Sunday, January 4, 2009

Modern payola

I listen to a fairly eclectic mix of music, ranging from classical and jazz to '80s pop and top 40 (er, 20? 12?). I've always had a non-particular ear - it's all music to me - and, while it may show a lack of discrimination as much as anything, I'm happy with the fact that I can enjoy George Strait and Louis Armstrong, Dvorak and Coldplay.

There are things I don't like, of course, but they don't come from any particular category more than others (except for the reality that current hits are far more inclusive; that is, the top 40 of today will include a lot of songs that no one will listen to in 25 years, whereas any jazz that has lasted that long will probably be somewhat worthwhile).

Still, I wish I could understand how the hype machine gets so stoked in an era where payola is supposed to be behind us. This practice, where radio station personnel were paid to play certain records, has theoretically been gone for decades, but it's the only thing I can think of that accounts for things I see.

In particular, the Britney Spears "comeback," which has been enthusiastically promoted by every station that plays contemporary music and ABC (which hosted her birthday party). My question, how can she come back when she won't go away?

The first hit off her new album, Womanizer, is pretty awful. The second hit, sharing its name with the album, is Circus. Both are, as one might expect if one has followed her career, creations of producers and studios. Britney Spears is, even more now than before, a brand, usable for the publicity she generates, totally meaningless as a figure in music. Without Auto-Tune, her breathy, wavering voice would barely exist at all.

It's not that I can't see how these songs are dance hits, the producers are among the best in the business. It's just that you could take the lead vocal out and you'd have as strong a song as you do now...but you wouldn't have the photographer magnet that is Britney.

I'm not trying to argue that things are worse than they were when I was young, I certainly recognize that there were musical "artists" who were far more famous than talented. Bobby Sherman was big with the girls when I was a kid, and, while pleasant, he was certainly no Caruso. But he went away after a while, and someone else came along.

Now, it seems that, once someone reaches a certain point, they're here forever. I'd imagine I'll be hearing about Britney until I die or she does, and there seems to be little basis for that. Ah well, I've probably already thought more about this than I should.

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