Tuesday, August 21, 2007

the quiet things that no one ever knows.

I don’t understand how Rihanna’s “Umbrella” became the sensation that it has. The synths in the song are fantastic, especially in the “it’s raining, raining…” outro bit.

My biggest gripe isn’t with the song, though: it’s with the song’s reception.

Rihanna’s vocals and phrasing are incredibly forward-thinking and especially groundbreaking in the R&B/pop spectrum, which has become a bit stale as of late. I must admit that I’m not a fan of her “Under my umbrella/ella/ella/ella/eh/eh/ella/eh” musings, but I’m generally floored by the fact that so many people actually are.

Again, I’m not surprised that people like the song because I think the song’s quality is lacking—no, quite the opposite. I believe that people are fans of the song in spite of themselves.

What, exactly, do I mean by this? It’s simple. Rihanna’s song has more in common with something done by a critically-acclaimed and indie-boy adored band or artist than any song played prior to or after her “Umbrellea” piece on Top 40 and/or “urban” radio (as it is referred to here).

In short, Rihanna’s “Umbrella” is more Animal Collective than it is Akon.

Why? Again, her vocal delivery has one thing to do with it. Unorthodox vocal delivery is almost a calling card of indie rock—Thom Yorke (of Radiohead, who have sort of become a mid-major, straddling the Top 40 and the indie world) doesn’t have a great voice, but it is held in high regard. The Animal Collective boys also have a strange vocal delivery which have become a sort of calling card.

In indie rock, there are two real vocal styles: nice enough, inoffensive almost mundane (Phoenix) and quirky and unique (LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, almost everyone else).

Rihanna’s vocal delivery on “Umbrella” heavily reminds me of Bjork—powerful, strong, and bordering on a yodel. While Bjork has become quite beloved, she does not sell the way Rihanna does, does not get the radio play that Rihanna does, and is not mentioned nearly as much as Rihanna is (unless we’re talking about the infamous swan dress).

“Umbrella” also has keyboards reminiscent of the best indie bands. In fact, she seems quite fond of rock synths—her hit “SOS” sampled the new wave hit “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell.

My question: why? For the longest time, I thought it was because “the masses” did not want to embrace the challenging and the quirky—and for the longest time, this theory worked out. Most of radio music is formulaic, and this is why people enjoy it: it’s predictable, it’s safe and it will never change.

But with rap producers really embracing new sounds (Timbaland and the Neptunes are the most obvious examples), a sea change has been occurring for quite some time. I absolutely thought that with “Umbrella” proving so popular, a paradigm shift was about to occur. I was wrong—and gave “the people” too much credit.

The fact that “Umbrella” is so popular is, in fact, a testament to the power of mass media as well as the “herd mentality” of the general public. Radio and MTV pumped “Umbrella” hard—and the public bit, as always.

Of course, if one was to approach the same audience with an iPod playing a less-known, more electronic or guitar-rock based artist with a similar strange vocal style, most likely, the person would write the music off as “strange”, “weird”, and, perhaps, “pretentious.”

Why? Because “indie” remains an unknown quality—one untouched by radio and, therefore, one untouched by the masses. The OC touched the tip of the iceberg with it’s indie-lite soundtracks, and this is probably the reason that bands like the Shins, the Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes are enjoying a bit of popularity (clever marketing also helped--though being featured on the soundtracks is clever marketing in and of itself...in fact, it's marketing that pays the party being advertised!).

I’m not trying to trumpet indie fans as brilliant and better than everyone else—it’s just that they’re more willing to give their sonic palettes new tastes. The rest of the people—those who rely on mainstream media to find new music—do not. It isn’t that this is good or bad—it just is. Some people genuinely enjoy what the radio plays, and this is fine. It’s no better or no worse than “indie” music: it just is.

My only qualm is with the fact that many of these artists, who have been doing the same thing for quite some time, will never get the credit that they’re due because they’re not on major labels or “playing ball.”

People complain that the radio is stale, and yet, the continue to listen. If you like Rihanna, there’s a ton of other stuff that you’ll like that I guarantee you haven’t heard before—Bjork? Animal Collective?. Like the Neptunes/Timbaland’s keyboards? Try out M83.

Rihanna is groundbreaking in her genre, but in the grand scheme of music, she’s downright pedestrian…and it’s unfortunate that she probably won’t be a gateway drug to new types of music, because people just don’t want to look for new music on their own. It’s sad to see that Rihanna, the Neptunes and Timbaland are all leading the “horses” to water…and that the masses…err, horses…are refusing to drink.