will.i.am: Still America's Last Great Hope
Posted by Newson 08/02/2011 at 12:22 PM
The Popdust Files: black eyed peas
Some headlines just write about themselves. “Can will.i.am Bring China and America Closer Together?” breathes the Wall Street Journal, in roughly the same tone you’d use to ask “can one plucky four-year-old raise the debt ceiling solely by scattering flower petals?” The path to this intercontinental Peas salvation? A benefit concert–which hasn’t technically been approved yet by China’s Ministry of Culture, so get off Expedia–in Beijing to persuade American students to study abroad in the country. (The setlist presumably doesn’t include “Let’s Get It Started.”) will.i.am, it seems, is “one of America’s most creative artists, who also is very much engaged in public interest work,” said a spokesperson for an organization that also wants American students to study abroad in China. A few lesser, unannounced artists will be involved, but this is will.i.am’s show, and it’s his task to heat up the two countries’ chilly relations.
Again, the cheap joke writes itself: ha, the [BLACK EYED PEAS/AUTOTUNE/FAKE DANCE CRAP] promoting good relations with America? You can practically see the phantom comments section! We’re not going to defend will.i.am here. (If you’re interested in that, Ann Powers of NPR ventured a few steps toward that territory, and Rob Tannenbaum, writing for us, ventured about 5,000.) We are, however, going to say that the concert organizers were absolutely right to think of will.i.am first. Sure, the Peas have played China multiple times, for instance, but Beijing is a major world city, making that a rationale for anything is kind of like giving a band props for stopping by the far-flung territories of NYC or Los Angeles. A much more substantial reason:
will.i.am is responsible for the state of American music.
As we’ve gleefully and copiously pointed out on Popdust, the No. 1 song in the country is devoted to party rock, which involves binge drinking, getting stupid and somehow objectifying not just people but the act of objectifying people. It’s a term the Black Eyed Peas might as well have coined. Elsewhere in music, Dr. Luke, Benny Blanco and (especially) Max Martin have reinvented themselves as club-pop producers, RedOne moved up from minor club-pop producer to major exploding-club-pop producer, and as a result, 75% of the charts sound like their own dance remix. This probably would have happened on its own without The E.N.D., and music was edging toward it, but it’s hard not to see “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling”–back-to-back No. 1 hits for about half of 2009–as templates. will.i.am didn’t invent this sound, a pastiche of everything he heard at the clubs he visited on the Peas’ budget, but he blew it up to country size. Speaking of which:
Black Eyed Peas concerts are country-sized.
Representing American music isn’t enough; you’ve got to represent America, in all its jingoistic spectacle. And if you’re looking to sum up America with a headliner both relevant and big enough to rep the U.S., why not will.i.am? The Peas constantly make their songs out to be bulkier than they are, whether it’s will.i.am exhorting how droppable and eventful his beat will be when it’s little more than a tiptoe of bass and a single synth buzz, Fergie trying to belt like she’s on an Adele song or the whole crew shouting a simulated crowd into “I Gotta Feeling.” And as any heckler will chortle, they made the Super Bowl halftime show a messy, explosive, post-human sight. What better adjectives for America, and who else has a live vision this vast? Well, a couple people. But there’s one more thing:
will.i.am transcends fan hatred, offense and disapproval.
If you’re looking for a band that all of America loves, just stop; it’s not happening. Nevertheless, the Peas certainly wouldn’t qualify for the group all of America loves, let alone most of America or even much. There are plenty of people who hate the Black Eyed Peas; one might even call that collective group most of the country. But the hate for the Peas is different. One of the (unfortunate) downsides of a pop landscape dominated by female artists is that it’s the perfect tableau for those inclined to set women up as naturally in opposition or competition. It’s how you get people saying Christina is the anti-Britney or Katy is the anti-Gaga, or how a Queen of Pop article consisting mostly of numerical data turned into a brawl of commenters wielding their favorite musicians’ personas like bayonets. The fandom for these solo female artists is largely defined by who you’re not a fan of by definition. But with the Peas, who would that even be? People who hate the Peas for not being LMFAO? For not being Daft Punk or deadmau5? There’s just not that kind of dedication on either side. If you hate the Peas, it’s likely because you hate the tropes of modern pop, not because you’re a stan for anyone.
But without devoted fans, how’d the Peas get so inflated? By design. As Powers writes, their image is “ingeniously designed to appeal to all markets: part marionette, part video game, part sex toy.” By selling themselves, literally and figuratively, as the wacky yet dedicated embodiment of fun, they’ve become an institution, and by now they’re so commercialized and sponsored that they’re effectively harmless. “Just take it off!” is now a lovable chant for weddings and children’s parties, “people in the place” can mean just about anyone, IBM executives think will.i.am is at least credible enough as a marketer and buyers didn’t even mind that the Peas turned the Dirty Dancing theme into a relaxed chunk of beats with an in-name-only “dirty bit.” Why not? It’s big, it’s danceable, and it’s the Peas; the institution has succeeded. (It’s telling that latter-day tracks like “Imma Be,” whose radio edit contains as many necessary bleeps as a Minesweeper board contains mines, haven’t lasted nearly as much.)
So if we’re supposed to believe that a benefit concert alone can improve relations between U.S. and China, choosing an artist who’s culturally representative, bombastic and perversely family-friendly is the way to do it. will.i.am is that artist, and if the effort fails, it’s not because he isn’t perfect for the job.
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