Pop & Circumstance: In the garage

Pop music is, for all intents and purposes, disposable. You know the story by heart: on the cover of Rolling Stone one minute, stealing pills from retirement homes the next. All roads point to the $1.99 bin at your local record store, and the once mighty pop singers can only pray that “Behind the Music” comes a-knockin’ to revive their career. Take the currently waning teen pop product: whether you like it or not, it’s dominated the charts for the past four years, which is an awfully long time by the pop calendar. However, the core audience is growing up and shedding the soundtrack to their teen and pre-teen years, perhaps looking for something more substantial.

This situation poses a real problem for the Britneys and N*SYNCs of the world: How can you persuade your fan base to stick with you when the only connection you’ve ever made with them has been superficial and commercial?

Please don’t get me wrong – I think that some of those teen pop hits have been solid, catchy, well-written tunes. But they’re just not connecting with the record-buying youth anymore, so the labels are scrambling for something else. They need a vibrant new music trend to complement the hip-hop/R&B movement, which grows bigger and more inclusive every day (read: the record execs want a new white music, Pat Boone style). And think about it: If artists connect with fans a little more deeply, the fans will be more willing to shell out their money for the product even after the trend has run its course.

If you’ve been watching MTV or reading the rock ’n roll dirt sheets, you know that the new trend seems to be a shift from larger-than-life pop stars who do not write their hits to ordinary-looking (for show business) artists who do write songs and play instruments. I think this shift tells us something about what the record industry now thinks the audience wants. They think we want something real. Yet, if teen pop owes its success to a formulated image, so too does the current crop of real artists. It’s just that the image is now the appearance of authenticity, which is a fake authenticity, if you will. Bands’ success will now hinge on how well they simulate a real band. If this sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. The music business very rarely makes sense.

As such, the past months have seen a massive publicity push behind old-fashioned, sloppy rock ’n roll bands in vintage clothing. Yet as disparate as Avril Lavigne’s punk rock skater girly pose is to the Hives’ retro garage-rock chic, they’re both marketed as the genuine article.

But who’s the real McCoy here? The Hives have been around for several years, paying their dues on the international club circuit while Avril was handed a record deal at age 16. Her debut album Let’s Go owes a large part of its triple-platinum success to famed producer/songwriter Clif Magness (Celine Dion, Wilson Phillips). “Skater Girl”? Please. Ms. Lavigne has more in common with Britney than she’d like to admit.

The same holds for the Vines, who were three high school kids playing Nirvana covers in Australia until a demo tape came across the Capitol Records desk in Los Angeles. The record company persuaded singer/guitarist Craig Nicholls to drop the other two members of the band and replace them with better looking, more accomplished musicians for the Vines’ debut album, Highly Evolved. Now they’re being hailed as saviors of rock. Strange.

The point, of course, is not that the Vines and Avril Lavigne are bad because they’re record label puppets. In fact, I think both acts are quite talented. It is simply that the image of music is still more important than the music itself.

Avril’s punk rock image belies her bubble-gummy sound. The Vines are hyped as the next Nirvana when they actually perform songs in the vein of ’90s Brit-Pop (Blur, Oasis). The image is not only important than the music, it doesn’t even have to match the music.

My current rock faves – the Strokes and the White Stripes – have suffered tremendous critical backlash for “selling out” and entering the mainstream. And, yes, they’re both publicized as authentic rock ’n roll bands, a throwback to the early ’70s gritty R&B-based garage rock sound (New York Dolls, The Stooges). But while their image is calculated, their music is not – it’s pure rock. As pure as they make it, in fact.

So, as Public Enemy once intoned, don’t believe the hype. It just gets in the way. Listen to the music. Enjoy or hate these new pop acts based on how they sound, not how they’re marketed.