The Music Club

The Mainstream Is a Dying Beast

Win Butler of Arcade Fire 

Tender comrades,

And so we reach the end, though of course it’s not the end. There is no end in pop, it just goes on and on and on.

I throw my hands up in the air sometimes … out of frustration as well as delight. Jody, you asked how my feminist principles are holding up under the weight of certain contradictions, like the casual sexism that still haunts nearly every avenue of the music world, including products primarily marketed to girls. (In the particular case of “Eenie Meenie,” I admit, relief was involved: I initially thought they were chanting “fat chick,” which would have been so much worse.) “Cooking is compromise,” the great food writer Mark Bittman has often written. I’d say the same about listening.

I was in high school when I began my lifelong wrestling match with the gender politics of pop—falling in love with 1970s AM radio, I encountered Rod Stewart deflowering virgins and Doug Fieger drooling over jailbait, the Cars with their Vargas girls, and the Eagles spewing bile on the witchy women I secretly admired. I disagree with the critics who give music a pass on moral issues. It does matter what songs say, in words and through the sounds that substantiate them. Instead, I believe that music forces confrontation with moral judgments that may repulse us—no, confrontation is the wrong word. Seduction. The process of absorbing and responding to music rearranges us in ways similar to the process of becoming intimate with a new lover. That can be a problem sometimes (ask any woman who loves rap or metal about what she goes through to sort the wheat from the chaff), but if the listener is conscious and able to step back and view herself in the process, it can also be greatly self-expanding.

I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a million times: The value of popular music beyond pure animal pleasure and technology-driven wonderment is that it speaks for us, for every “us” out there at one point or another. And it has Tourette’s. Pop is a persuader that can get a little rough; it’s a pick-up line that proves effective even when it grosses us out. Look at the Billboard Top 10 right now and you’ll see the language of war and criminal assault, musty innuendo and detonated F-bombs. All in the name of love.

This says something powerful—not only about the lengths to which mainstream music has to go now to capture its straying audience, but about the way so many givens continue to be dismantled in our fractious age. Nowadays, no one can agree on what it means to behave well. Our leaders openly mock each other. The route to material success is cloudy. Even the weather seems contentious. Pop, in turn, revels in effrontery and the childish (in more uplifting moments, childlike) pleasure pursuits; or it has a cold veneer, that Gaga gleam, the hopeless wisdom of the decadent. It was a good year for Bryan Ferry to release an album, and for the National, the sanctified barflies of a new generation, to ascend. We’re all gazing into that last-call glass.

Maybe the blues I’m feeling right now are motivated by the fact that the mainstream, where I’ve hung my ear buds for the past five years or so, is a dying beast. Every year when we have this conversation, I look at the comments our posts attract, and I see that many readers are horrified by how much we focus on the crass and supposedly artless music that tops the charts. Dear pugnacious responders, I could see this being the last time the Music Club spends so much time there. The biggest indie event of last year, the Arcade Fire’s conquest of the Billboard Top 200, is already threatening to become commonplace: In a sinking market, the young year’s top-selling album artists have included cultish faves the Decemberists and Cake, old punks Social Distortion, and Brit folkies Mumford & Sons, all artists that I’ll bet our Fray friends prefer greatly to Ke$ha. As music culture continues to become more fractious and fractured, I wonder what will gather enough heat to define our conversation. Or, are we who somehow live through music turning our attention further inward, talking in smaller circles, ultimately trusting only ourselves? Can we even read music’s tea leaves anymore?

Yet I press on, sustained by what’s always fed me. I continue to be inspired by my own beloved community—the passionate nerds who, in the words of my husband, Eric Weisbard, live to think hard about music and who are finding ways to illuminate the subject even in this age of 140-word snark. (One thing we didn’t talk about: the ongoing renaissance in music books.) And, of course, music itself still takes me places I didn’t expect to go. This year, I’m thinking, I might spend more time following it down byroads I haven’t explored for a while. Maybe I’ll head to Rome, or Paris, or Japan. Did you hear about the Yellow Magic Orchestra reunion? At any rate, I’ll be tickled to catch up with all of you the next time we touch ground together.

Don’t you ever, ever feel like you’re less than f-ing perfect,

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.