A useless song hit the Internet yesterday. It was by Neon Hitch, best known for the extended bestiality metaphor “Bad Dog” and for being accessibly wacky-looking like every new pop star. The problem with “Bad Dog,” however, was that despite being awful, it was too good. It had verses and choruses. It sounded like a pop song. You imagine that multiple people involved in its recording, marketing and listening unironically liked it.
It’s harder to imagine that of Neon Hitch’s latest, a cover of Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci” cheaply made newsworthy by being slower and kind of sung. Unsurprisingly, the cover is bad, but it’s bad in a specific way. Kreayshawn’s career consists of trolling audiences by bombing in concert and being as deliberately racially obtuse as Tyler, the Creator is deliberately homophobic without any of Odd Future’s complicating musicianship. Kreayshawn does these things because they work. The impulse to mock her or itemize her insensitivity is too strong to resist, headlines and debates and arguments are born, and Kreayshawn gets herself Velcroed to the news. By covering “Gucci Gucci,” Neon hitches her way into this debate and its timeliness. The song is irrelevant; it’s less a piece of music than a press release that makes noise. It exists to tell you it exists.
Today’s counterpart, “Lech Mich Im Arsch,” is somehow more useless. Its motley cast:
- Jack White, now divorced from The White Stripes, who has made a second name for himself as a living Tim Burton character composed of sneer and stare and sallowness with a fedora on top. His hobbies include throwing divorce parties with the sort of rococo invitations William Morris might print had he discovered Photoshop.
- Insane Clown Posse, two guys who wear clown makeup, “rap” and inspire hundreds of articles per year by every intrepid middle-class freelancer to alight upon the infinitely photographable world of small-town subcultures that use face paint. Their hobbies involve making terrible music that wouldn’t even be interestingly terrible if they were obscure and letting the Internet’s exponential mockery build their fame enough to book increasingly respectable musicians for the Gathering, fill their record label and, in a few years, achieve a stealth legacy.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of the two classical musicians people invoke when they want to talk about smart music or smartness in general, who had a perverted streak accessible to anyone with Wikipedia. His hobbies include decomposing in a Vienna grave.
Unsurprisingly, “Lech Mich Im Arsch” is bad. It begins with a vocal arrangement of what could plausibly be Mozart’s composition–the thing’s better known as a trivia item than a piece you can listen to, so who cares? The soprano and alto give way, just before you want to close the tab, to Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope’s basso profundities like “What I know about Mozart is that he was a freak!” Next up is Jack White, pasting in the clip-art version of an electric guitar. It’s a mishmash much like Komar & Melamid and David Soldier’s Most Unwanted Song, but “Lech Mich Im Arsch” isn’t meant to comment upon or prove anything, charm you or even amuse you briefly. It’s meant to tell you it exists, and judging by the fervor of the Internet, it has succeeded.
The MTV Video Music Awards were not useless, but–as millions have joshed of the channel–they were short on music. Beyonce, the night’s best singer, made headlines for having fertilized an egg months ago. Adele, the night’s second-best singer, gave a flawless performance identical to all her others, like Hans Christian Andersen’s nightingale. Lady Gaga played the piano and Brian May played guitar on “You and I,” which would have been a moment had Gaga not spent the rest of the night in quick drag stumbling about the stage making masturbation jokes. Jay-Z and Kanye West were okay. Lil Wayne was okay for the half of his performance that wasn’t bleeped out. As Nitsuh Abebe wrote in New York magazine after the show:
At some point while watching this year’s VMAs, in between laughing at other people’s Twitter jokes, it began to look like this was what we have now instead of a pop mainstream — just people walking through an entryway that looked like a Georgia O’Keefe painting and smiling their way through fun theatrics for the audience to pick apart later. Apparently everyone’s smart and savvy enough to have abandoned the idea that anyone could perform a piece of music, on television, that brought its own content with it, and surprised anyone, or motivated them, or freaked them out.
This is true (and has already produced plenty of discussion among pop critics), but it’s not limited to TV. Several times now, I’ve used the term “useless song.” It’s an insult, yes, but a specific one. A useless song is a song that does not exist because people might like it. Some songs troll you to kick up a froth of elegant-to-vulgar mockery. This genre–also called “SEO pop“–encompasses multitudes. Some songs troll musical traditions, prompting elegantly bleeped mockery that’s maybe a bit more self-righteous. Some songs might as well be composed by pouring balls into a pachinko machine, at the bottom of which are the names of every bankable musician in the news; whichever couple names are randomly chosen and willing then Skype in a few bars to be wedged together for a cursory song. You might imagine the results of these to be unmemorable, but that’s the problem: they’re not. They’re designed to have one memorable streak through them, one flaw marked with a bold jagged line marking where audiences should aim their axe. As Abebe writes, they’re built for us to be witty, but they’re not built for us to like. They exist in bad faith.
The last is crucial. Dr. Luke, RedOne and David Guetta have written maybe eleven songs between them, but they’re eleven catchy songs that audiences love. Dubstep breakdowns are becoming pop’s biggest cliche, but they’re proliferating because at least some listeners find them exciting. More and more producers are seemingly making tracks by throwing their folder of preset sounds into a file scrambler, but you imagine they’re doing it because they’re curious what the results will sound like. Even the one-minute-remixes, where Katy Perry blindfolds Missy Elliott to be the surprise in her “Last Friday Night” party or Rihanna persuades Britney Spears to try “S&M” for their Billboard benefits, are based on audience-tested songs. You can’t imagine that of “Lech Mich Im Arsch” or similar songs. And every day, there seems to be another song we could cite.
This is the point in the argument where some would blame the Internet, starting a mental chain reaction that ends in points like calling playing music a frivolous online activity. You can’t really blame the Internet, though; what we’re seeing is the expression “no publicity is bad publicity” playing in triple time. Blogs need posts, and dozens of them per day. Musicians need mentions, and as many billions as the day can hold. It’s an easy system to game, especially when so much of it is built on scanning for keywords and predicting which words will make up audiences’ outbursts. If you can do this, you’re good. Snark helps you. Unexpected approval helps you. Thousand-word columns that call you useless help you. The only thing that won’t help is if someone manages to ignore your blaring badness, and those boycotters are few enough to be statistically insignificant. If you want headlines, just about any old shit will do.
The corollary, though, is that any old brilliance will do. There’s probably no way to salvage bilge like “Lech Mich Im Arsch,” but for every arbitrary assortment of feature credits, there’s the possibility of something like Lady Gaga and Beyonce’s ringing “Telephone” or the flawed but undeniably crafted Watch the Throne. For every hastily camcorded bro-rap clip is a well-rehearsed, triumphant performance. As a musician, given the right name, novelty and celebrity, it’s not hard to go viral. There are two ways to view this. You can see it as freedom from restrictions, from the need to perform. Or you can see it as artistic freedom. Neither will hurt you; only one will hurt listeners. And it shouldn’t be too much to ask that, somewhere in the process, listeners matter.