Proceeding Unaccompanied

The pop music industry is experiencing an influx of new artists who were previously songwriters for other famous pop musicians, now trying to make their own break into the pop music scene, including Jason Derülo. Like most Top 40 hits, I detested Derülo’s “Ridin’ Solo” as soon as I heard it. I didn’t even know who the artist was; I just knew I hated it. Something about auto-tune, conventional synth beats, and his high octave nasal voice that comes off as whiny just doesn’t sit right with me. My first reactions to the dislike for this song are purely aesthetic choices in taste. However, what exactly is it about this taste that renders this song so appealing to some, and so distasteful to others like myself? Clearly there is subjective decision involved, but to elaborate upon what the nuances of taste are that distinguish myself from those who love “Ridin’ Solo” requires an analysis of the cultural and historical context surrounding this quasi-sociological study of popular music and taste, focusing on Jason Derülo’s single, “Ridin’ Solo.”

The first thing to note about the popular music industry is that it is exactly that: an industry. In this way, pop music has fulfilled the American dream, the Protestant work ethic, seen through mediums such as American Idol. Consequently it has entered the dangerous territory of its “paradoxical partnership” with capitalism. As Carl Wilson pointed out, capitalism’s entire goal is to move into a potential clientele and essentially exploit their tastes for profit, which is something the pop music industry has gotten really talented at. I think that the pop music industry is not completely an entity imposing its force upon a “duped” mass, rather it is more like what Ian Hacking called a “looping effect,” people are exposed to a certain culture or stereotype and react to it, in turn reinforcing or recreating that culture. The pop music industry is not telling people what to like, it’s recapitulating exactly what they think people will like. But the idea of my musical taste coming from a bunch of capitalist-minded entrepreneurs behind the scenes of the pretty faces of their weapon of choice, faces like Jason Derülo, sits with me badly.

Jason Derülo, born Jason Desrouleaux in Miami to Haitian parents, began his career as a songwriter for people like Diddy, Danity Kane, Sean Kingston, and Lil’ Wayne (Wikipedia). He, like many others, desired a solo (the double meaning is comical) performance career, which is what he got when music producer J.R. Rotem discovered him. In order to understand popular music and why people are drawn to “Ridin’ Solo” the philosophy of music producers, and Rotem in particular, must be explained as well.  In an interview with the website Hit Quarters, Rotem discussed Derülo’s debut single “Whatcha Say,” which sampled an Imogen Heap track, saying that he knows samples “work because they’re already hits familiar to people. Familiarity works.” He said something similar about the type of beats he produces that appear in “Ridin’ Solo.” When asked about his opinions on the popular music, Rotem describes his productions along the lines that he is required to create music that is a “service people will want to spend their money on,” and he distinguishes his music as “commercial appeal” versus “very weird” and “artistic music.” This illustrates perfectly Hall’s idea of pop culture as a battlefield, where people are constantly pushing the boundaries in the name of innovation while restricted by cultural ideologies that would condemn them to failure, which means no money. In fact, Rotem’s music “has something innovative [and] fresh, but at the same time not so innovative that it’s over people’s heads.” Perhaps people are seeing his renditions of more familiar tracks and beats as innovation, and so they are pleased with an alternate view of familiarity. This adaptation in something already done is respectable, and is indeed innovative to some degree, a respectable aspect of Rotem’s business. He even goes so far as to separate himself from art, calling his music “commercial appeal” and “artistic music” “very weird.” While I may not disagree with him because of my own bias against the music he produces, I find it strange that he is in a way rejecting his own music as art. Maybe he only sees it as good business sense and profit—strictly business. While I view Rotem’s perspective of his demographic as cultural “dupes,” having no faith in their artistic or taste sensibilities and trying not to make music that goes “over their heads,” I feel it’s more of a safe move of Rotem so as to eschew failure and the surrender of profit.

But it is still necessary to investigate what about “Ridin’ Solo” in particular that appeals to so many people embedded in a mass culture. On the surface, it is exactly what Rotem wanted, a catchy tune of familiarity to appeal to mass audiences, an intentional absence of innovation to avoid making people feel uncomfortable. The beat present in the song is practically universal; almost anyone can dance to it. I believe this is a crucial component to most pop music—danceabliity. In my opinion, Derülo’s hit is more it’s success in dance clubs and less lyrics or story that are responsible for it’s success. The song’s danceability is the reason why it became the number four hit single in Australia, nineteen in Canada, number one in the United Kingdom, and number nine in the United States in 2010, the year it was released (“Whatcha Say” was considerably more successful, reaching number one in the United States).

That is not to say that the lyrics are superfluous to its meaning or success. “Ridin Solo” tells the story of an unidentified person, probably anyone, who is elated about their newfound bachelorhood. I was skeptical at first, how this song’s lyrics could appeal to so many if it’s about the failure of love, however I soon realized a positive effect of this song. The lyrics explicitly assert autonomy, in lines such as “Finally doing me and it feels so right/ Time to do the things I like,” “No one to answer to,” and “I’m livin’ my life, ain’t got stress no more.” And autonomy is not such a negative quality to possess. The song, rather than applauding the failure of a relationship, demeaning the other person, and acclaiming the lack of companionship, the song is welcoming individuality and sovereignty through an extremely conventional medium and equally extremely repetitious lyricism. The only lines that express contempt towards the narrator’s ex-lover are “Told me to get my shit together/ Now I got my shit together,” not so much subjugating the other party but reinforcing the woven theme of autonomy throughout the song. Derülo sings about the “pain [being] gone,” and that he is “sorry but it’s over now,” communicating to his audience that it is better to end a bad relationship with someone instead of let it persist. Emotionally speaking, Derülo makes it exasperatingly clear that it is better to be content than be in a bad relationship, to “ride solo.”

Other factors that may possibly play into the success of “Ridin’ Solo” aside from its danceability and praise of autonomy are much more material. It seems that Derülo is marketed similar to the persona conveyed by the early Chris Brown, the pretty, ladies’ man/boy, who cares about women and love and is still “cool.” He even has the dance talent of Chris Brown aside from the uncanny looks and vocal style. In a way, Derülo is catering to the audience that is scarred by Chris Brown’s abuse of Rhianna and need a new person to look up to. Still, it seems that Derülo has fulfilled what Rotem said about him, that he “has one of the most impressive work ethics [Rotem has] ever come across—he just keeps knocking out songs in the studio. That’s an amazing quality.” Indeed it is a good quality, if economic capital is the desired result in lieu of cultural capital. He is reinforcing the notion of the pop music industry as a machine, churning out formulated hit after hit, playing it safe with “familiar” beats and samples that aren’t too innovative.

This correspondence between capitalism and music, Rotem’s disregard for “art,” and Derülo’s exhausting repetition and my own personal aversion for this type of aesthetic reveals something about my own opinions about music. Derülo has taught me that there is not an absence of substance in pop music, rather it is overwhelmingly elementary because it is bound by the confines of music producers like Rotem who need to ensure that it will be generalized to appeal to as many people in a market as possible to drive profit. While I respect Rotem’s perspective on innovation, placing a new spin on a familiar track, he seems to compromise art and aestheticism for the sake of profit. Personally, this forced superficiality and refrain from innovation or talent cannot be undermined by greed; I see it as an excuse to play it safe and lazily ride the wave of profit in place of advancing the music to a more sincere or different level. While appealing to a mass audience is a valuable and productive method for communicating a message, this should not inhibit music’s emotion and profound meaning. I believe this is the reason why “Ridin’ Solo” so obnoxiously relays a valuable message to a mass audience—he has been intentionally blocked from creating anything innovative or compelling because of capitalism and the need to produce a catchy dance beat for the clubs. This may say something about my own “eliticism” or notions of bourgeois aestheticism tied to socioeconomic class, but my aversion comes from the fact that greed and profit are not justified reasons to produce insipid music that actually has potential. I would rather assert my own autonomy and ride solo of Jason Derülo’s “Ridin’ Solo.”


1 Response to “Proceeding Unaccompanied”

  1. 1 Apryl Berney 23 May 2011 at 9:28 pm

    Your post is excellent. It’s sophisticated, thoughtfully researched and nuanced. I think Carl Wilson would be proud.

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