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Buzz Vertigo

Pop music's Web-and-blog hype machine has a nonstop spin cycle. Spend enough time there and you can wind up with a serious case of

December 17, 2006|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

TAPES 'N TAPES. Beirut. TV on the Radio. Cold War Kids. Lupe Fiasco. Lily Allen. Birdmonster. Grizzly Bear. Sufjan Stevens. TV on the Radio. The Knife. Clipse. Destroyer. The Hold Steady. Joanna Newsom.

These are, by a certain measure, the most important new musicians of 2006. Heard half of them? If you're a casual or even moderately engaged pop fan, possibly not; your ears are busy with commercial radio, ringtones and music television. If you're involved in the music industry, you know the names and might have heard some music. But if you're one of those people creating that rare and ever-present commodity, "buzz," you not only know these artists -- you might have touted one as "the only band that matters."

In 1979, the Clash's record label, Epic, coined that phrase to describe England's brainiest punks to American record buyers. Similar excitement has greeted the greats of pop, including the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, Tupac Shakur and Kurt Cobain. When these stars touched down, the world hummed with excitement. The buzz felt real.

Today, it's hard to know when buzz is more than just noise. In an age of accelerated connection, the buzz around every art form has intensified, but nowhere as much as in music. The growing ease of music-making and distribution resulted in 60,000 releases (that's in the U.S. alone) last year. Downloadable music multiplies that number like bunnies in spring. And pop's historical embrace of novelty and amateurism means that few heavy gates stop the flow.

The only criterion for buzz today often seems like buzz itself. "To me, 'buzz' was always about, something really great is happening, don't you want to check it out?" said Jay Babcock, editor of the Los Angeles-based magazine Arthur. "That's different than what I hear now, which is, this is going to be big, don't you want to check it out? That kind of industry think has degraded the experience."

Babcock calls what's happening "buzz overload," but the feeling might better be dubbed "buzz vertigo": a balance disorder that makes it hard to proceed confidently through pop's ever-expanding archipelago of websites, blogs, magazines, podcasts and other outlets.

I succumbed to buzz vertigo sometime this last fall. Like most pop geeks I know, I'm a total Web junkie, having broadened my lifelong love affair with the music press to include an ever-growing list of online sources. I grew up loving and trusting Rolling Stone and Village Voice, but it had become apparent that those cultural clearinghouses no longer had the last say on cool.

My daily perusal of MySpace and the blogosphere, not to mention the piles of CDs under my desk, was seriously threatening my ability to focus on any one new release. There were just too many to absorb, all with tags attached declaring them the most downloaded, most discussed and most anticipated hit of the minute. Too often, I'd find myself slamming shut my laptop and stomping off with my DiscMan for a head-clearing walk with something "hot" I could trust, like the seventh album from Mary J. Blige.

It's become difficult to distinguish between real critical interest and the momentary attention of Web surfers. And it's hard to tell when real fans, not an intern clicking a button, are upping the numbers on interactive websites like MySpace and YouTube.

To get some perspective on my own buzz vertigo, I consulted with pop geeks of all kinds, from the solo bloggers to major-label execs. The conversations left me feeling that, while everything in pop is new, it's old again too.

Professional rainmakers flood the mailboxes -- now inboxes -- of media folks, hoping something sticks. The honchos at record labels still claim that the music comes first, though sometimes they call it "the brand." Artists still crave coverage in major media outlets but sometimes feel better served by tiny user groups and websites. Fans still show loyalty to what they like, though it might be a sound (dubstep) or a trend (Swedish electropop) rather than a particular artist. And a handful of obsessives still dominate the public conversation, though now their words extend beyond the ink of alternative weeklies and fanzines to reach worldwide.

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Charting new territory

WHAT is in flux is that imaginary portal where an artist makes the leap into public consciousness. There, where perception and reality don't quite match, time and space themselves are being messed with. In some cases, the very ground where music once emerged has been abandoned.

"You don't have to go to a record store or go out on a Tuesday night to see an opening band to get in on things," said Scott Plagenhoef, managing editor of Chicago-based Pitchforkmedia.com, the indie-rock-leaning website that's often cited as a source of today's groundswells. "And we're not part of the music industry. The industry knows a couple of months in advance what print magazines will put on the cover. I don't think anybody knows what we're making our lead review the next day."

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