Monday, July 10, 2000
Tom responded to my last entry, in the process highlighting some of the vaguer aspects of what I was saying, so I'll clarify a bit...

Is Aaliyah's "Try Again" really that weird?

Not as an R&B single, no, and there are plenty that are much stranger, such as Destiny's Child's awesome "Perfect Man" from the same soundtrack, which has surpassed even "Caught Out There" in my opinion as being the most futuristic R&B track ever. What surprised me and surprises me still about "Try Again" is that it's snuck through the back door marked "mainstream pop" and hit the center stage. Perhaps my reaction is informed by living in Australia. The success of "Try Again" might not be as profound to Americans or British who think nothing of genres like hip hop and garage flooding the charts, but in Australia, where Mariah Carey started to flop the moment she invited rap artists onto her records, it's a genuinely new phenomenon.

Over here there are none of the urban infrastructures surrounding R&B that regularly lift it to the top of the charts, so each artist succeeds and fails on the basis of their pop savviness. Therefore the radical redefiniton of R&B over the past few years has gone unnoticed here. If you remove "Try Again" from the context of post-Timbaland R&B and view it solely pop (say, in a line-up with Celine Dion, Boyzone and Steps), it begins to seem pretty bizarre after all, even ignoring the acid gurgle, which was actually the last thing I was thinking about..

The most subversive aspect of "Try Again" is that it's pop music trying desperately hard not to be pop. It doesn't comply with most of the preconceived models of the pop song - neither a bouncy "Wannabe"-type number or a weepy ballad. It doesn't even have the warm sexiness of most R&B that is successful over here. Instead "Try Again" is cold, not in a sterile mass-market sense but in a deliberately mechanical sense, and Aaliyah's vocals are so restrained and emotionless that the distinction between the verses and the choruses is pretty much theoretical. Just getting someone like my sister (who doesn't have great taste and who I most emphatically do not envy) to accept Timbaland's assymetrical beats and his gruf rapped intros is a pretty major achievement.

That achievement was made possible by every interesting song that has graced the charts before it, rather than Timbaland alone. The song doesn't make a radical break from everything that's gone before; rather, it simply extends the slight innovations that have been occuring in so much pop "filler". There's heaps of pop songs that I consider to be fundamentally "strange" and "bizarre": "Bills, Bills, Bills", Jordan Knight's "Give It To You", hell, even "Backstreet's Back" after all this time. Compare any of this stuff to the bland, washed-out crap that passes for Australian chart pop (see Leah Haywood's "We Think It's Love", S2S's "Sister", Bardot's "Poison" and "I Should Have Never Let You Go) and it sounds off the planet. Pop music as aural sculpture.

The success of "Try Again" as a pop song puts me in mind of how Simon Reynolds described the link between house and UK Garage, with garage being "what house sounds like when almost every defining characteristic of house music has been eliminated or tweaked until near-unrecognisable." Garage still flies under the banner of house music by association more than anything else, and to draw conclusions about one from the other would be utterly foolhardy. Which brings me back to my original question: what is pop these days anyway? Can we really define it in a meaningful sense? And if we can't, can there really be any grounds upon which we can exclude it from the critical evaluation it deserves just as much as yer' most unheard of indie record?

This is why sites like NYLPM and Surface vs Depth are so important. There's a recognition there of a new musical confusion which the smug canon-affirming conservatism of an Addicted To Noise or the tunnel-vision "us vs them" polemic of indie sites like, well, Us against Them by their very nature cannot or will not acknowledge. For all of its reputation as a "pop weblog" (this despite all the reviews of weird British indie singles!) NYLPM is really more about an attitude of musical inclusiveness and free association (up to a point - no prog-metal yet). What's the point of having both Belle & Sebastian and Britney Spears if you have to choose between them? Similarly, I love the way the top ten lists at SVD contrast obscure post rock with pop songs and harcore and garage records, with no implied judgement of which are more "important", "lasting" or "meaningful".

I reckon we're living in a peculiar time musically, when a lot of the preconceived notions of how we assess music are being questioned. MP3s and Napster herald a new era where people will encounter music on a track by track basis, free of the kind of artistic/stylistic loyalty which most listeners develop due to economic considerations of buying twelve or so similar tracks all at once (case in point: the first three MP3s I ever downloaded were My Bloody Valentine's "You Made Me Realise", TLC's "Silly Ho" and Dusty Springfield's "Son Of A Preacherman"). Using MP3 technology made me realise that the real musical innovations aren't (or at least aren't always) happening on an album-scale, but rather within specific tracks. It's changed the way I listen to music significantly - only a year ago it would never have occured to me to nominate a single song like "Perfect Man" as the most forward-thinking piece of pop music I'd heard. Of course it doesn't hurt that so much of music right now is advancing on a track by track basis (see my criticism of Carducci for more on this).

Reading NYLPM is the critical equivalent of a night in with Napster, or like what such a night has the potential to be once people start swapping music purposefully - an open-hearted, open-minded exploration of music free of the crushing weight of the "canon" or pointlessly limited definitions of what makes music "worthy". The "paradigm" I suggested may be limited right now, but with so many forces seemingly converging, I think NYLPM and other sites like it have the potential to be the prototypes for a new model of musical criticism to match a new method of music listening. Maybe it's more of a vague hope than anything else, but it's one I feel is worth working towards.


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