Since the advent of the internet, the intimacy that we feel with our pop songs has changed. When content is so utterly customizable, taste is automatically effected; musical taste can now be articulated in a broad spectral slate of enumerations—the hyper-textual urge to craft for yourself a sort of personal genre, a musical aesthetic that can only be understood by its proprietor. It’s this urge. this shift in the way we enjoy, that makes websites such as last.fm and myspace uniquely 21st century phenomena; in them one can define a musical identity (and with facebook, a social one) that is personal and eccentric, while at the same time linked with a broader community of like-minded souls. The sites provide the perfect outlet for those who see in the internet at once a way to craft a uniquely personal and eccentric taste and concurrently the means of being recognized for the idiosyncrasy and unconventionality of such a taste. The new wave of personal sites provide us with the ability to edit our presentations of ourselves—of our tastes, our humor, our looks—in the same way we can edit a text message or an IM conversation. This is the reason a text message is such a useful tool in modern flirting—it simulates immediacy and proximity while allowing its conversants to carefully monitor and edit what they say, in an effort to present an image of themselves they wish they were able to project in raw, unedited life.
The pop song (which for the purposes of this article I will call any song aimed at larger-scale success on the Billboard Top 40 chart) occupies a weird middle ground in such a world. It is in no way idiosyncratic or personal; the pop song’s very purpose is to be consumed by as mass an audience as possible. And to that end, pop music is broadcast over mass media, spoon-fed media like radio and television that is not customizable in the way the internet is. But most modern music connoisseurs’ interactions with pop music are not in the format it is meant to be digested, so instead we find ourselves operating in a weird dichotomy when we pursue pop music: we use the tools of the internet, which generally serve the purpose of defining our own idiosyncrasy, to pursue media of mass conformity. In broad ironic gestures, some have embraced that dichotomy—the same musical logic that allows the hip music website Pitchfork to place Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” (which most people have heard) and The Knife’s “Silent Shout” (which most people haven’t) numbers one and two on their annual “Top 100 Tracks of 2006” list. But for those whose passion for pop is not ironic, most of our musical digression must be done in secret.
Cultural commentators haven’t picked up on this phenomenon yet—this potential the internet has only recently presented of editing your presentation of self, of tailoring it to a meta-aware conceit of others’ interpretation of you. That’s why cultural monitors like the New York Times’ Arts and Leisure section still focus on the impact of conglomerates as harbingers of cultural change, why they write innumerable and misguided articles on the “cultural influence” of iTunes—the commentators don’t think hyper-textually. They can’t see musical acquisition as blog to blog, as a simulcast of messageboard and myspace and live interaction and personal tastemaking. The wide scale academics trying to articulate the import of the internet didn’t grow up with its hyper-textuality as a central prerogative of their developmental years. Even my brother, only six years older than me, was raised and defined his musical aesthetic in an era before the boom of the internet—Napster was not invented until his senior year of high school. His only access to music not geared at the mainstream was through word of mouth and alternative radio, and in that sense his definition of what he liked in high school could only be made in the context of what was given to him by other arbiters of taste.
I grew up, though, with all music at my fingertips. Anything I could discover with a keyboard, I could listen to, and I became aware and boundlessly excited of the import of that very early in school. But it didn’t change the fact that even with limitless music at my fingertips—in a few hours on the internet in 8th grade, I could download the entire collected works of Tom Waits, discover a “hip” new band like The Strokes, and find the super-rare recording of The Beatles’ failed audition tape for Decca Records—I still found myself downloading music geared at being consumed and disposed of by a massive public. It wasn’t ironic or funny to me at the time; in fact, it was kind of embarrassing—I remember in 6th grade downloading “Oops! I Did it Again” on my brother’s laptop with Napster, teaching myself with the manual to burn a CD on his just-invented and purchased CD Burner, making a CD-R with just Britney’s song on repeat, and then deleting the file from his computer before he got home from school.
That’s what I mean by asserting that intimacy with a pop song is a very private experience in the internet age. As someone who is overly conscious of the idiosyncratic Taste I have formulated for myself, the pop song occupies a particular place of shame and pride in my musical lexicon; shame, in that I have spent most of my life listening to music that is made to be easily digestible and unchallenging, and pride, in that I have resisted the posturing and tastemaking that has accompanied the internet age of utter customization and instead pursued music that, however disposable it may be, has made me happy to listen to.
When I discovered the one-man band Girl Talk this fall, whose music is a dizzying pastiche of sampled Top 40 songs from the last twenty years, it was an intoxicating experience, because in him I felt I had finally discovered a kindred spirit in relation to pop. During the climactic moment of his song “Smash Your Head” when he mashes together Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” and the opening verse of Biggie’s “Juicy,” it was as if Gregg Gillis had been witness to the time I printed out the lyrics to “Juicy” and spent hours memorizing that verse, or the day when I first heard “Tiny Dancer” in the tape deck of my best friend’s mom’s car and, upon returning home that night, forced my own mom to drive me to Border’s to buy Elton John’s greatest hits. Girl Talk recognizes that these moments of pop music are, for some reason, so much more intimate to me than the times I’ve spent listening to Animal Collective or Boards of Canada, however less rewarding to a connoisseur’s musical aesthetic they may be. They accompany a memory, a nostalgia, a person, a moment, a high school dance—not a posture, not a self-aware decision to broaden my personal Taste.
I left Girl Talk’s concert at Terrace on a particularly sublime note of happiness, a happiness that lasted far into the next few weeks. It wasn’t just that his frenzied gallop through our generation’s pop lexicon had touched me on some personal level—I knew it was going to do that long before the concert. It was that it seemed to me that everyone in the room—even the random people who hadn’t even heard of Girl Talk that many Terrace afficianados were complaining about—were similarly touched and, on account of whatever intoxication his music stirred in them, were, finally, not afraid to admit it. But I think most happily for me, it confirmed my suspicion that, despite living in the age of Facebook and the internet-fueled construction of the edited personality, there’s still room for unfiltered experience, as raw and intimate—and embarrassing—as it may be.