Thursday, May 05, 2005

Thinking Out Loud: Generic Definitions

As I think (probably too much) about the field in which my interest lies, I have to consider where its boundaries are. The problem, as when defining any aesthetic field, is that boundaries are a shaky business at best.

Power pop, I've asserted before, was actually an industry euphemism coined to market punk to the masses. (I am looking, holy grail-style, for confirmation of this fact, but it's one of those things it seems I've always known. When I find it, I'll post it.) But "power pop" quickly became a separate generic definition, as follows:

Rock music based on an aesthetic developed in the mid 1960's, primarily by The Beatles, The Who, and The Kinks, refined a bit later by The Byrds and The Move (but not delving into full-scale psychedelia, which is something else). Power pop refined itself post-punk, adopting that energy and drive.

This is what I, at least, take to be the defining aesthetic. I'd also argue for: short songs, generally structured fairly traditionally, guitar-based (though keyboards can be used sparingly), melodic, usually lyrically direct, often lyrically witty.

From the articulation of this aesthetic, there has been a consistent power pop movement, usually subterranean. (The same can probably be said of any genre, I suppose, though the subterranean narrative of, say, death metal is not so interesting to me.) The form asserts itself, then gets swamped by the Next Big Thing.
1965-66, swamped by psychedelia
1972-74, swamped by disco
1978-81, swamped by synth-pop
1989-91, swamped by grunge

And so on. But it never goes away, not really, though a lot depends, of course, on how one defines the aforementioned boundaries. (In the last two cases, I'd argue, power pop was somewhat coopted by the forms which replaced it, as plenty of synth bands fed off the power pop aesthetic, and "alternative" frequently has a strong thread of the same sound.)

I was ruminating about this some time ago when someone whose opinions I take very seriously in this regard asked a question which floored me. "What about The Ramones?"

What about The Ramones?

Initially, I dismissed them from this consideration, not because I don't love the Ramones, but because they don't seem to fit, generically. They're punk, right? The look and the shtick and the songs--a different thing, it seemed to me. But then I went back and listened again, and I'm rethinking a bit.

One of the things that's so striking about The Ramones and The Sex Pistols and The Clash, listening with the historian's prescribed distance of 25 years, is how surprisingly melodic they really are. L.A. punk seems a bit different to me in this regard, less melody, more pure energy. (I'm thinking Fear, X, that sort of thing.) The NY and British scenes, however, seemed to allow punk and pop to intermingle more freely. That punk is more melodic, that pop is edgier, the hybrid form can be seen in action.

(And I know it's a movie, but the essay-style digression about "tribes" in the excellent film SLC Punk! does a pretty good job of separating the strands. "New Wavers didn't fight anybody. They were the new hippies.")

Comments? Like I said, thinking out loud.


refinnej said...

Ya know, now that you mention it, The Ramones never seemed to fit the "punk" label to me.. I mean they DO, but then not really. Then when you consider that Blondie gets lumped in with The Ramones, and I wouldn't put them into punk at all, it kind of proves your point.

Now that made a LOT of sense in my head.. the kind of sense that would have you saying "My GOD, Jen! What an insightful comment!" But it is still early morning by my definition of the word, so I wonder if it made any sense at all...

sdf said...

Mary you've obviously thought about this distinction more than I have, but here are my thinkings aloud: it's a bit of a difficult division: after all, when you listen to X in retrospect (and since I was a far-from-rebellious early teen when they were aflourishing in the early 1980s, that's how I discovered them), gosh, a lot of their songs seem to have a pretty strong hook.

So where do you start? It seems to me with an archetype, and from the bands on your list that Big Star would be the place to start, not only because they have the "I know it when I hear it" Power Pop sound to a T, but because they were openly acknowledged as a major influence by so many 1980s post-punk bands.

To what degree do the post-punk bands themselves fit the label of power pop? Some pretty easily: Dramarama or The Posies. Others I don't know. The Replacements? Boy, Paul Westerberg sure could write a melody (especially circa Tim/Pleased to Meet Me), but their attitude was so ... punky. (How much does attitude play into this?) (If you've ever listened to the couple solo records Chris Mars put out in the early '90s, on the other hand, it strikes me that these are perfect power pop records.)

But as I said, you've thought of this more than I have, so I dunno ... I came here to see if you had stuff up about Eschacon ...

sdf (Disco Stu in spirit only)

Gothamimage said...

punk for the masses?
isn't all punk for the masses?

Anonymous said...

Hey there NYMary - You may not like this but FWIW: I think you can call almost ANY type of music "PowerPop." IF all PP is about is a strong hook in the song then for crying out loud you could be talking about Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong and Cole Porter OR Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross OR The Art Of Noise, Moby and Derrick May OR Slayer, Metallica and Anthrax OR Nelly, Juvenile and Master P. OR Britney, Christina & Jessica NOT just artists like Big Star, The Raspberries and Cheap Trick (or The Beatles, Kinks & The Who for that matter:)

This for me means that EVERY type of musical genre IS Power Pop because they come up with strong or hypnotic hooks in their songs that you just can't shake. For real, the ULTIMATE PowerPop anthem might as well be "Girl You Know It's True" by Milli Vanilli because nearly everybody I knew was singing along with it at the time.

For me most of the Punk artists brought back the pop song style of the mid 60's bands basically as a "middle finger" to the prevalent styles of the 1970's (namely Heavy Metal, Prog Rock and Singer-Songwriter styles of music.) Sure they were tougher and nastier with their tunes compared to the mid 1960 bands but that's the vibe I get when I examine the whole Punk and PowerPop thang.

Afterall what do the Ramones, Blondie and Television all have in common? (other than being from NY?) They ALL loved the now legendary compilation of incredible bands from the mid (and in some cases early and late) 1960's called Nuggets (as compiled by Patti Smith Band guitarist Lenny Kaye.)

BTW Mary I hope I didn't bother you with those e-mails I sent a few days. Chris

Thers said...

Good grief... Rules of Art is in one of the bedside piles.

Eli said...

I *still* don't feel like I have much of a grip on Powerpop. I was trying to explain it last night with very little success. About all I could say was that it encompassed both Cheap Trick and Fountains Of Wayne.

I also tried something along the lines of "Catchy like pop, except not total bubblegum shit"...

Anonymous said...

A clarification from my frind Bill:
I tried to log on to make a comment on your site, but I got stymied. What I wanted to say was that the music industry coined the phrase "new wave" so as not to frighten Middle America with the scandalous label "punk." I don't know when or where or by whom the label "power-pop" was invented. I always think of power-pop as a pre-punk phenomenon (Badfinger & Cheap Trick always being the first bands to come to my mind.) I don't usually associate it with punk.

But then, the Ramones do muddy the equation. After all, they claimed they were trying to rip off the Bay City Rollers when they wrote "Blitzkrieg Bop" (I don't know why they'd make that up).

By the by, I wrote a thing on the Provan blog about how Joe & I can be glimpsed in the "End of the Century" documentary.

Hope all is well. I'm going to see New Order tonight.


PS Something else about punk. I remember being at the old Ritz in the late 80s, waiting for some band to come on. The Ritz used to play videos between bands on their giant screen, and they played a clip of the Sex Pistols playing "Pretty Vacant." By this point hardcore had already come and gone (though this incident may have been at a Circle Jerks show), and I remember watching the 10-year-old Pistols footage, thinking "they look so cute, how did this scare anybody? They look like the Monkees!" Though to this day, "Bodies" can make my hair stand on end. Come to think of it, the Monkees version of "Stepping Stone" is no less punk than the versions by the Sex Pistols or Minor Threat or Murphy's Law, so who can define any of these things?

NYMary said...

Well, Bill, you don't really see the term power pop used until about 78 or so. Even Greg Shaw was calling it New Wave in the Bomp editorials I cited, which of course makes the whole question muddier, not clearer.

But obviously there's interplay here. I guess I probably do have to buckle down and read Bourdieu, but I'd rather read Bomp. *sigh*.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post NYMary. I am a big indie rock/punk fan and thoroughly enjoy discussions of musical styles.

Powerpop is an aesthetic which is more focused on selling itself than promoting a political/social message. I’m not trying to knock powerpop as a legitimate style. In fact I am a big fan. In the case of powerpop, the medium is the message. Bands like the Who and the Kinks started this with their mod attitude and were marketed in the capitalist system as "Maximum R&B". I would argue that “The Who Sell Out” is one of the great early power-pop albums characterized by themes of consumerism and limited edginess.

Elements of powerpop have creeped into popular music ever since the 60’s. But when I think of powerpop as a style I think of Cheap Trick, Fountains Of Wayne, Ben Folds Five and other Beatle-esque bands. All these bands have a similar aesthetic of sound and attitude but lack a raw political substance.

Punk, as an aesthetic, started as a rejection of the consumer capitalist state of music. Take the Clash’s line from London Calling: “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust”. Early punk also had a rawness and unrefined character to it. I would classify Iggy & the Stooges, Velvet Underground and MC5 as proto-punk. The Sex Pistols made punk popular. Their songs were about bleak topics such as abortion and addiction that few artists had touched on previously. Billie Joe Armstrong wrote about The Sex Pistols in the recent Rolling Stone.

The Ramones may have had the look of early punk but their music was more poppy--a mix of late 50's rock n'roll and three chord garage rock. The Clash dabbled in multiple styles but was much more punk than the Ramones. To me punk is political, like the L.A. scene of X, Social Distortion, Bad Religion, etc. which relied less on listenability and more on affronting noise. Nowadays, modern punk has merged with powerpop to produce bands like The Offspring, Green Day and Blink-182.

Well, that’s my two cents. I look forward to future discussions…

ntodd said...

This is all very interesting, but I fail to see what it has to do with Friday Babyblogging.

refinnej said...

"This is all very interesting, but I fail to see what it has to do with Friday Babyblogging."

THAT is an excellent point.
ROsie! ROsie!

drunkenorangetree said...

I'll try and find my exact source for this info Monday (it's out at my school somewhere), but I think the term "power pop" was coined by Pete Townshend to describe what the Who was doing in songs like "Pictures of Lily."

NYMary said...

Oh, tree, if you can find that, it'd be great!

The Beatles/Kinks/Who bubble is definitely power pop, but possibly power pop avant la lettre. Or maybe not--if it really is Townsend's term, that'd be beyond cool, and help me a lot.

The term I'm thinking of may well be New Wave, which became something so different, even by 82 or so, that I resist using it. To me it means Duran Duran and ABC and Flock of Seagulls (which isn't to disparage any of these groups--I followed them all)--more of a synthy thing, replacing power pop proper.

drunkenorangetree said...

I'm posting this to the site and your e-mail both.

In Wolter and Kimber, _The Who in Print_, citation 109 (p. 14) says:

Altham, Keith. "Lily isn't pornographic, say Who." _New Musical Express_, May 20, 1967, 2. A short interview with Townshend and Moon. Townshend defends the lyrics of "Pictures of Lily" and describes the Who's brand of power pop music.

Unfortunately, I had remembered this as being a direct quote. At any rate, I'll look up the article and see what I can find out.


drunkenorangetree said...

I'm posting this to the site and your e-mail both.

In Wolter and Kimber, _The Who in Print_, citation 109 (p. 14) says:

Altham, Keith. "Lily isn't pornographic, say Who." _New Musical Express_, May 20, 1967, 2. A short interview with Townshend and Moon. Townshend defends the lyrics of "Pictures of Lily" and describes the Who's brand of power pop music.

Unfortunately, I had remembered this as being a direct quote. At any rate, I'll look up the article and see what I can find out.


drunkenorangetree said...

and posting and posting and posting