In 2008, pop goes to pieces

Styles shift, barriers blur, audiences fragment and artists take chances

December 28, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,

Throughout 2008, as America was transfixed by a historical and climactic presidential election and a scary economic meltdown, pop music became blurry.

Styles morphed more than they did the year before as mainstream acts dissolved sonic barriers. Easy signifiers of certain genres all but disappeared. So-called indie rock, which generally prided itself on a ragged, warts-and-all style musicianship, was suffused with inventive textures (a layering of strings, for instance) and compelling melodies.

Kanye West, one of hip-hop's most successful rappers, eschewed street beats and rhymes for noisy electronica and Auto-Tuned singing. If any sound dominated pop in 2008, it was produced by Auto-Tunes, software that manipulates pitch, producing fluttering, robotic vocals.

On the flip side, so to speak, some marquee artists (namely Duffy and Raphael Saadiq) refused any studio wizardry. Instead, they went out of their way to re-create the vintage sounds of Chess and Motown, extending the approach that garnered Amy Winehouse acclaim and multiple Grammys in 2007.

The fragmentation of pop was certainly nothing new in 2008. In fact, it was an old story two years ago. But as the record industry has continued to become more irrelevant, and as consumers' budgets have shrunk and downloading has continued to spike, it has become less and less likely that any two pop fans were listening to the same thing.

"Music used to have a giant center in the Top 40, songs that casual listeners from all demographics sang along to whether they liked them or not," says Bill Crandall, editor of, an AOL-owned media player. "Now, thanks to technology, the Web and niche radio programming, more and more listeners are seeking out music they're passionate about. ... In a climate like this, ... it's better to be loved by a smaller core audience than to try to be merely tolerated by a vanishing giant one."

Although pop may have been more sonically daring in 2008, some of what topped the charts didn't exactly define the year.

Huge hits such as Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" and Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" were shrill and very derivative. The simple but captivating video for "Single Ladies," an obvious rewrite of Beyonce's earlier hit "Get Me Bodied," is largely responsible for making the cut such a smash.

The clip, which was shot in black and white, has received more than 18 million views on YouTube since October. In it, the superstar Texan appropriates flamboyant dance moves commonly seen in black gay clubs. As Madonna did with "Vogue" in the early '90s, Beyonce ushered into the mainstream elements of a marginalized culture. That was far more interesting than her hit song, which vaulted to No. 1 as the year came to a close.

During a year of almost overwhelming uncertainty, perhaps artists felt freer to blur the edges of musical styles. And the risks some took seem to have benefited a larger audience.

"While the music business is in a state of distress, the state of music, the art form, is at an all-time high," says Bruce Warren, senior producer of World Cafe, the popular nationally syndicated radio program, which features a wide spectrum of burgeoning and established artists.

Pop acts in 2008, who had long established their fame and fan base through major labels, took more control in the distribution of their music as independents. In the process, they set up viable business models in an industry desperate for new ways to reach consumers.

Late last year, the multi-platinum rock band Radiohead made news around the world when they gave away almost half a million digital copies of their latest album, the excellent In Rainbows. In the beginning of 2008, the band made the set available physically in stores. It sold more than 2 million copies, becoming one of the year's biggest sellers.

In 2008, acts whose category-defying music would have ordinarily been relegated to the margins of pop garnered a considerable amount of mainstream press. Most - Santogold, TV on the Radio and M.I.A. - were artists of color. Perhaps the election of Barack Obama, which challenged the country's attitude about race, helped facilitate this shift in pop.

Listeners and critics were receptive to black men and women who eschewed stereotypical R&B melisma and other "urban" styles for punk, new wave and artful noise. Lil' Wayne's highly idiosyncratic, New Orleans-bred hip-hop surprisingly ruled pop in 2008, crossing racial and musical lines.

There's a muddled sense of direction as the country faces a spiraling economy and prepares to inaugurate its first African-American president. Pop in 2008 largely echoed that sentiment. The most progressive albums brimmed with unclassifiable sounds. A wide-eyed sense of adventure drove the music. Some releases were far-reaching but hopeful. Others brilliantly pushed the proverbial envelope but were dark and sobering.

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