Laboratory Music

In 2012, I would often work at my mother’s house in the late evenings until early morning, trying to finish the first of what are now four bookshelves. There is and was simply not enough space at our rented house to work on it, but I could then occupy both a barn and a workshop at my mother’s.

There is an old radio in that workshop which turns on whenever the lights do. It is in an inconvenient location, and the antenna is super-finicky, so I simply end up listening to whatever station it’s tuned to when I’m not in the barn. Back then it was Pop music. My musical diet is fairly strict: I make it a point of largely only listening to Classical, Folk, and some British/Irish stuff (Radiohead, etc.). I’d forgotten what Pop was like. So I thought: this was another chance to examine it anew.

Of the many things I’d wished to write about after the dozens of hours listening to Pop radio in those months, after looking at my notes, three main points emerged.

[1] Pop music is overwhelmingly grown in a laboratory. It is written by people who know how to employ and play with conventions to produce a desired effect. The right props –i.e., “artists”– are used to achieve this, if the laboratory scientist is technically skilled, and the price is right. Very little of it is actually made for the sake of the music, and unlike the conventions of traditional folk music, it doesn’t express the memories and the ethos of a community, nor does Pop have enough variety of song themes to serve as a set of signs to understand all the varied circumstances of life. It’s an industry, and an industrial product. (Modern film is the same way: Ridley Scott once admitted that, no matter how much he’d like to make a film for film’s sake, he still has to “put bums in seats”.)

[2] The kinds of advertisements say much about the target demographic of the mainstream station, and so do the manner of the advertisements. It’s for moms who were in high school or college during the 90’s and who have kids, may or may not be married (seemingly not), who are relatively low-income (no real money after-expenses) and who still go clubbing (it may be that these women do not in fact go clubbing, but are being sold the fantasy of going clubbing). Interestingly, not a single ad for weight loss in nearly 100 hours of working on these shelves. One regular ad about how all your friends are married, and you need to go to these singles events. An ad for cheap, reliable automobiles with pathetic choruses for the dealer. Talking-head radio announcers from the station pushing a hair product “because it’s been so good to me … for the pictures I took on my vacation.” Selfies-as-way-of-life; the inability to distinguish between reality and representation. “This City’s biggest live music festival is free!” –timed perfectly for the return of the College students, and, of course, riddled with product sponsors.

[3] The types of songs are bumper-sticker maps for exalting, longing for, and living in low-brow kitsch: I won’t give up on us even when you need space and things are rough; I’m gonna make this place your home; I think too much, I had a bad day, and I’m gonna dump you (and take somebody home from the club); I’m going to the club and I’m gonna find a magical prince/ess who is gonna rock my world and make me happy; you’re not worth my time, I’m dumping you; there’s something wrong with me, I need to dump you even though you’re fine, but I gotta go with what’s “in my heart”; I’m too close to loving you, so I need to dump you; whenever we party it’s fun; this girl I date, and am in love with, is batshit crazy, and that’s why I love her; some girl saying “cheerio” constantly after all her color-by-numbers lines, prattling on about drinking Patron because she’s waiting for a guy to call her. Etc. Those are, believe it or not, the lyrics of real songs — or what I could make of them, given the radio, and the form of the music. The form of the music, as the form of the advertisements, is as much about the feelings it sells, as about the lyrics, so that the latter are not always discernible — the music is designed to get one to the thrilling chorus as fast as possible, just as cheap carbohydrates are loved for the quick sense of satisfaction they offer. Of course, not surprisingly, Dunkin’ Donuts plays this station all the time.

You can see how this media colludes with a host of others (magazines like Elle and Glamour and even People) and other venues (Hair Salons, Liquor Stores, Clubs, etc.).

What’s most notable is how fundamentally destabilizing the kinds of romantic narratives this sort of music pushes generally are. The ideal narrative is so often: I want to find a person who will sex me like I’m disposable and then love me like I’m royalty. There’s almost no way to make a relationship work when it’s considered as a movie that lives within this soundtrack. The horizon of the crazy-romantic-love soundtrack destabilizes; within its world, it is itself the only stable thing. What’s worse is that one needs to constantly buy the advertised products in order to make the movie of one’s life worthy of the pop soundtrack: they are necessary props to tell that story well. It is a horizon that one voluntarily buys into, and can get snagged on through even one pop-culture product, as they’re all connected.

I shelved these judgments in the back of my mind after finishing the bookshelves. They resurfaced again when I worked at Dunkin’ Donuts for nearly two months over the summer to make some fast cash in the evenings to pay for my daughter’s activities.

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