Nothing good has been said about P!nk’s new song, Never Gonna Not Dance Again, penned by today’s most successful producer and songwriter, Swedish Max Martin (author of 25 number-one hits in the US). “Lifeless,” “generic,” “tragic” and “horrible” are some of the adjectives that can be found in PopJustice, the most respected specialized pop website. And yes, it is weak and bland, but it is also catchy. One could argue that it is what most people look for in pop music. Hence the question: why are songs that fulfill their purpose, that satisfy the audience they are addressed to, considered bad? Some usual opinions come with this label: the lyrics are way too corny (or obvious, or cryptic) and the music, when it is too catchy or sappy, reveals its flaws.
Pink, who will release a new album on February, is an example of a mass phenomenon that leaves the critics unimpressed. Marta España, musicologist, music critic and leader of Marta Movidas, her own musical project, stresses the influence of the “relatability factor” on the way we assess music: “Oftentimes, people define themselves by the music they consume, but also by what they publicly decide not to consume,” she explains. “In this way, they reveal the ideals, values and behaviors that are linked to a genre they share. We often categorize a song (and an artist) by what it means to a society, even if it is unconsciously, and that makes you like it or not.”
Sebas E. Alonso, director of the independent music website Jenesaispop and author of the book 200 discos clave del siglo XXI (200 key records of the 21st century), is very clear that the popularity of a song does not determine its quality. “The complexity of the lyrics, the originality of the subject matter, its point of view or its social relevance […] can contribute. That a song is catchy or commercial does not make it good or bad. In the end, for me, at least in pop, almost everything is melody and hooks.” Alonso points out that some songs are actually created to annoy, like Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do, which he considered bad until he realized that “the melody used in the chorus consists of a single note, which for the artist is an identity trait. It is done on purpose.” The song is “about hate,” and its repetitive, tiresome sound is intentional.
Despite the passion with which we defend a good song or attack a bad one, despite the conviction with which we defend our ideas, the only certainty is that we act subjectively. “I don’t think there are good or bad songs,” adds España. “There is a canon and a historical construct around which Western popular music has been governed. Reggaeton, for example, doesn’t follow the Western canonical principles […] and for this reason it is considered a bad product by many people.”
Thus, there is no consensus on what is good or bad, not even within music criticism: “Something that a heavy metal magazine deems a masterpiece won’t even be mentioned in a publication about electronic music,” says Alonso. “There isn’t even a consensus on Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Some consider it a sublime piece and others see it as tacky.” However, he points out, music criticism also operates within a series of aesthetic conventions that are accepted at a given time or space, and the specialized media recommend music that either adheres to those conventions or threatens them. However, the fact that subjectivity prevails, the journalist believes, “doesn’t mean that it is not interesting to listen to argued and justified opinions, which is what music criticism tries to do.” In the same vein, “the fact that everything is subjective does not mean that all opinions are interesting or contribute something.”
Popularity killed pop
History has produced many examples that confirm that a song is usually considered “bad” after it reaches a massive level of popularity, even if the composition of the song itself (melody, harmony, rhythm, voice and lyrics) comply with some established rules that make it “good.” In 2016, TIME magazine chose Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the Feeling as the worst song of the year. This nice and harmless disco-pop composition was also the most commercially successful song of that year. Why does a prestigious media outlet like TIME declare that the most successful song of 2016 was, at the same time, the worst? Alonso believes that TIME would not have given that distinction to “a song that nobody knows, because nobody would read the article.” He believes that it was a victim of its own popularity. At the same time, he partially agrees with TIME, because “the song is really basic” and “it may cross the line of the obvious, since the word ‘dance’ appears about 40 times.”
The evaluation that is made of certain songs in the media is influenced, again, by factors that go beyond the strictly musical, like the sexist or racist biases which, in some cases, help shape the musical canon itself. “Rihanna, Beyoncé, all the pop divas… they’ve never been considered cult artists. On the other hand, Kanye West is a genius,” argues España. “Of course, sexism influences when establishing a canon, but so does class, race… In the ‘best of the year’ lists, almost all the artists are European or American. It is today more than ever that globalization is allowing this canon to expand to other territories.”
Another victim of his own success (and of pop) is the British singer Rick Astley. His hit Never Gonna Give You Up is one of the most iconic pop songs of the 1980s, but it also became something akin to the internet’s first meme. According to Stereogum columnist Tom Breihan, the song is simply “bad,” which clashes with the huge success it enjoyed in its day (it was #1 in 25 countries in 1987) as well as its current durability. For Breihan, Never Gonna Give You Up is the “shallowest Motown pastiche you’re ever going to hear.” The video completes the joke, because as much as it seems like a parody of the videos of the 1980s, it is not. Which brings us to another tricky variable in music criticism: judging the songs of the past today.
“I don’t think it’s a bad song at all,” says Alonso. “Entire essays and books have been written about its authors, Stock Aitken & Waterman. Today they are well regarded and recognized by media outlets like The Guardian.” España reflects: “Songs that reach number one or go viral should not be underestimated. Of course, when you enter that industry, the infrastructure you have around you leads to more favorable numbers that the underground seldom can reach. However,” she points out, “you can tell that there are people who know a lot about music behind all that.”
The journalist believes that “labeling something as bad just because it is very massive is very dangerous.” She does not rule out that this attitude could stem from an elitist perspective, because “not everyone has the same access to culture, and labeling something as bad just because it is part of mass culture is classist,” she says. “There are many types of music, and each of them responds to a specific social function.”
Love, love, love
One of the reasons why Never Gonna Give You Up is mocked are its sappy lyrics. In it, Astley promises his lover: “Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you; never gonna make you cry, never gonna say goodbye, never gonna tell a lie and hurt you.” Practically medieval courtly love, applied to pop. The critics don’t like that sappiness, and tend to ignore excessively sentimental releases.
In the book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Carl Wilson focuses on Céline Dion – a singer that has been historically reviled by the specialized music media – to explore how sentimentality has always been considered in poor taste. España calls this into question: “All songs are sentimental, aren’t they? Most of them talk about feelings. I believe that everything lies, again, in the concept of authenticity. That is to say, the current music critic comes and says that they don’t go for the sentimentality of one group, but another group’s is OK; but usually, more than the song itself, that opinion derives from an artist’s career, whether they compose their own songs, and also from the aesthetics of the moment. The concept of ‘tasteless’ was completely different 10 years ago.”
Alonso shares a similar opinion and recommends Let’s Talk About Love: “The book says that everything we consider pretty or ugly is but a social convention that belongs to a specific time and place. A song that says ‘I love you,’ just like that, will have no further value, obviously. But in the end, the artist’s performance, the melody… they can make even the dumbest thing work. The singer from The 1975 says we’ve become overly cynical with the world of underground music, and he’s absolutely right.”
In fact, underground and commercial music are closely related out of necessity. “It’s very important that music criticism remains within the underground, because otherwise popular music would absorb all alternative spaces,” argues España. “However, the popular and the underground are constantly feeding off each other: the underground dictates the trends of the future, and then the industry appropriates and capitalizes on them. For the music critics, in most cases, trends are only authentic when they have not caught on, that is, before they become popular.”
It is too soon to tell whether P!nk has released a candidate for the worst song of 2022 or not, but probably nobody cares less than her – and her millions of fans.
Jennifer Lopez thought she was ‘going to die’ after her breakup with Ben Affleck | Culture
The story of Jennifer Lopez, 53, and Ben Affleck, 50, is still providing new twists and turns after more than 20 years. When it seemed that one of the most famous couples in Hollywood had made as many headlines as possible with their reconciliation and subsequent marriage, the singer has made the news again by sharing more details about how they got together in 2002 and why they broke up two years later.
Reflecting on their relationship, Lopez said that it wasn’t a case of love at first sight. “I think what happened is, as we worked together, we became such good friends,” she said in an interview with Apple Music. The two met while filming the movie Gigli (2002), but at the time, Lopez was married to choreographer Chris Judd. The chemistry between the two, however, was undeniable. “We realized that we were crazy about each other […] It’s like you just knew it. It’s just like, ‘This is the person I want to be with.’ And that happened over a period of months.”
And then, from one day to the next, it was over. “It was so painful after we broke up. Once we called off that wedding 20 years ago, it was the biggest heartbreak of my life. I honestly felt like I was going to die,” she said. In the interview, Lopez said she even stopped performing songs inspired by their relationship because it was too painful. “It was a part of me then that I had to put away to move on and survive. It was a survival tactic, for sure.”
“It sent me on a spiral for the next 18 years where I just couldn’t get it right,” she continued. “But now, 20 years later, it does have a happy ending.”
During their separation, Lopez starred in dozens of movies, performed at hundreds of concerts (including the Super Bowl halftime show) and found love with singer Marc Anthony (with whom she has two children) and former baseball player Alex Rodriguez, with whom she was briefly engaged.
In April 2021, Lopez and Affleck confirmed they were back together after the singer broke up with Alex Rodríguez, and Affleck ended his relationship with actress Ana de Armas. A year later, the two were engaged and just a month later they were married in Las Vegas. Another month after that, they held a three-day wedding with friends and family.
Last Friday, Lopez announced she will be releasing a new album, This is Me… Now, on the 20th anniversary of her 2002 record This is Me… Then. The focus of the new album is love, she said. “We captured me at this moment in time when I was reunited with the love of my life and we decided we were going to be together forever. The whole message of the album then is this love exists. This is a real love,” she said. “If you have, like me at times, lost hope, almost given up, don’t. Because true love does exist and some things do last forever and that’s real.”
“I want to put that message out into the world and that does take a lot of vulnerability,” she continued. “But I couldn’t stop myself and some parts of it scare me. And I think parts of it scare Ben too. He’s like, ‘Oh, do you really want to say all this stuff?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know how else to do it, baby.’”
Unko Museum: Tokyo opens first poop museum to explore a taboo topic among Japanese youth | Culture
Among the many synonyms for excrement that exist in the Japanese language, the founders of the Tokyo Unko Museum chose the most candid one, unko, to name an irreverent space designed for female Instagram users. “My goal was for poop to stop being a taboo subject for young girls,” explains its creator, Masaru Kobayashi.
With Japanese influencers in mind, Kobayashi filled the museum’s rooms with toilets and poop-shaped pieces in shades of turquoise, fuchsia and lemon yellow. The colors follow the palette of the Japanese kawaii aesthetic, which combines the cutesy and the grotesque. Kobayashi explains that, far from being a cultural fad, kawaii is a natural extension of traditional Japanese culture. “At the pinnacle of world-famous kawaii culture is poop, a fragile material that disappears down the drain shortly after being brought into this world,” reads a sign at the museum entrance.
To revive the scatological enthusiasm of childhood, visitors are welcomed into a room equipped with nine colorful toilets, whose arrangement evokes the communal toilets of ancient Rome. A museum guide invites them to sit down, clench their fists and, after counting one-two-three, imagine that they are releasing a symbolic dump. When they get up, they find in their respective receptacles pieces of plastic poop, which resemble the poop emoji in striking pastel colors.
There are neon signs with the word poop written in 16 languages. A tearoom serves huge cakes topped with golden feces. Another room features colorful droppings that move when stroked like furry animals. Video games include flying poops. On small toilet-shaped blackboards hung on the wall, visitors are invited to make their own poop drawings.
Although there is a Japanese term for museum, Kobayashi chose the English “museum” to describe a thematic venue whose sole function is to create entertaining environments. Instagram is full of photographs of absurd and witty scenes from the exhibits: couples play-acting, sitting on separate toilets, young parents with blue poop on their heads, or the typical tourist photo featuring a huge illuminated poop. Kobayashi confesses that at first he feared that the unusual concept would be rejected. He felt better when older people started to visit, many of whom saw a generational change in the fact that young girls were openly talking about poop.
In the past three years, Kobayashi has created six such museums across Japan. He has received invitations to open another in Singapore and is in talks with several Asian countries where the subject of human poop lacks the taboo it has historically had in the West.
Classics authors in Japanese literature, such as Natsume Soseki, coined memorable phrases about poop’s “physiological pleasures,” and Junichiro Tanizaki devoted a long passage from his well-known essay Praise of the Shadow to the traditional toilet set in the middle of a garden, which is where “poets of all times have found abundant material for their haikus.”
Many Japanese children learn to write the complicated characters of their language with a series of popular books called Poop Exercises, which contain more than 3,000 humorous phrases related to the subject. For 17 years, Toto, which manufactures high-tech toilets, has held a poetry contest inspired by the subject in the senryu style, which consiss of a short humorous poem and is a relative of the haiku.
For Kobayashi, the evolution of the museum’s audience is apparent in their gradual migration from Instagram to TikTok. His intention, he says, is to continue creating playful spaces that provide moments of relaxation to contrast with typically Japanese solemnity. His next project is a railway museum where, unlike the rigorous Japanese rail schedules, no trains arrive on time.
The medieval monks who forged a nobleman’s will to appropriate a valuable church | Culture
The monks of the San Pedro de Cardeña monastery, in Spain’s Burgos province, had long had their eye on the Santa María de Cuevas de Provanco church in Segovia. But the substantial inheritance that the Count of Castile, Asur Fernández, and his wife Guntroda, bequeathed them made no mention of this Romanesque church surrounded by beautiful vineyards.
Such was the ambition of the monastery to own the church that two hundred years after the death of the Count, they forged the parchment on which his will was written. Their only mistake was an omission to remove all the copies of the authentic will. Now, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the University of Burgos have been able to demonstrate that the fraudulent document, considered until now to be the oldest of those kept in the Historical Nobility Archive in Toledo, is in fact a forgery from the 12th century, and not from the year 943, as it claims.
The document faked by the monks – officially known as OSUNA, CP.37, D.9 – is a parchment on which round Visigothic script records a donation from the Count of Castile to the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña. Until now, the document was thought to be somewhat unique as hardly any original documents from the 10th century survive in Castilian Spanish. However, research has shown that it was actually drawn up two centuries later.
The research, to be made public shortly in the Medieval Studies Annual Report, has revealed which procedures were employed to doctor the will, as well as the motives that led the monks to do so. The forgers based their work on an authentic document stipulating a donation from the Count, inserting elements that were not in the original, in order to use it as evidence in potential lawsuits, two of which were subsequently filed and won by the monks.
The analysis of the document, carried out by Sonia Serna from the University of Burgos, has exposed anomalies both in its preparation and its writing. Serna explains that the scribe was accustomed to working with the 12th century Carolinian script, and made an effort to imitate the round Visigothic script typical of 10th century Castile. But anachronistic features crept into his work, such as the use of the Carolinian system of abbreviations and the adoption of anomalous solutions to abbreviate some words, elements that would not have existed in the 10th century. All the same, the forgery proved effective enough to win two court cases.
The forged document included a clause that ceded the church to the Burgos monastery
The original document used by the monk as a model for his forgery was lost. However, a copy survived in the collection of charters, known as Becerro Gótico de Cardeña and kept in the Zabálburu Library in Madrid. By comparing both texts, Julio Escalona from the CSIC History Institute verified that the monk copied the wording and appearance of the authentic will, but inserted a clause assigning the church of Santa María de Cuevas de Provanco to the monastery of San Pedro.
In 1175, the church of Santa María de las Cuevas was the subject of litigation between the monastery of San Pedro and the councils of Peñafiel and Castrillo de Duero. The Burgos monastery finally won by presenting the false parchment document and getting two monks to testify its authenticity. According to the experts, that document was the will filed in the Toledo archive, whose anomalous paleographic features are consistent with an elaboration in the second half of the 12th century, taking the original as a model.
“Its value does not lie in the anecdotal fact of its being or not being the oldest document in the archive [as was believed until now], but in showing how technical skills and moral and religious authority combined in this case to build a credible truth, capable of triumphing in a judicial scenario,” states the CSIC and University of Burgos study. “Ultimately, it reminds us that to fully understand any historical period, it is essential to understand how each period rewrites and manipulates its past.”
The monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, where the forgery was made, was completely plundered by the Napoleonic troops during the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808. The monks fled in terror and had to abandon all the treasures they had been guarding for centuries. One of the desecrated tombs was that of El Cid – or Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, with Napoleon’s soldiers selling off his weapons and remains throughout Europe. They even made engravings reflecting the plundering of the tomb of the legendary warrior. Today, a plaque states that although the remains of the Castilian hero are no longer here, his horse is buried in the monastery’s garden, though this may be no more than a myth.
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