Thursday, June 14, 2012


By Steve Jones.

POP ETC is a band from California, and POP ETC is their self-titled sort-of debut. It contains 11 tracks of music, and, if listened to from beginning to end, it will take up approximately 39 minutes and 52 seconds of your life.

Many people care about POP ETC because POP ETC used to be called The Morning Benders. The Morning Benders, also from California, were an indie pop band of some notoriety, but I never listened to them. On March 25th, The Morning Benders decided to change their name to POP ETC, because they had learned "bender" can be used as a slur against against homosexuals in some parts of Europe. I'm sure someone somewhere can find something offensive about "POP ETC," but their action is at least more noble than some other band name changes, such as "Final Fantasy" becoming "Owen Pallett" in order to avoid marketing confusion on the international stage. But the name change also seemed to coincide with a shift in the band's sound that fans picked up on, especially when the video for their single "Live It Up" appeared on April 30th.

Lots of people liked it. Some people didn't. It has a >20% disapproval rating on YouTube, which is well past the point that internet users can tell that something is amiss in the video and/or response. The song and video are inoffensive enough. The video is minimal, featuring a cute boy with wet hair playing up the cute boy with wet hair angle, and the song is a piece of R&B inspired pop featuring a crisp electronic arrangement and auto-tuned vocals. There are literally no imperfections I can fault as the completely objective and impartial music critic that I am. It is flawless.

But that's the problem.

POP ETC is exactly the album you would expect having heard "Live It Up." It's a light, fun, cleanly-produced piece of pop music with appropriated R&B flavor in the style of whomever it is who won the most recent American Idol competition. It is not the first album of its kind, and it certainly will not be the last. I forgot about it immediately after it was finished playing, and even though I am listening to it again as I write these words, my only constant reminder that I am actually listening to music is the tapping of my toes. And it is toe-tapping music, with just the right tried-and-true chord progressions and just the right melodies and just the right lyrics and the just the right BPMs for your viscera and extremities to react. It isn't really music for me, but I can see how it has a mass appeal for many pop lovers. It's exactly the kind of pop album from the kind of pop artist POP ETC want to be.

But is that enough?

POP ETC, from what I've read, seem pretty unapologetic with their new direction, and I have to respect them for making the music they apparently want to make. It isn't music that offers anything, and I mean anything, new, but the style of mainstream pop music that POP ETC is emulating is all about staying within boundaries, not breaking them down. Mainstream pop is more image-driven; producers know the kinds of songs which are easy for people to listen to and easy for people to pick up, so if you have the combination of that and an interesting person, you have a Top 40 hit. At most, you might have some somewhat provocative lyrics, but the musical portion isn't going to be interesting. And, again, this is fine, because the wheel of mainstream pop turns with purpose, and it has produced many songs that I have enjoyed. But with POP ETC, POP ETC are not offering much for their listeners, even within the boundaries of mainstream R&B infused pop.

Like I said, where mainstream pop artists have a chance to shine is in terms of their lyricism or their image, and I get no sense of personality or individuality from either of these things with POP ETC. The lyrics on POP ETC are unremarkable. I cannot even call them laughably bad; they're just there so there's something to sing, sometimes with auto-tune. And I don't see what they're able to offer an audience in terms of image. Sure, they've got a cute boy with wet hair, but I don't really envision an ex-indie band from Berkeley being "the next big thing." I can't see these guys being successful on the mainstream pop scale, which means that any audience they will have is going to be their usual indie crowd. If that is the case, they already have a problem because they were already The Morning Benders, and so The Morning Benders fans are going to get split into those who hate the new direction and those who love it. I'm sure it will pick up some indie kids who will enjoy listening to this as a transparent substitute for Ke$ha or Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, even though I think each of those artists have released genuinely catchier and more interesting pop songs than anything to be found on POP ETC. I'm sure it will also pick up some people who genuinely like it. Hell, if Pitchfork gives it a high enough score, who knows what will happen? Maybe POP ETC aren't concerned with maintaining an audience, and if so, good for them.

But I honestly cannot think of one way in which POP ETC does something better than any other numerous albums or artists.

Even though I said this was true of the vast majority of mainstream pop, there is absolutely nothing at all interesting or engaging about POP ETC's songs. The instrumentals are so cleanly processed and the melodies so assembly-line that at no point did I feel any emotional or intellectual connection with the music. My toes tapped, sure, but they'll also do that with the proper electrical or chemical stimulus, and I do not often listen to those things for pleasure. And it's not like squeaky-clean production is in itself a bad thing. One of my favorite albums from the '80s, Scritti Politti's Provision, has the most crisply crystalline sound I have ever heard. And I know there are people bitching about the pervasiveness of the auto-tune on POP ETC, but even that doesn't really bother me. Granted, I prefer when auto-tune is used in more deliberate and thought-provoking ways, but the especially impersonal way that auto-tune is used on these tracks actually kind of fits the nature of these songs. In fact, I think I'd like this album a lot more if the human voice was thrown out and replaced with an entirely synthesized singer like one of the Vocaloids. At least under that circumstance I'd be able to get something out of the album in some thematic sense, although better songwriting would help a lot more.

While I find nothing within the album interesting, I find the album itself quite interesting. Admittedly, I was drawn towards it because of the backlash in response to "Live It Up," particularly from fans of The Morning Benders. As a person who had no experience with The Morning Benders, I thought I'd provide a more impartial view, taking on POP ETC like I would any other new band. Of course, I have other musical biases and tastes that predisposed me towards disliking POP ETC, but the record is to me a fascinating anomaly. Its sound is in every way that of a Billboard 100 album, but I don't think it will ever get there, for reasons already mentioned. It sits in an odd limbo of its own creation.

If cheesy mainstream pop is your thing, give POP ETC a spin. You might, like me, be sorely bored and disappointed, but you might also find a few songs that tickle your catchy bone. Don't expect anything remotely fresh, but it's bland and inoffensive enough to be potentially appealing, and you can probably play it at a party with minimal embarrassment. Personally, I can't imagine myself wanting to listen to this album again after I publish this post, but at the very least it gave me a good number of things to think about. POP ETC have made an album that perfectly encapsulates everything wrong and stagnant about the mainstream pop factory, but they have done so within the entirely wrong context, making POP ETC even more of an abject failure. If you want to call that a redeeming quality, I guess you can.

Score: Decent 2

(Steve Jones is at least not as offended by POP ETC as he was by Kill for Love. If you love either of these albums, feel free to yell at him on his Twitter @vestenet.) 

No comments:

Post a Comment