A new golden age in pop music?

Alex Almario - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - AM,” The Arctic Monkeys’ much-awaited follow up to 2011’s “Suck it and See,” finally debuted at number six in the US Billboard charts recently, 18 days after its release. This is an anomaly in 2013 — The Year of The Great Anticipated Album, where album chart success usually comes immediately after the release date, which comes after loads of hype taking over the Internet for weeks. With the Arctic Monkeys, however, the process was reversed: the hype for “AM” came after its release, as it was carried by a surge of glowing reviews and swooning tweets. It’s a phenomenon that almost fulfills the utopian promise of digital music — albums can be consumed organically by the masses without the manipulations of old media. Here’s a new record, give it a spin, tell your friends about it, tweet about it to your 500 followers, who would then tweet about it to their 1,000 followers, and watch the natural laws of Billboard take their course.

But this is the exception that proves not only the rule, but its own fragility. In 2013, pop music hype is still a largely manufactured process that’s trying to remain in a system designed to diminish its power.

Pre-release hype

It’s tough to say which 2013 album had the most pre-release hype — whether it’s  Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” or Kanye West’s “Yeezus” or Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories.” Quantifying hype is as slippery as comparing design-less sleeves to robotic heads or iTunes stream releases to Samsung music apps. But since no one can quibble with album sales, there’s no debate as to which one stands as 2013’s most successful anticipated and hyped album: Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience.”

The first of the great anticipated mainstream pop albums of the year, “The 20/20 Experience” was also its first craftily-hyped record. Beginning with a “teaser” lyric video for the single Suit and Tie posted online, Justin Timberlake made his grand reintroduction to music fans through a series of live appearances, with a performance in this year’s Grammy awards serving as the finale. The build-up was carefully calculated and designed for the explosive spontaneity of the Internet.

“The 20/20 Experience”predictably debuted at number one in the Billboard album charts in April. Now, five months later, it’s a mere distant echo from the tidal wave of hype that feels so years ago. This week, perhaps in a move to rekindle that first quarter glory, Justin Timberlake released a sequel: “The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2,” which, unlike its predecessor, arrives in eerily quiet fashion. It’s not the trending topic that “AM” is or the music piece du jour that Miley Cyrus has been for the past month. It’s just another clatter in the din, one that has drowned out Mirrors months ago.

If anyone still has any doubts about the healthy state of pop music today, one should look no further than the revolving door of social media music hype this year. The music industry is indeed booming, despite a steady decline in record sales and Billboard struggling to measure popularity even after incorporating digital downloads and YouTube views (it still ignores Spotify, which is like the equivalent of not counting CDs in 1988). But are we really currently experiencing a new golden age in pop music or is Twitter just blowing things out of proportion like it is wont to do?

20TH Anniversary Album

2013 is also shaping up to be The Year of the 20th Anniversary Album (narrowly edging out 2011) and in the next few weeks, various culture publications will be doing tributes to the biggest anticipated album phenomenon of the last 20 years: Pearl Jam’s “Vs.” It was the follow-up to their debut album “Ten” that became so popular, it actually surpassed Nirvana’s “Nevermind” as the most important rock album of the era, contrary to the revisionist history we keep reading today. When word of a new album came out, the hype spread out organically like a virus, which was the only way it could’ve spread thanks to the band’s reluctance to promote it. People had to wait for MTV News for every possible tidbit they could get. The closest thing to a “leak” that came out was the band’s live performance of Animal during the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards. The album didn’t “drop” so much as trickled slowly through local record stores and the first dude in high school to get a copy became an instant god.

1993 was a big year for anticipated albums as well and it’s fun to think about what would’ve happened had social media existed then. Would “Vs.” have blown up Twitter? What about Nirvana’s “In Utero” or Snoop Dogg’s “Doggystyle”? Would the Smashing Pumpkins’ Today have reached a million YouTube hits within its first three days? Would Björk’s “Debut” have caused NME.com to crash and Pitchfork to dissolve into bytes of gibberish?

It’s hard to tell how much of the hype is merely reflected by social media and how much it actually creates. People in 1993 were definitely no less the bandwagoners and trend whores than they are today but we can’t deny how much technology has added power to the contagion (it’s hard to imagine an anglo-centric phenomenon like Suede’s debut album in ‘93, for instance, not becoming more global `a la “AM” with the aid of Twitter). Yet, the real difference, the real culture-changer, isn’t the way social media magnifies trends, but the way it accelerates them.

The Noise

Remember when “Yeezus” was such a big deal? Or those couple of days when “Magna Carta Holy Grail” seemed relevant? The noise isn’t actually louder today — what we’re hearing is the sound of hype zooming by at speeds we’ve never experienced before. Everything happens insanely fast: the spread of news, the chatter, and especially the amount of time it takes to acquire music. Twenty years ago, the cultural conversations were conducted in monthly magazines, giving albums shelf-lives that elapse in four-week cycles. Now musical trends change as fast as they do on Twitter and the monthly music magazines we used to buy have morphed into websites with daily content.

The world is consuming so much more music on a weekly basis that hype has become an almost irrelevant force. Pearl Jam’s “Vs.” — an album that didn’t even have a single promotional video at a time when MTV airplay was imperative — stayed atop the charts for five weeks, while “The 20/20 Experience” — armed with the powerful hype machine that is social media — stayed there for only three. In 1993, the number of albums that spent a measly one week at the top of the Billboard charts was seven. This year? We’ve already had a whopping 27 one-week wonders and it’s not even October yet.

We may see Justin Timberlake’s not-so-anticipated “The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2” at the top of next week’s charts but we don’t know for how long. Or maybe it goes the “AM” route and gains steam as people actually listen to it instead of the relatively non-existent hype. In an irrevocably diluted pop culture where “so last week” has become the new “so last year,” it almost doesn’t matter. Hype is fast becoming as adorably twee and old-fashioned as 1993.

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Tweet the author @colonialmental.











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