Music For Forgetting
A funny thing happened on a recent trip to my local record store. Surrounded by a smattering of my fellow music aficionados, I was leafing through the vinyl jazz collection when an all-too-familiar tune began wafting over the speakers. It was the Black Eyed Peas' "Imma Be."
Never in my years listening to or writing about music have I seen such a virulent rebellion erupt in a record store. "Turn this off" yelled one woman at the other end of the shop. Another chimed in "this isn't a Target." The glares coming from most of the other patrons communicated similar sentiments, and within 30 seconds, the two chuckling clerks had hit the stop button behind the desk. "Just kidding" one of them said. The whole thing had been a prank.
The incident made me realize something: despite the Black Eyed Peas' seeming ever-presence, I don't know a single person who actually likes them. And yet, to Rolling Stone, the Black Eyed Peas represent music's saving grace.
In an article called "The Science of Global Pop Domination," the iconic rag declares them the number one reason folks have to be excited about rock out of a list of 40. To be sure, the Peas are everywhere nowadays--winning Grammys, selling boatloads of albums (27 million worldwide on the last count), and have been credited with everything from integrating hip-hop with pop to vaunting the first black president into power.
And behind it all--or so it seems--is Will.i.am. The RS piece reads more like a profile of Will than anything else. It also, at times, reads more like an article from Forbes than a piece of music journalism. And that makes their musical dominance a bit discouraging.
"[Will.i.am's] view is so macro he's virtually unlike any musician that preceded him. To Will.i.am, songs aren't discrete works of art but multi-use applications--hit singles, ads jingles, film trailers--all serving a purpose larger than music consumption."
Note the dismissive way that art is described in this passage: "discrete," as in narrow or quaint. To writer Chris Norris, and to Will.i.am evidently, art is served best when it sells not just itself but soda and flip-phones. Watching a commercial break is impossible without hearing the Peas' songs. Apple, Verizon, Pepsi, Target. The Black Eyed Peas music may be "larger than music consumption," but from the sound of it, consumption is still a big part of the formula.
Norris continues: "Creatively, he makes no distinction between writing rhymes and business plans, rocking arenas and PowerPoint, producing albums and media platforms, all of these falling under a cleareyed mission to unite the broadest possible audience over the broadest range imaginable."
One has to admit that it's a pretty broad range too. In less than a year, their most recent album The E.N.D. has been certified Double Platinum in the United States, with similar sales figures from Japan to Mexico. Its singles have topped the Billboard for a combined 28 weeks, and won this year's Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album.
It's a far cry from where the group was fifteen years ago. These were the days when the Peas were still a three-piece, rising from the ashes of the much-underrated Atban Klann and pushing the boundaries of the still relatively-new concept of "alternative hip-hop." For the most part, their beats were an understated affair (though still capable of blowing the roof off), leaving room for introspective and often incisive lyrics.
For sure, these were albums that even early on displayed Will's productions talents. Songs like "Head Bobs" or "Joints & Jam" off of 1998's Behind the Front, or "Request + Line" from 2000'sBridging the Gap, reveal a subtle eclecticism and balance. His rhymes, as well as those of fellow members Apl.de.ap and Taboo, are similarly solid.
If you haven't heard of these two albums, then there's probably a reason for this: they were released before Fergie was part of the band. Bringing in a former Disney Channel child-actor plucked from the failed girl-group Wild Orchid might seem an odd move for a rap group whose material was compared to Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5; that's because it wasn't a decision made by the group.
In fact, it was Interscope Records head Jimmy Iovine who brought Fergie into the fold to replace original backup singer Kim Hill and take the group in a new direction after her departure in 2002. Said Hill years later, "The label was like, 'Look, you’ve done two critically acclaimed tastemaker records, but you’re never going to be as hard as Chuck D or as lyrically savvy as Mos Def. You're always going to be this kind of feel good hip-hop. You can do another J5 record if you’d like, I just don’t know that we’re going to support number four.'"
That sealed the deal. The next year, Elephunk was released. The gears of the marketing machine went into an oversaturating overdrive, and the Black Eyed Peas became one of the most recognized hip-hop groups in the world. In a weird twist, it was Fergie that assumed the role of the group's "face," but as the RS article reveals, it's Will.i.am who has always been the brains.
It's rather absurd, though, to see what eight years as a music industry cash-cow has done to that brain. The same article sees Will wax a frequently baffling mix of tech-speak and postmodern business lingo. Perhaps the most nonsensical of all his statements comes when he attempts to ruminate on the "shape" music should be sold in.
"When records came out, you had 45s, then 33s, then 12-inches," says Will, "all multiples of three, all circles. As soon as tape decks came out and there were 8-tracks--square. Didn't work. A cassette is a rectangle--didn't work. CD came out--through the roof. The iPods and laptops put music on rectangles--doesn't work, can't monetize it. You have to figure out how to make art work in squares."
Confused and new-agey though it might be, it also reveals an obsession with format. It's here that the art-as-commodity notion is personified. Any notion of music's timelessness is absent here, subsumed by concepts of the marketable and disposable.
This explains the rift that exists between the Peas' early work and their most recent. The E.N.D.sounds like a collection of ad jingles because that's how it was intended. Much like the products the songs hawk, the album's futuristic flash isn't meant to provoke so much as it is to distract. As Fergie describes it in the article, "it's meant as escapism. We specifically wanted people to forget about their money problems, losing their jobs, their homes."
Maybe this explains Will's insistence on "One Tribe" that we all "get amnesia." And yes, you have heard this song because it appears in a Pepsi commercial.
It may seem like a kind of blasphemy to point all this out. After all, it was Will.i.am who came up with one of the most iconic presidential moments in recent history. The "Yes We Can" video certainly wasn't the reason that Obama got elected, but it did mark the first time hip-hop was taken seriously and courted as a cultural movement by a presidential campaign. In some ways, it was a soundtrack to a notable shift in American popular opinion: young, hopeful, diverse.
A year and a half later, though, and the lay of the land is a lot more complex. A large dose of frustration and anger has been thrown into the mix. It's the kind of reality that makes the Black Eyed Peas exhortations sound insulting more than earth-shattering. And just as Obama has been revealed as increasingly tied to many of the interests he railed against on the campaign trail, so has it become impossible to ignore how thoroughly inseparable the Black Eyed Peas' music is from those same interests.
These interests are, in short, that of big business. Though the smarter of the record execs had their finger to the wind when they put the Peas forward as music's great multiculti hope, underneath lies the same crass agenda they've always had. In the end, the Black Eyed Peas' success is rooted in the fact that they're marketable before they're good. That it happened to a group whose early career was solidly outside these notions is indeed tragic, but it's a tragedy that's happened many times before. It's a basic process that involves obscuring the difference between art and commerce. And if this line can be so thoroughly blurred, guess which one of the two ultimately wins out.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com). He is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts, and has also appeared in SocialistWorker.org, Z Magazine, New Politics, CounterPunch and PopMatters.com
Contact him at email@example.com.