The Power Pop Underground Deserves the Light of Day

This has been one of the greatest years in the history of pop music, but you’d never know it if you rely on Rolling Stone, Spin, Billboard, Under the Radar, Mojo, Q, MTV, VH-1 or any of the traditional sources.

Outstanding new voices such as Marco Joachim, Cirrone or The Turnback would have had numerous singles in the top ten thirty years ago.

There are many reasons for the press’s lack of interest including economics, but there is a cultural reason, too. The establishment press long ago became suspicious of art for art’s sake. Beauty and good vibes are so bourgeoisie. It’s got to have an edge, an attitude or sucker punches about the failure of the capitalist system, the hypocrisy of religion, or the need to take public transport.

MARCO JOACHIM

The movement reached its apotheosis in Spin’s infamous 1993 review of Jellyfish’s ‘Spilt Milk.’ The magazine’s reviewer dismissed the album as mindless ear candy, offering faint praise for one song, the vaguely classist ‘Russian Hill. ‘The reviewer thought it was about the haves versus the have-nots. Music shorn of socio-political content is ‘not relevant.’ It’s even worse if the band voices an opinion contrary to the kultursmog.

Modern recording technology and the Internet enable bands to be their own labels and gin up interest. Why would Hindu Rodeo or Bryan Scary send a review disc to Rolling Stone? They don’t advertise in Rolling Stone. Hence, Rolling Stone has no interest in them. Imagine Rolling Stone reviewing Hindu Roideo’s “Evil White Man,” with lyrics like:

I wish I was a black man, so I’d know right from wrong, so I’d never belong, so I’d protest this song, but I’m an evil white man.

Due to the changing nature of technology, music magazines themselves are on the verge of extinction, like their host bodies the dinosaur music labels. Major labels have shunned power pop with a few exceptions like Barenaked Ladies, Cheap Trick, a rebooted Cars and the Gin Blossoms. They “get” bands like Cheap Trick because they’ve been around for thirty years. They’re part of the scene. They had verifiable hits! And they advertise in print.

The last time Rolling Stone mentioned Jellyfish was in a short article about Jason Falkner in 2001. The article focused on Falkner’s reaction to the death of George Harrison and said, “Even if Falkner never uttered a word about it, his life-long Beatles fandom would be evident in the melodic treasures that makeup his two Elektra albums, 1996’s Jason Falkner Presents Author Unknown and 1999’s Can You Still Feel?, not mention in the heavy-handed homages of his early Nineties outfit Jellyfish” (emphasis mine).

Innovation and distribution have changed the way we consume music. Thirty years ago, every college town was rife with record stores – big chains like Discount Records and Sam Goode. Twenty years ago, those stores switched over to CDs. But today the big box stores are barely keeping their CD sections alive. Consumers download music into their iPods. There’s no physical package to roll joints on or find out who wrote what. Many young musicians recognize this and offer CDs which may only be obtained from their websites or at live shows. You download both music and the album art.

Jerry Rio of Sunrise Highway says, “Except for the Beyoncés or Lady Gagas there’s no money being made by labels. And power pop… forget about it. I think about people like Usher or John Legend… it’s nowhere near Motown or R&B from the great years. I think the Kings Of Leon suck. I was listening to ‘Jigsaw Puzzle’ on Beggars Banquet last night. What a song, production, performance. Music is not quite as inspired these days.”

Online magazines such as www.absolutepowerpop.com, www.powerpopaholic.com, www.popgeekheaven.com, and many others have sprung up on the web to serve the needs of the power pop community. PopGeekHeaven is the work of Bruce Brodeen, whose Not Lame label released over 100 albums from 1994 to 2010, many of which became highly-sought collectors’ items.

Readers have complained that previous power pop news did not advance the conservative movement,* but I think that’s part of the point. Remember when music was just music and didn’t have to serve an agenda? Rio asks an all too familiar question: where is today’s Motown? Power pop bands dare to deliver pure pleasure for which they are dismissed as “selfish.” We’d like to live in a less-politicized culture where choosing a song is not a political statement. Power pop is that culture.

*Which is not to say there haven’t been great conservative power poppers and rockers: Ray Davies, Danny Elfman, Hindu Rodeo, Rush, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rick Altizer, even John Lennon if we’re to believe the recent revelations.

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