I come before you today to validate two utterly cliched arguments that are spouted so often on the internet that I had previously thought they HAD to be wrong. These arguments relate to the state of popular music today, and they go like this:
1. Pop music is disposable crap, packaging in search of a product, and the fact that millions of people like it only proves that those people are retards.
2. The music industry is a dinosaur in desperate need of a mega-comet to snuff it out.
I have a knee-jerk rejection response to these positions. In the case of the first one, because it is so transparently the opinion of an elitist intellectual who doesn’t understand populism, doesn’t trust the people around him to have any taste or sense of their own, and needs to feel better about his nerdy and traumatic high school years by only liking The Invincible Fudgernutters and drone metal albums of which only 666 copies were pressed (and then 555 were burned in sacrifice to Satan). In the case of the second, because it is just as transparently the opinion of an unreformable music downloader who would like the legal uncertainty and low buzz of guilt erased from his life, which can only happen when the music industry lies in ashes and everyone is offering all their crap for free. I hear variations of these arguments all the time, frequently tossed off as if they require no explanation or backbone of logic, and I always make a squinty face that makes me look like Popeye or that old lady from “Throw Mama From The Train” and “The Goonies.”
But today I realized, they’re right.
And here’s why.
It all comes down to a single example. Before we started dismantling her, Britney Spears was probably the biggest product the music business had to sell. She was hot and sexy, she danced with snakes and made out with Madonna, she couldn’t sing worth a shit and she sold fifty million albums with titles like “I Wanna Fuck Middle-Aged Guys, Really!” and “Oops… I Crapped Out Another Multi-Platinum Success.” You all know the story, unless you’re currently two years old. In which case, you probably think of Britney as that crazy lady who beats up cars and shaves her head and also her crotch. (You are a very advanced two year old.)
Back in the day, though, she pumped out catchy songs like Toxic. (Warning: this is the “Toxic” video, and in case you’ve never seen it and are currently at your office, you probably should not click on this. It’s not quite a paparazzi shot of Brit’s meat curtains, but it’s still risque.) I always kind of liked this song; it’s the kind of relentless, danceable, hummable little number that makes even an intellectual music nerd like myself think that maybe millions of people canNOT, in fact, be wrong. I see in this song what some of my friends apparently see in “Umbrella.” If you can get over your prejudices toward “smart” and “authentic” music – if you can get past your irrational need for every artist to be some awkward super-mutant chimera of Bruce Springsteen and the Mars Volta – then you can enjoy a song like “Toxic.” It’s borderline awesome. At the very least, those faux-Bollywood strings and juddering synth bass lines are borderline awesome.
So. “Toxic” = not bad. It’s a pretty good example if you want to discuss what the music biz has done right, and how slickly-produced, well-packaged pop can actually be decent. It’s the Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich of pop songs.
Or it was, until I ran into this: Cathy Dennis’s version of “Toxic.”
Now if you listen to these two versions back to back, you’ll notice two things pretty quickly: 1. They sound a lot alike. 2. The singing in the Cathy Dennis version sounds the same about half the time, and markedly better the rest of the time. And maybe, like me, you think to yourself: what the fuck, man? Milli Vanilli, anyone? (You can even get a head-to-head comparison here.)
Here’s the deal: Cathy Dennis is a former pop sorta-starlet who has faded from the limelight and now writes catchy pop singles for current starlets. She wrote several songs for Britney, including “Toxic.” And as most songwriters will do, she demoed “Toxic” – in the version you hear if you click on the above link. She sang it herself, because she’s got a pretty appealing voice for that kind of song. So that’s what that is.
Now, I’m not shocked and appalled that other people write songs for pop starlets. This is not surprising. I’m not even particularly shocked and appalled that the demo versions of these songs are heavily borrowed-from and may even be better than the finished versions we, the public, receive via our food tubes later on. What I am shocked and appalled about is that it’s perfectly fucking obvious that a drugged-up Britney Spears sang about four words over the Cathy Dennis demo, which was then polished up and remixed COMPLETE WITH CATHY DENNIS’S VOICE STILL CARRYING THE SONG, and that this little-reported pseudo-scandal has utterly laid bare the poverty of artistic value in the pop music industry.
What do I mean by that? Well, here’s Cathy Dennis today (not literally today, but recently enough that is approximately what she looks like today, barring a yet-to-be-widely-reported truck or jackhammer accident):
Maybe you have noticed that she doesn’t look like Eddie Murphy as Rasputia in “Norbit,” or a hundred pounds of rat-chewed bologna, or Bill Belichick. She is attractive. Older than we like our starlets, not as conventionally Lolitaish as Britney in the “Toxic” video, but quite appealing nonetheless. Capable, certainly, of singing a song in front of us without us losing our lunch.
So what has the music industry done with this lovely lass who wrote and sang a perfectly decent little pop song? They bought it from her, slapped Britney on top of it at -15 decibals, barely changed the fuckin’ thing at all, and sold it to us. This thing made Britney’s handlers and record label a bazillion dollars. It prolonged the fame of a clearly talentless white trash lunatic. Meanwhile, the girl with the talent and the singing voice was kept in her closet to crank out another hit for someone else.
What we’ve learned from this is a number of small lessons that are individually not very surprising, but when added together form into a landslide of cynicism that I can no longer escape from:
~ If you’re over 30 and female, you’re too fucking old.
~ If your legs don’t look like bronzed, toned mankillers and you’re female, you have no business being in a music video.
~ If you can write a good song but aren’t that good-looking, we would prefer that someone better-looking sing your damn song.
~ Given a choice between buying a good product with shaky packaging or a shaky (possibly stolen) product with great packaging, we the idiot masses will take the latter EVERY TIME. We will take the latter so much that the latter will become a crazy millionaire who we can’t escape from if we ever fire up our computers or open a magazine. The former, meanwhile, will only be mentioned on obscure YouTube clips and rambling blogs pretending to be written by fictional TV characters.
So there’s the lesson for today, Diane. Do with it what you will. Me – I’m going to order some more drone metal albums. Only 14 copies left!