Pop Oddities

This is my first ever attempt at anything resembling a ‘think-piece,’ and it can hardly be described as such because, well, I don’t really have any concrete thoughts on the matter. Just questions and confusion. So here’s the primary question: Where is the new interest in utter weirdness in pop music coming from?

One example of what I’m talking about might be the rise of dubstep (which, these days, is pretty much unavoidable not only at parties, clubs, and restaurants, but also commercials and movie trailers), a genre built on beats that don’t make sense and alien noises. For my part, I can’t really account for the phenomenon, aside from the obvious appeal of rib-rattling bass. The question then is how such utterly bizarre music is showing up on the radio alongside the latest Rihanna and Bieber joints (both artists who, let’s note, have started incorporating some really weird stuff into their latest material, as well). Where’s the cultural shift allowing these oddities to slip into the most mainstream of venues?

Let’s be clear: I’m not being a hipster douchelord here, I’m not asking, “How can these plebes be into such interesting and intricate and tasteful music?” I mean, I’m talking about dubstep, for Pete’s sake. What makes me scratch my head is simply the disparity between the standard elements of Top 40 tunes and the comparatively weird recent invaders, which look like they’re from Saturn when placed over the template of, say, “Call Me Maybe”.

Let’s look at a couple of recent examples: AWOLNATION’s “Sail” and Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know.” Both songs have, in the recent past, been damn near ubiquitous and both songs are built from some of the oddest parts imaginable. How did this come to pass?

“Sail,” the older of the two tracks, seems to have something of a dubstep vibe going for it, which may account for a bit of its popularity. But the walkie-talkie-quality vocals, the ungainly squawk of the chorus, and the blippy riff that runs through the whole thing all move counter to what we’d typically expect to hear coming out of our televisions during Acura commercials. Then there are the suicide-contemplating lyrics, featuring the frequent plea to “blame it on my ADD, baby.” Not exactly a lyrical recipe for success. Every once in a while, a burst of live drumming will come in for a few bars over the otherwise metronomic ticking. The barroom piano interlude doesn’t help the song make any more sense, either. While I find most of these elements really interesting, and certainly catchy, I can’t say I see where the mainstream appeal lies.

Gotye has a few more things going for him on the “obviously appealing” side of things, reasons why we haven’t stopped hearing this song for six months. His voice is real nice, the emotions of the song are relatable, and then there’s the lovely guest verse from Kimbra. But have you listened to this song? The production consists largely of kalimba, shakers, a wonky synth, and various other items that make little more than a plinking sound. The only precedent I can think of in recent pop radio is Peter, Bjorn & John’s “Young Folks,” which is actually a pretty solid touchstone for this song— female guest vocals, general airiness, inexplicable pop appeal. But even “Young Folks”‘ whistling didn’t reach Gotye’s massive heights of popularity. The first time I heard this song on the radio was after a few weeks of hearing about it from just about everyone I knew. I was shocked to find that the song I’d imagined as a massive club banger built on crisp pop production and synthesized beats was in fact just some weird dude singing over toy sounds.

Maybe the explanation lies in the fact that I pay an inordinate amount of attention to production. Maybe most people don’t care what the source of the sound is so long as it worms into their ears, and I’m the weird one. The latest example of the whole phenomenon is Alex Clare’s “Too Close,” which morphs from a soulful-white-dude-with-acoustic-guitar number into a massive dubstep drop-and-shudder, with absolutely no logical transition between. Maybe this particular specimen points the finger back at the rising popularity of dubstep itself, which brings us back to where we started: how the hell did that thing get so huge?

These, friends, are the big questions, the real topics. And here at KOXY, we shall not shy away from them.

-Gabriel Mathews

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