If your musical taste is reprehensible, there’s no need to be shy about it. So what if you’ve danced, earnestly, to top 40 pop hits, shuffling your feet around your apartment while no one is there? You may have watched and enjoyed Justin Bieber’s newest music video more than a few times (what youthful bliss!). And sure, you may think it’s not all good, at least not good in the same way as that last novel you read, but it seems that no level of misogyny, violence, self-absorbtion, or homophobia (all on non-stop repeat across nationally syndicated radio) is enough to make you turn off that catchy tune. Quite simply, you know these songs are awful, and you like them anyway.
A bit of good news: it’s possible, probably even ideal, to be critical of these songs (of how they’re produced, marketed — of their lyrical content and their representations of things) without losing the ability to take pleasure in them. If you want a good essay on how thoughtful criticism goes hand-in-hand with pleasure and enjoyment, check this out.
There are, however, some places in the musical landscape that are unforgivable, that showcase a wretchedness beyond the thoughtless, market-driven lyrics and forever-grinding standard tempos of pop-music machinery. I’m talking about knock-off pop music.
Imitation products are nothing new. Imitation designer clothes and jewelry are economic staples, and less expensive food products designed to mimic the appearance of higher-priced brand name foods (the thought of food being branded is strange) are on the shelves in every grocery store. The different price points of these products are presumably designed to appeal to various segments of the consumer market; whatever your class, however desperate you are, there’s a corresponding part of the flea-market designed to help give you the proper external appearance, for a price. My favorite is the thick plastic flatware with a silver (or gold—take your pick) finish (it looks so real!).
But things are different when it comes to this imitation pop music. Even though it’s readily available and cheaply priced on iTunes, I didn’t know it existed until Spotify was finally approved for business in the U.S. I can’t remember what song I was searching for when I first stumbled across one of these knock-offs. The title matched what I was looking for, so I hit play, and a few seconds went by before I realized something was wrong. Could it be that there was a whole business model based, in part, on the idea that people would accidentally listen to or purchase these songs?
These songs are certainly not honest about what they are. Labeling themselves as “tributes” to certain chart-topping artists, these imitation songs hide in plain sight. They aren’t creative new renditions, they don’t offer a new take on the original, they aren’t sung or played by anyone you’ve ever heard of; they are performed by people who aren’t given credit for their work (the artist listed as Hit Makers 2012, for example) and are meant to mimic the sound of the original.
The existence of these songs helps to make a few things clear. It does a good job of showing how blatantly predatory the market can be, how it is designed to trick people into doing things they shouldn’t or might not want to do if they knew the whole story. The ubiquity of such shady transactions might give us cause to re-examine the tools we use to motivate ourselves and why some of us are so willing to take advantage of others. For a good essay about the pressure the market puts on artists, check our rapper K’naan’s essay in the New York Times.
It’s also clear that the question of art and artistic meaning is entirely off the table. What these songs help us to see is that for the people who produce and distribute them, they aren’t anything more than a product to be sold as widely as possible, like laundry detergent. While this is obvious, it’s also easy to forget.
But what about the people making these recordings? Is there something dehumanizing about being the singer of an imitation song, about being the engineer behind the boards? What does the production and presence of this kind of imitation do to people, on the small scale, but also on a larger scale (as droves of people are forced to imitate the looks, manners, and tastes of the parts of the cast system to which they aspire to belong)?
Even the most well known musical artists have to record alternate versions of their songs to clean up the lyrical content for expanded mass consumption alongside advertisements. Maybe they view recording the radio/ad-friendly versions as a saddening artistic compromise, as just another part of their job. Maybe they don’t think about it much at all. Even these ad-friendly changes to lyrical content can seem insignificant when entire acts seem to be built on imitation (Ke$ha as a repackaged Uffie, One Direction as a re-packaging of 90s boys bands, which were themselves imitations of each other, and so on and so on). In 2011 Hollywood released a record-high number of sequels, prequels, and series reboots. In short, these don’t seem to be good conditions for people who’d like to try new things.
The future is always uncertain, and it seems clear that many industries are happy to stick with what works and find new ways to exploit successful formulas rather than try anything new. But I’m not suggesting that there’s no good music, good film, or good writing going on. There’s a ton of it, and a lot of it responds directly to these stultifying, isolating conditions. And I’m also not saying it’s impossible, or even difficult, to enjoy the stuff that’s out there and popular now. Put on some Chris Brown and dance your heart out. But don’t stop wondering how much better things might be in a different set of circumstances, and definitely keep thinking about how to make and support art that addresses this situation directly.