Pop Culture Digest
By Greg Teves
The intelligence behind pop gets time to shine
You could say that pop music is in a lull right now. Smart-alecky readers may
quip that its always in a lull, but theres no denying that the present Billboard pop-scape
is particularly devoid of tabloid-cover-caliber stars. The days of the once-invincible Backstreets
and Britneys are all but numbered and todays stars (Lisa Marie Presley, Avril Lavigne) are
hardly worth our time. And yet, the transience of todays idols is not the only thing responsible
for their decreasing weightiness and popularity. Stars are simultaneously finding themselves less
popular because they must share the spotlight with the increasingly hot people behind-the-scenes
known as music producers.
In fact, producers as a whole have never been more visible or more popular
than they are now: these album-overseers, beat-crafters and general vibe-instillers are as omnipresent
as gray skies in Ohio. And to put it bluntly, you aint nothin these days unless youve
got the right producer. Its the reason that a large portion of the preliminary hype surrounding
rapper-of-the-moment, 50 Cent, touched on Eminem and Dr. Dre, the duo that produced much of his
first album. Its also the reason that Britney Spears new CD will feature the electro-house
stylings of Daft Punk, who are arguably among the most acclaimed and talented producers in dance
music. Thus, weve reached a time when Britney cant stand on her own (not that she ever
really could) she must instead mooch off of others fame to prop herself up.
But somewhat amazingly, the producers dont necessarily need the favor
returned. Two of the most anticipated albums of last summer were those of producers, namely sample
king DJ Shadow and trance god Paul Oakenfold. DJ Sashas full-length production debut was
also the talk of the town. And if you take a look at critics top ten lists from 2002, youll
find that almost all of them mention In Search Of
by N.E.R.D., an entity better known
as hip-hops incendiary production crew, The Neptunes. (Not coincidentally, they also produced
much of Justin Timberlakes solo debut.) If this doesnt indicate that producers are
working their way into the mainstream music limelight, I dont know what does.
And yet, producers exploding popularity signifies so much more than just
a foot in the door. A meta-perspective on music a producers perspective is
rapidly developing, and how you play something is now almost as important as what you play. Is
it any surprise that turntables outsell guitars? Is it any surprise that the market for samplers
is expanding? Is it any surprise that country-pop, pop-rap, rap-rock, rocktronica, jazztronica
and other hybrid musical genres are now springing up like weeds? It makes perfect sense once you
realize that, in the present generation of music, music itself is the raw material for creativity.
Thus, it was inevitable that producers would come to the forefront because
they are uniquely equipped with the capital to shape and exploit this new musical frontier.
Does this mean that the age of the pop star is behind us? Not quite, even though
some talents are finding their spotlight a bit crowded. Pop stars as a concept are
not going anywhere, but producers are picking up more and more of their slack. And if you dont
think that producers have what it takes to become superstars, remember that the music industry
has never had trouble creating icons, regardless of their talent (Afroman stands out as a perfect
example). So while individual performers may find themselves sharing their stardom, there will
still be plenty of stars around they might just not be in the place, or of the type that
youd expect. Pop music as a whole will continue to make money and remain healthy.
In fact, it may emerge from the present lull healthier than ever. If pop idols
are the equivalent of high schoolers, working with building blocks of larger concepts, then producers
are undergraduates (and beyond), who are capable of extracting something much greater from these
concepts. In the same way high schoolers learn about the content of the news while college students
learn about news itself and its presentation, producers work at a deeper and more abstract level
than superficial pop performers. In other words, with production being given more attention and
respect, pop music may get more mature, and the genre stands to get a lot more complex, refined
and interesting. Kentucky frat boys that live for the poseur guitar-crunch of Limp Bizkit and preteen
girls that shriek for Britney Spears have never had it so good.
It will only be a matter of time before pop finds its next big thing
after all, music is a business and stars and sales can only remain in a drought for so long. Until
then, fans of the genre will have to settle for the perpetual chart dominance of performers like
Cher and Celine Dion. But Id bet my money that once truly gossip-worthy idols reappear in
the spotlight, their producers will be right there beside them.