Saturday, June 26, 2004

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BUNTON AND BUNKUM


Never let it be said that Panda Pops is a website without its finger (or paw, whatever) on the pulse. Except for the fact that you could quite justifiably say it recently because we haven't bothered to update for ages, and when we have it's usually been with some rather outdated guff; a tradition we're about to continue.

We've spent the past week mulling over an article in last Saturday's "The Guide" (free with the Guardian) about the "iTunes revolution" that's due to hit UK shores any day now, and the consequences for the music industry. We're going to ignore the fact that everyone we've spoken to so far has been thoroughly underwhelmed by the iTunes music store in the UK and its heavily US-centric catalogue, and assume that this is just a teething problem which no one will remember once iTunes is sufficiently anglicised to contain the latest Lemonescent and Sam and Mark MP3s. (Obviously we're being ironic here; no anglicised software will ever both with Lemonescent. They'll have to wait for the devolved Scottish version.)

The article in last week's guide suffered from a peculiarly tabloid problem; a headline or main picture caption that bears little or no resemblance to the angle of the main article. In this case, we were treated to a picture of Alicia Keys and Emma Bunton (pictured separately, we hasten to add. The long-awaited Bunton/Keys duet is still tied up in contractual wranglings) with the caption "beware the dodgy tracks record...Keys will be saved but Bunton may get erased."

The article referred to the potential effects of legal downloading on duff album tracks; the very real idea that people will no longer pay over the odds for 12 hastily-assembled and unmemorable tracks in order to get the two they really want, if they have the option of downloading the two tracks legally and paying far less money for them. So far, so good - we're not going to argue with that point.

What raised the bile to the tip of our throats was the writer's naive assumption that "filler" is a problem confined largely to the pop industry. The artists named who the writer deemed capable of "sustaining an entire album" were along the lines of Radiohead, Outkast and Keys. The idea that any of these artists are any less prone to filler than the likes of Emma Bunton is frankly laughable. I don't think I own a single album that isn't at least 15% filler, and having paid a large debt to society in listening to my housemates' CD collections, I can quite happily say that I've heard my fair share of Radiohead CDs that could have done with a bit of calculated pruning.

This is not an attempt to absolve pop music of all responsibility for the 95% filler album; far from it. It would just be nice if people realised that it's a far more widespread problem than that. Albums with more than their fair share of filler are usually the ones rush-released off the back of a sensational hit. A good example of this happening in pop: Rachel Stevens. A nation swept off its feet by the quirky guitar licks of 'Sweet Dreams My LA Ex' bought enough copies of Rachel's album to get it to number nine in its first week. But word soon spread about the lack of spark on the rest of the album that caused sales to subside quickly; a fate not entirely unpredicted. But we should also consider Beyoncé in this: a huge star from her career in Destiny's Child, a solo career successfully begun with a film tie-in and cemented by last year's big summer hit 'Crazy in Love'. You could be forgiven for throwing around words like "world domination" and "on a platter". But 'Crazy in Love' aside, Bee's album was a huge disappointment. Beyoncé had considerable cachet as a respectable artiste and big things were expected of her solo material; her failure to deliver was far more of a surprise than Rachel's.

So why should Emma Bunton be any more likely to be affected by a filler boycott than Alicia Keys? Surely it's a general assumption that people who buy an album have heard something they like and hope for more of the same; on that level, Emma's latest, Free Me delivers. Some tracks, admittedly, aren't strong enough to survive on their own terms but there are enough confident, hummable and memorable tracks on there to justify the album's existence as a whole. I suspect the same is true for Alicia Keys - if you liked her recent singles, her album will deliver more of the same. If you're expecting a journey through a thousand genres and styles, you are likely to be disappointed. So why will Alicia's fans download her entire album while Emma's fans just download 'Maybe'? The answer is they won't. It is ludicrously shortsighted to suggest that the ability to deliver a "complete" album in the way that we currently understand such a thing to exist will prevent net users just downloading the tracks they want. It just doesn't work like that. While large chunks of this article were very well-argued, it let itself down by resorting to the time old "artists who write and arrange their own material will survive, whereas mindless pop puppets will fail". This argument has been dressed up in more guises than a member of the secret service, and it's no more convincing for all that effort.

Some pop is guff, certainly. But for every act of thoroughly worthless pop music created by cynics with an eye for a quick buck, there are two acts out there recording music written by people who love pop and believe in pop as a force in its own right, and not just rock for children. Sadly, a lot of the truly brilliant pop fails on commercial levels because most fans of "credible" music won't stoop to buy pop, however it presents itself. If anything is a threat to the pay packets of pop stars, it is that. Assuming that pop does cease to exist as a profitable industry in the future, will that mean an end to filler? Like fuck it will. It just means the filler will have more guitars.

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