The last time I wrote this column, you might remember, I described an LMFAO-headlined LDOC lineup as my nightmare. Naturally, the LDOC committee went ahead and made that a reality by booking Redfoo. Of course, he cancelled a couple days ago and saved the committee from themselves; with a handful of exceptions, nearly anyone they could book will be preferable to a LMFAO-associated act. Thankfully, the old line about our best laid plans applies as well to our worst-laid plans.
Crisis averted (or at least delayed). But as easy as it is to scapegoat the LDOC committee as unduly influential and out of touch with the tastes of the student body, that’s probably not a fair description. A cursory glance at Facebook makes it pretty clear that at least a good portion of us were genuinely excited when Redfoo was announced as the headliner, and genuinely disappointed when he cancelled. So the vexing question remains: Why do we want LMFAO at LDOC, anyway?
The simplest answer: “Because they’re on pop radio.” That explanation is true as far as it goes, and there’s certainly substance to the notion that, no matter who you are, your anticipation of a given concert is positively correlated with how many times you’ve heard the artist’s music. But that argument talks past what really bothers me, and presumably some other people, about booking LMFAO as Duke’s LDOC headliner.
LMFAO make music that exists solely to be popular. This is a group who, aptly, titled their first album Party Rock and their second Sorry for Party Rocking. This is music that, as Nitsuh Abebe observed, isn’t just made to be played in the club—as is the best of mainstream pop music—it’s actually about the club, too. Perhaps this is a product of self-awareness or of a lack of imagination, but the depressing part here isn’t so much how this music is motivated as how it is received—enthusiastically and by lots and lots of people, who see no need for an impetus to party beyond the existence of a party itself.
That might sound bitter or condescending, but I don’t mean it that way. The problem I see here isn’t one of hedonism—to my knowledge, people don’t party any more or less in a post-LMFAO world than they did before. But the success of LMFAO—and the Black Eyed Peas, and plenty of others of their ilk; read “LMFAO” synecdochically from here on out—implies that there is no longer a need for music to resonate on an individual level in order to be popular.
An example: Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is a kiss-off to a bad boyfriend. Sure, it also sounds like pop music, and you could derive some enjoyment from listening to the song without ever having been in a disappointing relationship (or ever speaking English, for that matter). But any number of scorned women (or men) empathize with Adele’s position, and that’s really why “Rolling in the Deep” is popular: because it encapsulates something that is universally experienced but individually felt. You could make a similar claim about a song like “N****s in Paris”: most people can’t relate to actually owning the New Jersey Nets, but their enjoyment of the song comes from experiencing that fantasy. These songs go on people’s party playlists because they’ve been dumped before, or imagined going gorillas in Paris, and because they recognize those experiences as relatively common. Those songs establish a basis for partying beyond the existence of the party itself
By contrast, “Party Rock Anthem” (and the whole LMFAO catalog, really) dispenses with that intermediary step. It’s not on your party playlist (or pop-radio rotation) because you enjoy it and you want to listen to it with others who enjoy it. It’s on there because it has the word “Party” in the title, and if it weren’t on your party playlist, where would it be? There’s no reason to listen to the song in any other context—here, I’ll reassert that if it weren’t being played in front of large groups of people, if it weren’t popular, it wouldn’t exist.
What LMFAO do, then, is aim squarely for the lowest common denominator. You needn’t have share in any popular experience or belief to party to their music—you just need to be at the party. Given the way this stuff has evolved—into Euro dance music so comically derivative it almost seems aware of its own artifice—I would argue that the enjoyment people feel when they hear “Party Rock Anthem” is entirely the result of association. It’s not a good song, but it was playing at that party that I enjoyed attending.
Why do we want LMFAO at LDOC? I’m still not sure. They’re the sort of act that you’d want to book for a party if no one at the party knew each other or had anything in common, and if everyone in attendance was very vapid and easily amused. At risk of sounding like a complete douche, the Duke student body is not typically synonymous with the lowest common denominator—relative to your average voter, they’re savvier consumers of food and news media and financial services and most everything else. So why not music?
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