It’s an assertion that warrants a lot more careful consideration than the typical and instinctive knee-jerk WTF response that most people will have when confronted with such a suggestion. Personally, I wouldn’t have chosen these acts to make this point if I was him. Perhaps I’d have gone with Rihanna and Melt Banana. Or Take That and Art Brut. Still…
I should say for the sake of openness here that I know Sebastiaan. That is to say, I met him once with his bandmate Rhiannon over coffee and sandwiches in Cardiff once, and I’ve had dealings with Rhiannon since. I have an enormous amount of respect for his level of craft when it comes to pop songwriting. He knows his stuff and is far and away one of the UK’s best hidden pop production talents.
But that doesn’t stop him being fundamentally and monumentally 32-flavours-of-wrong in this instance.
Let’s consider what we’re dealing with here:
Aqua – Barbie Girl
Radiohead – Fake Plastic Trees
Now, despite the fact that I have a friend who makes a very good case against Radiohead simply on the grounds of how whiny and morose they are, I’d have to say I think they’re hugely culturally important on a lot of levels. But even so, you can see where it’s conceivable that while most New Music Strategies readers would express a preference for the latter rather than the former, there could be a case made for the mainstream appeal of the Aqua pop hit.
And while it might be questionable, it’s possible that a preference for Aqua could fall within the bounds of reasonable difference of taste.
Just so we’re clear, Sebastiaan’s band Ridinghood clearly favours the pop mainstream in a Roxette-ish kind of way, and there’s something to be said for that schooled tradition of pop songwriting. And that could explain the bias. My own background is in jazz and other improvisational musics, where ‘they’re just making it up as they go along’. Which might explain my own bias.
But niche musics, to the extent that Radiohead can be said to fall into that category, have always been where the action is, culturally speaking. And that remains true to this day.
‘Popular’ music and ‘important’ music aren’t often the same thing. Oddly, in the instance that Sebastiaan picked to illustrate his point, they are. Radiohead are one of the most popularly successful acts on the face of the planet. To my mind, it’s inexplicable, but somehow right. I know why I like Radiohead – but I can’t figure out why everyone else does.
Being great at writing pop songs, knowing what key music is in, having the received wisdom of the formal structures of music are what used to be called ‘being of the academy’. And traditionally, the academy has been quite sniffy about art forms that lie outside its sphere of influence.
Yet the art that lies at the margins — the art that is comfortable with naively pushing against the boundaries of form, technology and popular acceptance — has always been the art that influences and informs all later art forms, for better or worse. Its impact on culture is exponentially more profound, and demonstrably so.
In other words, Sebastiaan is entirely right (from an Academy perspective) to prefer Aqua to Radiohead, because Aqua do what they’re supposed to and they know what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and to what end. It is a ‘knowing’ music.
Radiohead, on the other hand are wilfully naive, experimental, culturally perverse and regardless of their enormous popularity (despite clearly being ‘dilettantes’ and ‘hobbyists’), are willing to take risks with popular art to the detriment of their own importance.
And it’s exactly that which makes them important. They’re also quite technically proficient, though they seem to prefer to avoid traditional popular song structures and production aesthetics these days.
You could argue quite articulately that Aqua have more cultural impact simply because they understand musical rules, musicianship, popular appeal and the craft of popular songwriting. But you’d just be wrong.
Radiohead, regardless of what you think of their music, are simply more important because they are more influential. There are far more bands because of Radiohead than there are because of Aqua. They also happen to be more popular by quite some significant margin, but even if they weren’t, this argument would hold.
Very few artists who would be recognised as good practitioners of the kind of music typical of a time and genre are remembered as important (if they’re remembered at all). Their impact upon culture is pretty much negligible. Yet those artists that cause riots, mass walkouts, indignation, shock and discomfort are quite often the ones that end up in the history books. They may not always make large sum of money in their lifetimes, but what they do matters.
I’ve long maintained that there’s a difference between art and craft in all forms — but especially music. There are some true artists with very little craft (say, Bob Dylan), some people who are all technical skill but nothing worth saying (for instance, Kenny G), and some people who are phenomenal technicians through and through, and also contribute to culture through the far-reaching impact of their art (Hendrix springs to mind here).
But technical ability and an understanding of the ‘rules’ of music will always play second fiddle to the Art (capital A) of music. True Art always calls into question what exactly art is, it pushes against every boundary it can find, challenges its audience, experiments with form and content, tries to move the entire artistic genre forward in some way, and — for the most part — screw the mass audience.
And most importantly for our purposes, popular music has arguably always been at its most influential when it pushes against the pre-conceived boundaries of technology. Look at Pet Sounds, Sgt Peppers, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and – yeah – OK Computer.
But Important Music and Good Pop are not at odds with each other. Sometimes there’s significant overlap. I don’t think you can criticise the one for not being the other. Look at Ridinghood’s music, for instance. You can’t really criticise it in terms of its pop appeal and its craft.
Sebastiaan’s musings on subjectivity in popular music notwithstanding (and honestly, it’s a great use of the blog, however incongruous it may seem), it’s not going to change the world or spark a revolution, and nor is it going to forever change the approach that musicians will take to the recording process or live performance.
But as pop music, it’s hard to fault it, and it deserves to do well.