Friday, July 22, 2005

"These Boots" Genre Paradox?

This morning the New York Times' ran a piece by Kalefa Sanneh on Jessica Simpson and Willie Nelson's recent cover of "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'," the single released to promote The Dukes of Hazzard. Sanneh examines the song as a peculiar meeting of wildly different musical styles, aimed at "pleasing both the country and dance-pop constituencies." The article suffers woefully from being almost entirely beside the point, not to mention from the four identifications of the song's beat as "reggae."

Citing other recent collaborations - Nelly and Tim McGraw, Jay-Z and Linkin Park - Sanneh suggests the emergence of a new phenomenon. Hmm. "Walk This Way?" (Oh, snizzap!)
In mainstream music, unlike mainstream movies, genre still counts for a lot, which is part of the reason "These Boots" sounds so odd: you don't expect to hear those performers and those genres all colliding.
Where exactly are the signs of this collision? Nelson's accompaniment hardly recalls Red Headed Stranger here (Sanneh tellingly concedes that he's "so quiet you can barely hear him"). For you color wheel enthusiasts out there, this is kinda like mixing sage and chartreuse, then claiming to have invented green by combining blue and yellow.... That probably didn't make any sense. Skip it, it's also beside the point. In the modern crossover hit, the decisions have almost nothing to do with genre, basically boiling down to what to sample, who to help with the chorus, and maybe who to tap for a guest verse. The "mix-and-match hits" Sanneh talks about are less musical blenders than unexpected joint-publicity appearances. Teen music hasn't been about songs in a long, long time; it's about stars. Sanneh agrees:
it's odd that Ms. Simpson's career as a celebrity has had so little to do with music. By now she's much better known for her reality TV series, "Newlyweds," than for any of her albums; it's hard to think of another pop star who's so recognizable despite having so few recognizable hits.
Success is largely a matter of continued exposure. If done properly, perpetual presence works as a place-holder for the actual songs. Music still gets made and, in fairness, it's often terrific ("Toxic," "Yeah!," "Hot in Herre," "Lose My Breath"), but most of the time it's, again, beside the point. In teen music marketing, the music video is arguably more important than the music, and the TRL drop-in has basically replaced the concert.
You can't have genre-scrambling pop songs if you don't have genres, and that's the paradox of "These Boots," which gets its charge from the fact that there are genre lines to blur.
I need not patronize by calrifying where "These Boots" gets its charge. The cover doesn't need to challenge generic convention, nor to succeed in any single genre. It's not being cynical to admit that hits like this simply rely on the ability to transmit images of, in this case, Simpson (real or imagined) to the largest number of people possible. This means that dance radio, top 40 radio, new country radio, MTV, VH1, CMT, a few morning talk shows, and numerous advertisements. The shortcut to doing this on an emormous scale is to find a lowest common denominator, and Simpson has the the universal (if less-than-rabid) following to push past that problem like it was the bathroom line at the Nacional.

Alright, enough pedantic prattle! If my rant seems like a waste of time and keyboard-wear, it's probably because it is. But please do me the favor of taking a glance at Sanneh's article. Somebody actually got paid for that one.


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