Brendan Howard, Author


We have devolved into a culture that can't even enjoy entertainment. It has become fashionable to bash our most famous purveyors of pop music as soon as they hit the top. People bitch about fashion decisions and award show speeches or criticize an artist for musical choices and subject matter. The way we prattle about it, you would think that the Grammys were being awarded every day and Entertainment Tonight must be consulted before you can make choices about which music is worthwhile.

What do we think pop music is supposed to be? High art? Philosophy? Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Peter Gabriel and others have proven that the radio can communicate difficult issues with beauty and grace, but those should be considered the exceptions. When it comes down to it, the job of the pop musician is to invent catchy melodies and rhythms which will either make our bottoms wiggle or inspire empathetic tears. There is no rule that long-haired boys from Oklahoma are exempt from writing great songs, or that obnoxious British babes with billowing breasts don't have the right to be famous. I think that modern audiences have become so jaded that they can't even see good music for what it is anymore. It's very sad.

In my own sneaky fasion, I have been listening carefully as media figures and people around me complained about the state of popular music today. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but these complaints normally hinge on a number of stupid assertions that really miss the point. I have gathered them here and responded to them in kind. No hate mail, please.

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STUPID ASSERTION #1: The Spice Girls have become wildly successful because they flaunt their bodies like a bunch of bimbos.

Is that the reason? There are a great many beautiful ladies in the world, but not all of them recorded a song that reached number one in 50 countries. Carmen Electra, the wet dream who recently killed off MTV's Singled Out, released an album a few years back that stiffed big time, despite her gorgeous figure and the fact that it was written and produced by Prince. The Spice Girls are sexy — there's no argument about that — but I think their instant celebrity is due to the obnoxious attitude and punk rock sensibilities that they exhibit so gleefully. This is refreshing in a field of nameless, faceless vocalists. And keep in mind that lustful men didn't inflate any bank accounts here. The overwhelming majority of Spice fans are young ladies who love the concept of Girl Power: being strong, smart and sexy all at the same time. I don't know if the Spice Girls have mastered being smart, but they have the other two nailed.

STUPID ASSERTION #2: The Spice Girls are lame because they are a plastic creation of studio producers.

This one chaps my hide. It's no secret that these ladies were small-time entertainers before they auditioned to become the international phenomenon of 1997. Why is this a problem? Why didn't everyone scream when En Vogue was assembled in the same manner? What about Bananarama and TLC? And for that matter, consider the numerous girl groups of the 60s that were manufactured by executives. Do you think the Supremes all lived on the same block as children and worked the clubs until they got a contract at Motown? Phil Spector, for one, didn't even USE the groups he put together at times -- he simply let Darlene Love sing lead in the studio and sent the actual group out on tour. Does that invalidate songs by the Crystals and the Ronettes? Of course not. It's true that the nicknames and roles the Spice Girls have chosen to play are silly and self-conscious, but like the Monkees, they seem to have a sense of humor about it. Celebrity is a public relations game. Deal with it.

STUPID ASSERTION #3: "Wannabe" and "Say You'll Be There" are pointless blobs of fluff and shouldn't be on the radio.

I concur with the accusations of fluffiness, but I think that's exactly why the Spice Girls should be on the radio. THEY SOUND GREAT. So did Madonna's early music, remember? "Lucky Star" and "Like a Virgin" had no delusions of grandeur and they made it easy to shake your booty. And what about the whole genre of disco? "The Loco-Motion" and "It's My Party"? If you've never taken the opportunity to groove along with "Wannabe," you're missing one of the great pleasures in life. When the harmonized chorus breaks in ("If you wanna be my lover...") it's an absolute dream. Give in to fluff.

STUPID ASSERTION #4: Hanson shouldn't write love songs because they're just little kids.

First of all, Isaac Hanson was almost sixteen when he was writing songs for Middle of Nowhere, their major-label debut. (Did you know they had two self-released CDs prior to that one?) If someone suggested that I knew nothing about love when I was sixteen, I would have been offended. Wouldn't you? Sure, it's not the whole bag of chips, but you've picked up the basics by that age. Besides, they're not writing self-help books — these are pop songs. "Mmmbop" describes the length of time it takes for love to fade: "In an mmmbop, it's gone." Is that so hard to swallow? Frankie Lymon was only THIRTEEN when he wrote "Why Do Fools Fall In Love," one of the best songs of the rock era, and those themes are much more sophisticated. How old was Stevie Wonder when he amazed the world with his harmonica and keyboarding talents? Twelve, my friends. And Michael Jackson was younger than Taylor Hanson when he sang the gorgeous and sincere "I'll Be There." It's inappropriate to judge these kids by their years on the planet. They are good musicians, great singers and fine songwriters for any age.

STUPID ASSERTION #5: The lead singer of Hanson looks like a girl/The oldest Hanson has a horse face/That young Hanson has bad teeth/They need to get a haircut/etc.

Oh my God, can we just shut up about this? Why do we care what our musicians look like? Has MTV brainwashed you into believing that a handsome face can make better music? Rod Stewart is a troll compared to Jon Bon Jovi, but who's got a better set of pipes? I have a friend who likes Aaron Neville's voice but can't stand to look at him. Understandable — Aaron's a fearsome sight — but no one can deny that Aaron has astonishing control of his expressive voice. I'll take Hanson's music over the crap Joey Lawrence recorded any day.

STUPID ASSERTION #6: Fiona Apple is a brat and should shut her piehole.

Maybe I'm alone here, but I WANT my rock stars to say stupid things at inappropriate moments. Fiona is a brash young lady with a lot of ideas that she can't properly articulate yet, but I'll give her time. She recorded an album with so much depth and range that Alanis Morissette is going to be in serious trouble when she gets up the courage to release another CD. If Fiona wants to rail about the stupidity of hero worship and the record industry, let her. She knows more about it than you do.

STUPID ASSERTION #6: Somebody should buy Fiona Apple a sandwich. She's a disgusting anorexic skeleton.

During the filming of the video for "Criminal," Fiona weighed about 90 lbs. Yeah, that's skinny. A recent interview in Rolling Stone said she has been gaining weight intentionally to show her female fans that they don't have to be waifish to be cool. Oddly admirable. Regardless, the visibility of her ribs has nothing to do with her staggering talents as a singer and songwriter. Not to mention her willingness to do a soft-porn rock video that perfectly captures the essence of "Criminal." I hope she's twenty pounds overweight when she films her next video. What will the pundits say then?

STUPID ASSERTION #7: That girl Jewel needs to stop whining and get some self-esteem.

Where would rock and pop be without songs about loss and pain? Remember "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Yesterday"? Those tunes are widely accepted as classics, so why has Jewel gotten so much guff for baring her soul in "You Were Meant for Me"? The character in the song is bravely trying to get through the day even though she got dumped and misses her lover — that's beautiful. We've all felt this way for a few days. Do you think that Jewel has these emotions 24/7 because she wrote a four-minute song about it? Of course not. It's an honest description of real emotions. In her other hit ballad, "Foolish Games," Jewel's character shows remarkable strength by confronting her lover about the crap he's pulling — and yes, it's breaking her heart. That's what happens when someone you love lets you down. Jewel's greatest strength as a performer is the emotional commitment she invests in her material. She's not whining. Mariah Carey, on the other hand....

STUPID ASSERTION #8: Hanson and the Spice Girls are worthless because little kids like them.

In case you hadn't noticed, there's a shortage of music appropriate for youngsters in this day and age. Do you want them to listen to Nine Inch Nails and Prodigy? Or learn about oral sex and cigarettes from Alanis? If I had a ten-year-old kid, I would be thrilled to hear "Wannabe" or "Mmmbop" on the radio and sing along with him or her. There's something innately profound about nonsense words, and that's why pop music is so sinfully sweet. "I really really really wanna zig-a-zig-ahhh," "Mmmbop-bip-bop-ba-doo-bop," "Da-doo-run-run," "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah," "Nanny-nanny-boo-boo" and so on. They are primal; they stick in our heads. These words are childlike, and we were all young once. Or have you forgotten?

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No one has ever pretended that melodrama is better than Shakespeare, but you don't turn on the TV looking for Hamlet, do you? Great radio songs should be accepted as the classics they are. If you're embarrassed to admit you sing "Mmmbop" when you're alone in the car, you shouldn't be. Owning Jagged Little Pill doesn't make you cool, and neither does despising Hanson. Get over yourself.

© 1997- Brendan Howard
All rights reserved.