Thursday, May 9, 2013

Green Day vs Psy

Or rather Green Day's frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, commenting on Psy: "This dude is the herpes of music. Once you think it's gone, it comes back." Here's the link. As a specialist in musical aesthetics and criticism, I would have liked some more specifics, but I think it is safe to say that this is a negative comment. Here is Psy's original hit, "Gangnam Style", which is purportedly a satire about a rich neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea:

It is rather annoying, isn't it? Here is his new 'hit', "Gentleman":

'Hit' in scare quotes because it is not likely to win the kind of response that "Gangnam Style" did. The reason is that I think that Psy shows all the signs of being a one-hit wonder. He succeeded in putting together a package of quirks and infectious elements (ah, there's the significance of the "herpes" remark) captivating enough to get a lot of listeners. But the second time around, we start to hear the underlying poverty of the musical ideas. "Why, that's too much like the other song!" Here is an example of another "one-hit wonder": Fine Young Cannibals with their hit "She Drives Me Crazy":

OK, now what about Green Day? What sort of musical quality do they offer? Here is "Longview" a single from their breakthrough album Dookie, released in 1994:

They were actually pretty seasoned musicians already, having formed the band originally in 1987 when  Billie Joe and bassist Mike Dimt were only fifteen. Here is another single from the album, "Basket Case":

While certainly within the same general style: West Coast Punk, the texture, the melody, the beat, the tempo and the harmonies are all sufficiently different so that we know that these guys can write more than one good song. The danger in pop music is always that, since the focus is so relentlessly on sales this minute, the actual musical content often seems superfluous or irrelevant. Who cares, really, what harmonies Psy is using in his songs? Certainly not the listeners who are focusing more on the clothes and dancing. But you do actually need to pay attention to the music if you are going to have a career more than one or two albums long.

Yes, I know, I know, there seem to be several divas whose careers are apparently proving me wrong: Madonna, Lady Gaga (though before her career was at least temporarily sidetracked by injury, she did have a few interesting things going on musically), Rihanna, etc. But the giveaway for me is that after one or two hits the first thing you do is launch a line of perfumes or clothing or headphones or something. The music was just a launching pad for your celebrity which was a launching pad for your business plan of selling perfume, clothes and headphones. That this is a very good business plan is attested to by the careers of Jay-Z and Dr. Dre, among others. But the point is that all you need is a couple of hits to get started. Which does not necessarily demonstrate real musical quality. Here is a post I did on high-earning musicians.

Green Day does seem to have musical quality, though. After a decline in commercial success in the late 90s, they came back with a punk rock 'opera' in 2004, American Idiot. Here is a single from the album, "I Fought the Law" which is a re-make of a song by Sonny Curtis written in 1958:

A couple of things to note here: a sense of history. "I Fought the Law" is not only a good song worth re-doing, it is also a song with a history. It was recorded not only by The Crickets, but also by Bobby Fuller in 1964 and by The Clash in 1979. Green Day also are capable of doing a good arrangement of someone else's tune, something not everyone can do. Something else to note about all these songs: no Auto-tune, no fancy studio effects, no synthesizer, no drum tracks and most of all, no line of scantily clad dancers.

So my conclusion is that Billie Joe Armstrong has every right to make comments on the aesthetics of Psy, and if he chooses to use the metaphor of herpes, well, that's ok with me.


Craig said...

Yes, Green Day is a group that puts out higher quality music than one might expect from a group of ... well, young punks. I won't claim any great familiarity with their records, but I have listened to them from time to time, and they hold my interest while they are on.

Punk is not my thing, but there is one other punk band, Rancid, that I find I like quite a bit. They put out a terrific record some years ago called ...And Out Come the Wolves which is full of infectious melodies. In its ragged glory, it actually reminds me a little of the early Beatles records, believe it or not.

I think I must be one of the few people left in the world who has not heard "Gangnam Style". I am avoiding the video you embedded above.

Bryan Townsend said...

A lot of good music has been put out by "young punks" once you think of it. The Beatles circa 1964, for example. I will look out for Rancid.

You just keep avoiding Gangnam Style. I listen so you don't have to!

But I have been successfully avoiding Justin Bieber up to now and I hope I can continue for a while longer.

You know, I think Mozart around 1775 to 1780 could be considered something of a "young punk" too.