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Good vs. Popular

Yesterday, I got into a serious discussion about some of the artists on here when someone asked me... if these artists are so great, why are they not popular? I had to break into a mini history lesson on how the "alternative revolution" of the early 90's changed everything (case in point, back in my college radio days, I pulled 'Pablo Honey' off the playlist because "Creep" was a top 40 single). By the mid-90's mainstream alt, mainstream rock, top 40, AC had all merged into one in a way playing alot of the same artists. This caused two backlashes, one that indie/underground music is meant to stay out of the mainstream, therefore making it better. And the 'Pop Counter Revolution' of the late 90's which brought back the cheesy disposable pop music that has morphed into whatever you call top 40 currently and these two factions grew farther and farther apart. This got me thinking, what if there was an 'Indie Revolution' where all of the sudden bands like The Decemberists, Fleet Foxes, Arcade Fire, Death Cab For Cutie, TV on the Radio etc... all became extremely popular top 40 artists...

1. Why has the disparity between the good and the popular grown so far apart?
2. Would these artists be looked at in the same light?
3. Would any future new artists that would have normally had albums that would have considered among the greatest of the year be downgraded because they put out music that happened to be popular?

Just a thought that I wanted to share and discuss.

Re: Good vs. Popular

For what follows, note that I am concentrating solely on U.S. charts. I don't have enough knowledge to discuss what was truly popular in the U.K. or elsewhere.

Okay, interesting thoughts, Slick, but I reject the premise. My memory of what changed in the early and mid 90's was pretty much only that MTV began playing some grunge and associated videos. And, yeah, it was fun as hell when Beck was actually a major star on MTV, winning Video Music Awards and the like. But not a single one of his Odelay singles landed in the top-50 in the US. None of his 90's albums landed in the top-10, whereas all of his 2000's albums did. (Although, that is probably more a function of the declining number of albums being sold generally. Odelay is the only one to have gone double platinum.)

There was a major change in the "top 40" charts in the early 90's, but it didn't have anything to do with the "alternative revolution." In 1991, Billboard began using SoundScan data for albums, and increased the importance of airplay for singles. Now R&B and rap became much more popular. And if you look at the album charts, the real revolution was the mega-success of mainstream country artists like Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus (yes, kids, you can blame my generation for Miley).

For a period in the mid-90s, different gradations of mainstream and alternative rock stations began flourishing for a bit. But I remember that in the first year when WXRK in New York changed from Classic to Modern Rock, they actually played some PJ Harvey. Artists like her were gone within a year. But since 2008, since WRXP changed to modern rock, artists like her have gotten played consistently, albeit intermittently. In the past 24 hours they have played the Breeders, Arcade Fire, the Decembrists, and Danger Mouse mixed in with the AC/DC, U2, and Pearl Jam.

Yeah, Nevermind famously displanted Dangerous as the #1 album for a week... but in the last year and a half the Decemberists, Cake, Arcade Fire, and Vampire Weekend all had #1 albums (granted, on far, far less sales than Nevermind). A band like the Decemberists would never have sniffed the top ten in the 90s. And The Suburbs would never have won Grammy's Album of the Year.

If these bands seem less popular than Pearl Jam, it is probably because of the increased fragmentation of the listening populations. In the early 90s, we still had mainstream radio and MTV to tell us what was popular in music (or, in many cases, direct us as to what should be popular). Not so much in the age of satellite radio and YouTube. Fleet Foxes and Death Cab for Cutie's audiences have no need to turn to radio to discover them. Regardless, then, as now, kids would really have search to find a Nick Cave or a Tom Waits (although they might get a snippet of Beavis and Butthead providing trenchant analysis of their videos).

Look at the list of #1 songs from the early and mid-90s. It's chock full of Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men.

And I'll also take the Moonbeam-esque position that much of the pop over all of these years has been far better than the "Alt Rock" being played, or even the "indie as fuck" music of today. I'd rather listen to "No Diggity" 100 times in a row than any Alice in Chains song once. And, forgive me, it beats the hell out of any Yeasayer song.

Re: Good vs. Popular

1) Exposure

A band that Clear Channel has paid radio stations and grocery stores to play over and over is going to get more fans than a band on a smaller label.

2) Popular among whom?

A lot of people who listen to music aren't audiophiles, and enjoy the charisma of the performer more than the content of the music. There's nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't make it good music, it makes it a really charismatic performance.

3) Easy/difficult music?

Accessibility and quality are two separate, unrelated variables. There's accessible great music, there's accessible bad music, there's inaccessible great music, and there's inaccessible bad music. The accessible good music is going to have a far bigger audience.

4) How long has the listener been listening?

When I first started listening to music when I was a kid, all I noticed were the lyrics. Then I noticed the melody. Then I noticed the instrumentals. Then I noticed the instrumental depth and the 'soundscape'. Then I heard so much music, originality became more and more important to me.

I still don't notice all the technical stuff that classical and jazz fans notice, so I don't appreciate classical music the way they do.

5) How long are these bands popular?

Being popular when your song comes out, especially if it's got marketing bucks behind it, is a lot easier than being popular 40 years after it comes out. The Beatles were the second highest selling act of the 00's and they haven't released a new record since 1970. That is pretty damned impressive.

Re: Good vs. Popular

Another factor is the way the process of making music has changed since the late-90's or so. The singer is just the performer now - the producer is the artist (with few exceptions, and those exceptions are usually the very best pop artists). Labels buy the songs from the hitmakers for the singers that are the most marketable, instead of doing everything in-house. That makes it really difficult for new artists to break into the market; nearly every new pop sensation has been groomed by the major labels.

Case in point: of the 58 songs that reached the top 10 in the US in 2010, only 4 were by artists making their debut in the mainstream. Two were produced by renowned hitmakers (The Smeezingtons produced B.O.B's "Nothing on You" and Bruno Mars' "Just the Way You Are"). The other two were Far East Movement's "Like a G6" and Mike Posner's "Cooler than You"; neither artist is bound to have much staying power at the top of the charts. It becomes rather difficult to break the stranglehold a small handful of artists and producers have at the top.

I genuinely like most of those 58 songs, which is more than what most AMers would say. But if you asked me who the best mainstream pop artists of the 2000s were, I'd say Timbaland, The Neptunes and Max Martin. They just don't get the credit.

Re: Good vs. Popular

1. Why has the disparity between the good and the popular grown so far apart?


Re: Good vs. Popular


And I'll also take the Moonbeam-esque position that much of the pop over all of these years has been far better than the "Alt Rock" being played, or even the "indie as fuck" music of today. I'd rather listen to "No Diggity" 100 times in a row than any Alice in Chains song once. And, forgive me, it beats the hell out of any Yeasayer song.

nj's random diary pick of the day: WOO-Hah!! Got You All In Check vs Cumbersome in early 1996... yeah, "Altunatif" was soooo daring back then

Re: Good vs. Popular

I like the kind of dance pop that Moonbeam likes.

But, there's a world of difference between that and the girl-pop that's devoid of emotion and has empty monotonous computerized instrumentals.

Indie pop has satisfied me less and less lately. I heard the new Okkervil River, and the vocal melodies are fine, but the guitar is so effing boring. All it does is play three or four power chords at the same rate for the entire song. A lot of indie pop does the same except adds distortion.

What I like now either needs a really raw vocal performance, or really strong instrumental backing.

Re: Good vs. Popular

just an afterthought, but i liked the

"if these artists are so great, why don't you move to them?"

dem:so:totally:nailed:it part.