suspects. “12:51,” their new single, shares a lot of the same genetic material as “Hey Ya!”: Handclaps, catchy keyboard-sounding riffs and the backbeat that has been the granddaddy of every rock song since Elvis. Casablancas’ drawl is as bewitching as ever, the perfect combination of bored and earnest.

The video is not as goofy as Andre’s, which is a relief: Julian Casablancas has far less in the way of big hair, six packs or James Brown dance moves to show off. Instead, we get Casablancas wondering around a stage, looking like a younger, drunker version of Robert Smith of The Cure, whom The Strokes increasingly resemble sonically as well as in fashion sense.

Since the 90’s, rock songs have had a harder time inscribing themselves on the collective consciousness in the same way that hip-hop songs do: hip-hop is simply better to dance to, and dancing is a great memory aid. But The Strokes are doing more than most rock bands to pull rock fans out of their sullen corners and onto the dance floor. They may be the most universally popular pop rock band since U2’s glory days in the ’80s, from whence they stole the introduction to “12:51.” If Room On Fire turns out to have as much juice in it as Is This It, The Strokes should be on their way to becoming that sublime oxymoron, the snob’s pop band, as Outkast already have. Here’s hoping, because otherwise we’re stuck listening to cousins Chingy and Britney, the inbred.

—Crimson Arts columnist Andrew Iliff can be reached at iliff@fas.harvard.edu.