The day the music died: Dumb Britannia 4. Pop Music

Look what they've done to our songs... Was pop music always this trite, or have we just lost our innocence?

To some people, the question "Has pop music been dumbed down?" will read like a tautological joke. Pop music, they will tell you, is inherently dumb, made by dummies for dummies. It lacks, if not the power of actual speech, the ability to communicate anything meaningful. Take the good Gilbert Adair, a holdout from an age when intellectuals took it for granted that Godard was superior to Hollywood, and a critic who a mere five years ago could fogeyishly declare that pop music was "not just trite and monotonous but actually stupefying". For Adair, the "public ubiquity" of pop music was helping to make Britain "an increasingly `stupid' country", and its omnipresence was all of a piece with the dumbing-down of Anglo-American popular culture.

To other people, pop's "dumbness" - its catchy disposability, its often moronic lyrics - is precisely what makes it great. They will argue that pop music has no business consorting with Art, that it's all about a kind of cretinous innocence. In The Accidental Evolution of Rock'n'Roll (1997), Chuck Eddy notes that his fellow rock writers "increasingly look down their noses at anything that's fast and catchy with intelligible words", but claims that what most entertains him is: "the stuff punk or grunge or hip-hop supposedly rebelled `against'."

Still others will tell you that the great Pop vs Posh debate is a dead issue; that, living as we are in Andy Warhol's postmodern, 15-minute, soup-can universe, the very distinction between High and Low Art has been eroded forever. In a cultural climate where a book called How Proust Can Change Your Life can be published, they'll argue, who any longer has the right to set up barriers between Highbrow and Lowbrow? Even "classical" music (the Three Tenors, Vanessa-Mae) is dumbing itself down these days.

I fear the latter may be closest to the truth. As we slouch towards Y2K, we all seem to be captive to a fever dream of fame, spellbound by a mushrooming celebrity culture in which all that really matters is exposure. Where once we would have been happy to ignore the latest blockbuster film or presidential scandal and retreat into our novels and art films, now we feel compelled to form opinions about Titanic and the dumpy icon that is Monica Lewinsky. And if the whole world is dumbing itself down - "tabloid- ifying" itself, in the words of Vanity Fair - how is pop music of all things expected not to follow suit? No wonder "pop" no longer means Pulp and Pearl Jam, but B'witched and Britney Spears.

Just how dumb "is" pop music? When Elvis Presley first exploded out of Memphis in 1954, what was so galvanising about him was the way he used his rural roots - in blues and country songs - to fashion a lusty teenage music that aggressively challenged Middle America's entertainment mainstream.

Ah, you'll say: funny you should mention Presley. Wasn't his career the perfect illustration of pop dumbing itself down to a point of woeful farce? Well, yes: from the nuclear epiphany of "That's Alright, Mama" to the imbecile doltishness of "Do The Clam", Elvis all but drowned in the quicksand of Colonel Tom Parker's schlock. (Nor was he blind to what was happening.) But what Elvis achieved in those electrifying 1950s singles, and intermittently through the 60s and 70s, was about as un-dumb, as viscerally eloquent as anything created in the name of "popular culture" this century.

Forty-five years on from its birth, the biggest change is that so little of today's pop music issues from any genuine sense of community or tradition. It's as though we've all become citizens of some virtual world, a hypermall of instant sensation in which pop music is pre-packaged according to market research. Forget the days when Elvis could cover an Arthur Crudup blues song on one side of a Sun single and a Bill Monroe bluegrass song on the other - today's hits sound as if they were written by computers.

More dismaying still is how willing we've become to dismiss pop's artistic aspirations. It's as if we've all accepted that art simply equals success. For isn't it easier to pretend that Robbie Williams is a great "ironic" pop star than to follow the strange, wayward careers of people (Paddy McAloon, Mark Hollis, Aphex Twin, Baby Bird, PJ Harvey, to take random examples) who actually have something to say? For all the hosannas heaped upon Radiohead's magnificent OK Computer (1997) - an album precisely about the soullessness of our techno-numbed culture - there were just as many people who derided it as wanky "progressive" rock. In a world where we're expected to take Chris Evans seriously, is it any wonder that Radiohead are deemed to be po-faced?

"It's such a hard time in music, where more and more people have to get in and get what they can," says Beck, one of the few truly compelling pop artists of the decade. "In the early 1990s, there was this consciousness connecting everyone of my age - a consciousness of mistrust, of the rotten fruit of the 1980s. We'd all been turned off at that point, and were searching for something genuine. And then there was a year where the industry tried to figure out what this was all about. And they're pretty crafty: They just went out and hired a bunch of us."

If pop is "dumb" today, it isn't because the artists are any thicker than they were 30 years ago. It's because of something far more insidious: to wit, the music industry figuring out how, in the words of Janis Joplin's biographer Myra Friedman, to "market the very unmarketability" of bands who would once have raged against the machine. Just as Marcuse predicted it would, back in the 1960s, society has taken what the counterculture threw at it, reprocessed it, and sold it back to "the kids": the Sex Pistols are Levi's models, Courtney Love wears Isaac Mizrahi. For a nominal fee (your soul, preferably) MTV will package a body-pierced ska-pop Spring Break lifestyle just for you. Marketing is control.

"Rock'n'roll... no longer seems to mean anything," Greil Marcus wrote despairingly in 1992. He added that "sweeping affirmations" of pop records "always bring forth a chorus of sceptics, happy to forsake the mysteries of art and culture for the facts of entertainment". Seven years on, his words ring truer than ever. For the handful of mavericks out there making music for music's sake - artists who wouldn't know "synergy" if it bopped them over the head with a platinum disc - there are thousands of tattooed poseurs who don't care what it takes to get their 15 minutes of fame. No wonder the Californian pin-ups Sugar Ray called their new album 14:59. Now that's what I call ironic...

It's frightening to realise that the Beatles went from "I Want To Hold Your Hand" to Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the space of four years. To reflect that Brian Wilson progressed from "Surfin' USA" to Pet Sounds in three. Did pop matter back then, or were we just dreaming?

Where once to be a pop fan meant being part of the counterculture tribe - a shadowy mass of people who read underground magazines and sought out obscure records in dingy basements - now pop is everywhere and for everyone.

What is slightly shocking to someone like me, who came of age as a pop music fan in the 1970s, is realising just how irrelevant the pantheon of rock heroes has become: the Stones are a joke, Neil Young is an old fart, Page and Plant are dinosaurs. The idea of a time when these people mattered seems gone for good. Does it all come down a kind of cultural entropy? Is it easier to give up, go with the flow: read Hello! and Loaded, listen to the Corrs and Natalie Imbruglia?

"Our musical cultural values have become so relative," wrote Stephen Holden in Sunday's New York Times, "that the Beatles, Dylan, Gershwin and Sinatra now rank side-by-side in public esteem with the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Celine Dion and Neil Diamond. For in today's musical climate, whatever you declare to be art must be art, and forget the snobs who think differently." For the sake of pop's future, let us hope to God he is wrong.

how dumb are we?

"Pop has always been a dumbing-down of rock music, and rock has always been anti-establishment. But now that the rock generation has grown up, the anti-establishment has become the establishment. The music industry has become an off-shoot of the leisure and drugs industries."

Simon Napier Bell former manager of The Yardbirds, T-Rex, Japan and WHAM!

"Music has become much more of a marketing venture, with a general desire to stick to the boy band-girl band formulae."

Alan Miller MD of London's Vibe Bar multimedia centre, who is chairing "Pop Goes Politics" at the Culture Wars conference

The writers will speak at `Culture Wars, Dumbing Down, Wising Up?' at the Riverside Studios, London W8, 5-7 March

Tomorrow: Hot air or cold facts? David Lister concludes `Dumb Britannia'

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