There's an article in The New Yorker last week by classical music critic Alex Ross that talks at one point about the promise of the iPod as a new mode of listening to music. With an entire CD collection uploaded and shuffle mode on, you can bounce from one song to the next, finding unexpected connections among artists of wildly different genres or styles. Ross writes about this development as a potentially good thing for classical music: if today’s listeners seek to mix and integrate a range of recordings, outside of the context of albums or radio stations or performance spaces, then much of the negative cachet of classical -- the hushed reverential tones of classical DJs, the bourgeois affect of the gown-and-tuxedoed opera-goer, whatever else ghettoizes the genre -- can disappear. "On the iPod," Ross writes, "music is freed from all fatuous self-definitions and delusions of significance. ... Instead, music is music."
I don’t listen to much classical music, but my iTunes playlist regularly careens from the Beach Boys to Aphex Twin to R. Kelly and the Muppet Movie soundtrack, and I’d wager that the same leveling effect that Ross mentions has shaped the way I listen to commercial pop music. A few years ago, it seemed like most of what I paid attention to was smart and somewhat sedate hipster bands like Stereolab and Tortoise, and it didn’t bother me that I no longer knew any of the current songs in the Billboard Top 40. As much as I spoke of the sheer beauty of my favorite music, I used taste as a means of identity formation, too. And as I saw it, pop music was antithetical to who I was. As a lifelong liberal and budding intellectual, I couldn’t quite cotton to songs that presented insipid understandings of love and relationships, especially when mass-marketed by greedy corporations to uncritical teenagers. I also found some of the music’s primitive sexual politics faintly embarrassing. There was one song that broke through -- I couldn’t resist the bouncy harpsichord and witty internal rhymes of "The Real Slim Shady," and I was fascinated by Eminem’s carefully manipulated public persona, which was hotly debated in the press. But I couldn’t bring myself to buy the record, as I just couldn’t imagine something with a glossy booklet and Parental Advisory sticker occupying shelf space next to my cardboard-sleeved indie-rock discs.
About a year or so ago, a few things transpired to change my mind. For one, I was already starting to feel bored with my same-old interests. Then I happened upon an online message board full of intelligent published music critics who unexpectedly yawned at Wilco and fawned over Jay-Z. And while flipping through the radio in my car one day, I caught the end of Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River," and marveled at it how slick and dense and catchy it sounded; in another New Yorker article, from last summer, Alex Ross calls it ''the most polyphonically complex teenybopper ballad in history." That was it. I added Power 92 and B96 and Kiss 103.5 to my radio presets. After ten years, I was back on pop's side.
If you've been at a party with me in the last twelve months, chances are you've heard me rave about Justin Timberlake at one time or other. For me, Justin is Exhibit A of commercial pop's potential, the artist I cite for those friends who are skeptical of anything played on MTV. (And somewhat sadly, I seek those people out, because as we all know, there's none as zealous as the recently converted.) For my money, "Cry Me a River" isn't even his best song; there are some days I actually consider it the least satisfying of the four singles on the album, next to the shimmering disco of "Rock Your Body," the darkly sexual, Spanish-guitar-inflected "Like I Love You," and the freewheeling, almost Afro-Cuban feel of "Senorita," with a call-and-response section reminiscent of early hip-hop -- you know, turntables set up on asphalt in the summer and everyone eating ice cream and singing along. There's also just something incredibly charismatic about the dude. If you saw "Senorita" on the Grammys last week, with Justin on the Fender Rhodes piano and backed up by Arturo Sandoval's band, you got a pretty good sense of his infectious energy, as he and the jazz great traded off improvised vocal wails and trumpet bleats.
I first heard my man JT on the radio, but as the singles slipped down the charts, I still had them on my iTunes, as mp3s. And I'd listen to them the way great pop songs should be listened to: spontaneously, in short bursts, with the volume turned up. I'd get the urge to hear "Rock Your Body" and I’d swivel my chair over to the computer and press play. People are busy complaining that the proliferation of mp3s will lead to the death of the album, but there's no mistaking it’s a fantastic way, maybe the best way, to listen to singles. With no context required, you can create your own context. You can give pop songs a chance.
Toward the end of last year, when I was a little tired of Justin and the ubiquitous "Hey Ya!" seemed to have run its course, I caught wind of a pop song a few weeks away from being released to radio. Although the first single from the new Britney Spears record ("Me Against the Music," ft. Madonna) struck me as forced and bland, I downloaded "Toxic" and found myself amazed. Justin’s former sweetheart sounded like a breathy machine, getting light-headed on an Eastern scale amidst swooping Bernard Herrmann strings and stuttering 007 twang-guitar. Even though it’s currently on B96 and Kiss 103.5 (climbing the charts last week to #22), it's still what I play at home when I need a sugar rush. Although in the grand scheme of things, liking Britney seems even more suspect than liking Justin, given how prefab her pop-star persona is, the mp3 never reminds me of that. When it’s dropped between, say, Basement Jaxx and Philip Glass, music is music.
Bonus link: Sasha Frere-Jones asks, "Why are some writers so afraid of Justin Timberlake?"