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“The Pearl Jam Phenomenon” or “Why Is Everything so Bad?” or “Fridge Buzz” or “You Are Always Alone”

Recently, bald recording artist Moby posted an essay entitled “The Pearl Jam Phenomenon” on his Website. In it, he argued that the reason the charts and radio play lists are so full of boring, mundane music is that the weirder, more left-center music is being downloaded off the internet more and not being purchased in as great quantities in the conventional sense (or any sense for that matter). Therefore the money is in the music that is purchased by the less, to use his words “technically savvy” unclean hordes.

This brings to light the comforting scenario that the strange music that you like really is just as popular, if not more, that the depressingly vapid fridge buzz that dominates the radio and sales charts. It makes scene, too, as Moby points out, because a band like Radiohead, who does respectably but not astoundingly well in the charts, can easily sell out huge venues for their live performances.

Unfortunately, as is usually the case for popstar-turned-pundits, Moby is all wet on this one. His argument is built on disastrously shaky foundations. For one, the reader must accept the idea that the people who like less successful music are somehow further up the evolutionary ladder and more able to download and burn CD’s than people who like N’Sync. The learning curve and access to technology simply doesn’t skew that way. If someone has the financial assets and opposable digits to stumble in to their local record store and purchase a CD, it’s simply no longer true that they can’t usually find some way of getting it for free off the internet. Clearly, there are large portions of the population who don’t have any kind of access at all to the internet, but I have no reason to think that they are disproportionately fans of top ten music, as Moby insinuates. It certainly is an attractive notion that these people are such knuckle-dragging atavists that our computer using powers might seem like magic to them, possibly prompting them to consider us their gods, but obviously it’s not that way at all.

No, the internet is not to blame for the failure of popular music. Actually, one might pose quite a different argument. The nature of downloading music is based in the single song, as opposed to entire albums. It’s as if everything was released as a single. This makes it seem as though the internet would hurt the one-hit-wonder recording artist more than the supposedly more legitimate concept album artist. If you hear a nice song on the radio, but it’s not too likely that anything else by the band is worthwhile, simply download the one song! If there’s a buzz going around surrounding an album by a lesser-known band, you are less likely to try and download all the tracks in sequence and burn them on a CD than you are to just buy the CD.

One could also argue that given the essentially free nature to the online music establishment, the consumer has more freedom to try out a variety of different kinds of music rather than strategically planning his next crippling seventeen-dollar music purchase, hoping it will be a CD they can stomach. That must be good for the “left-center” bands; their stuff is supposedly better any way, so now that people have free access to it in their own homes, they’re exponentially more prone to become fans of the band and pump money in to their products.

It seems as though the arguments for and against the internet as a tool to promote musical diversity among the masses has reached a stale mate. So now we must look, once again, to the pudding for the proof. In the almighty realm of sales, fridge buzz is slowly making its way to the door. Hints of a new cycle are starting to appear in the strange, blurry distance over the horizon. But the old dynasty of corporate, meaningless hip-hop, unsettling boy bands, and creepy latex cheerleaders is well prepared for the siege, and won’t be going away any time soon.

What does that tell us about the internet? Nothing. The pop music scene has always been cyclical, and while we may be recovering from a particularly brutal few years of constantly being assaulted with airbrushed images of the suspiciously well-groomed Backstreet Boys on our supersize fries, a new cycle it undoubtedly on its way.

I would submit, to explain both the lameness of popular music and the cyclical theory, the idea of a “herd mentality” controlling the music charts. The teeny-bopper/young-adult market is very significant in terms of sales in the music market. These demographics have the exploitable tendency to affiliate themselves with corporate designed “cliques” or “subcultures”, hence being very susceptible to being persuaded into buying CD’s they don’t really want. This allows them to affiliate themselves with the group for which this bogus CD has become a totem of status. A shared group memory emerges, making it all the more enticing to other youths who feel as though they are totally alone. If you listen to this, you’re hearing (and ostensibly, Identifying with) music that lots and lots of kids just like you hear (and, by extension, they identify with it too). This may alleviate that feeling of existential aloneness that young people are so attuned to.

Whether it be an Eminem, Brittany Spears, Blink 182, what ever kind of CD, once kids see it’s popular with some subsection of their peers, it becomes something very different than a piece of actual music. It becomes a totem, a status symbol, something that allows them to feel apart of something bigger. And the fact that the sounds on the CD don’t exactly send shivers down your spine or remind you of any thing you’ve ever had to deal with in your life becomes unimportant. The sounds are now more like corporate anthems of your little life, reminding you that you’re a part of “it.”

This scenario, whatever bleak implications it may hold for actual music, is often quite desirable for that all-important youth target audience. The alternative, of course, is similarly bleak. That feeling of knowing that lots of other people you know have listened to and done things to the music you own is replaced by the feeling that this perfect song you’ve finally tracked down, that solidifies your blood and does unspeakable things to your digestive system, that actually seems to be about you, will likely never be heard by any one you know. You are utterly alone.

That is the relationship between top ten music and “the rest”. The internet can’t really change that.

Related Sites

Moby's article from his official site