Some years ago, around 2008 or '09, I wrote an article for a now defunct website called “Why We Must Not Abide Katy Perry”. It wasn't a generally anti-chart music piece; I kept up with the charts then. I had Lily Allen's album, I loved Gaga and so on. No, my spleen was directed at the titular pop star. My strongest point, probably, was arguing against the homophobia intrinsic to at least two of her songs, but that is of little consequence now. People (vastly ignorant of my important critique) went on abiding her very amply. They accommodated her, brought her into their lives, and now we find ourselves in the unsalubrious position of Perry having a equalled Michael Jackson's record of five No1 singles from one album. That's Teenage Dream having at least commercial parity with Thriller.
You will almost certainly be aware that Perry is at it again, with a new album released just last month. My awareness of it comes from having spotted it on store shelves, and the video to 'Roar' which involves her in a state of progressive undress (fucking blow me down) and the entirely commensurate location of a jungle, complete with roaring tiger. PETA complained. Given that Perry is back and has now extended her torturous ways to the sphere of non-human animals you'd think a fightback against her, and the crudity she stands for, would be appropriate. Perhaps I'll reprise my original article, I vainly thought. Why? Because it was so effective at reigning in the dazzling success she's had as a recording artist the first time?
All analysis collapses in the bright, beamish face of a great melody. Truly great melodies have an ineffable quality which words will always fail. Analysis is in even more danger, however, when confronted with base popularity. Whatever kind of lofty reproach I can attempt to pen against the likes of Katy Perry is nothing compared with the omnipotence of her popularity. The raw energy of a top-tier pop star whose latest video, all of three months old, has already received 225 million views on Youtube. The mass penetration, the multimedia spread- the radio; the internet; phones; television. Yes, we hear her roar.
At such times critics have almost nothing to defend themselves against the charge of sordid uselessness. What, really, is the point of an article written in opposition to Market forces like Katy Perry? Who is it for? Not the consumers of her stuff. Why would they waste their time reading when then can have fun, or dance? I say that without contempt. Dancing is probably better for you than complaining, even I have to admit. OK (if you insist) I may have had a point when it comes to criticising the homophobia. But overall, life's dry enough without listening to someone suck the vim out of something with as much pleasure-giving power as pop music.
Who is it for? At best this kind of writing is for those excluded from the circles of power associated with engagement-in, and knowledge-of popular culture. It's shoddy consolation. Do we (notice I'm including myself in this exclusion) wish to spend more of our time putting down that which we can't get along with, or do we wish to celebrate the music we love, thereby leading by example? Yes, leading. If I'm to give up self-satisfied digs at the popular I'm going to cling to the illusion that critics can still hold some position as tastemakers, even among a diminishing constituency like the readers of criticism.
Celebrate rather than deprecate. This makes sense. In Britain the Mercury Prize is the only serious music award which attracts genuine headline coverage- the Brit Awards are lost somewhere up there in the celebosphere, making so much noise no one can really hear, and in any case no one would seriously describe them as serious. The Mercury Prize, however, is awarded based on a kind of critical consensus, drawn specifically from a panel of trusted reviewers. The prize can often lead to an uplift in the fortunes of the recipient, and not only in crass monetary terms (although there is the £20,000 cheque). Elbow have been the beneficiaries of the sail-swelling effect of the Mercury's fair wind when in 2008 they won it for The Seldom Seen Kid. Of course it helped that the album featured career-making hits like 'Grounds for Divorce' and 'One Day Like This'.
What we take away from this is the realisation that no bad review was ever headline news. They don't give anti-prizes (with stinging tax levies) for the “worst album”, except in the fevered sweat-soaked dreams of the sourest rock critic. And it's not all about prizes. Merely writing passionately about a scene can light a fire of publicity under it (a fire of publicity is a good thing, incidentally). Everett True was writing in Melody Maker about the broiling Seattle Sub Pop movement in 1989, two years before the invention of 'Teen Spirit with Nevermind. Kurt Cobain himself later reflected that “English hype” had a lot to do with grunge music's onset of success.
Now before you rush to accuse me of presenting a false binary, I'm not suggesting we completely junk criticism. Bad stuff is everywhere, and just begging to be traduced. There's also much to recommend being the naysayers of empty sensations like Bieber- it sometimes seems impossible to live ones' life unobtruded by Justin Bieber bulletins. I'm merely saying we should tip the balance of rhetoric in a positive direction, and know when we're assuredly onto a lost cause. Like with Katy Perry. Contrast the bad with the good, expend more energy championing things. Be a cheerleader for your chosen artist, and fight fire with something other than fire.