Back when I used to roam the internet picking fights with strangers over records, one of my favourite things to do was to throw flaker pop in the faces of middle-aged American men. Flaker pop is my name for a specific kind of music made in the 2000s. Flaker pop records were made by slightly obscure bands, tended to be good-humoured and cleverly crafted, often erred on the side of prettiness, and – crucially and without exception – hadn’t a hint of originality about them. Indeed, it looked as though they had been deliberately made to eschew anything new or difficult.
The men I tormented with my flakers were message board-dwellers, late-sleepers, friendless alcoholics, and compulsive vinyl buyers; anachronisms in their late forties and fifties who, by the strange process of osmosis which slowly turns collectors into the things that they collect, had ended up much like the albums they would hoard. They loved Harry Nilsson, and Randy Newman, Carole King, and Joni Mitchell; like their songs, they were measured and earnest, striving to be insightful, slightly overbearing, and fundamentally sincere even in jest.
For them, flaker pop posed a moral dilemma (this was just the sort of crowd who would find a moral dilemma in a pop record): on the one hand, they could relate to the music – being relentlessly derivative, it was also relentlessly familiar, which is an attractive quality in a world which is changing too quickly for comfort. On the other hand, they were the product of a value system that was antithetical to that of their heroes; far from being driven by the honest urge to create significant, moving art, flaker boys and girls seemed content to waste their energies on what must have seemed like fashionable, but vapid imitation.
Consider these gems: Quasi’s Drunken Tears, OK Go’s It’s Tough to Have a Crush, Tiny Robots by the Phenomenauts, and the Fiery Furnaces’ shabby multi-part Mason City could all sit comfortably on side three of the White Album. The glorious Pipettes – who were all legs, lipstick, pouts, and polka dots – couldn’t, but that’s because the White Album doesn’t have any girl group pop on it. My favourite song of theirs is called Sex, but it’s not smutty at all: it could’ve been the Ronettes or the Chiffons and nobody would know the difference.
And that’s really what galled people about this music: there was a lot of it around, but charming as it was, it seemed to consist entirely of rewrites and rehashes, not a brand new idea in sight. If not deliberately lazy, then it at least pointed to some kind of deep-seated generational character flaw: who in their right mind would squander talent and effort on what amounted to little more than a knowing in-joke?
And, if a knowing in-joke was all I asked of music, then clearly there was something wrong with me.
I used to laugh it off, of course – as everyone knew, balding and pale-skinned internet geeks didn’t understand fun, and they could stuff their lukewarm hippie ideas about looking at things from both sides now for all I cared. I had my Asthma Attack, and I knew which one was better to wiggle to. In any case, the argument for originality was a jaded bit of theory; by that logic, Rush would be a better band than T-Rex. And anyway, whatever the truth, people who weren’t getting laid were in no position to talk down to those that were.
All that is still true, of course, but I think now that there’s another, more complex reason, and it’s one that I’m uncomfortable admitting, even to myself.
And this has to do with commitment: people like me are lazy and ungrateful, and we can’t work up the guts to finish what we start. I need to be drunk to be happy, and I run away when things look like they’re going to get rough. I treat people badly who deserve better, and I do it because it’s easier than pulling my weight, and I haven’t filed my tax returns yet because the prospect of spending three minutes filling out a form seems too daunting. I have friends who are clever and well-spoken and know history and read books, but none of them do anything with their lives because they’re too busy making excuses: I’m just like that too.
My flaker music goes perfectly with this: there’s nothing useful or important about it, it’s lightweight and it’s cool; it’s like jabbing instant happiness into my arm, and I don’t care if that happiness is short-lived.
It’s as empty as an online affair or a one-night stand. It’s like telling the girl you picked up at the pub that you love her to pieces – and believing, for the moment, that you really, truly do – knowing full well that you’ll never see her again, not have to worry about whether she’s sick or well, who she’s with, or what she thinks of you.
But I dine out on that kind of shallowness. It’s like all the good things in life without the trouble of having to clean up afterwards. And the fact that there’s absolutely no substance doesn’t change a thing, because tomorrow there’ll be another record, and another affair, and I’ll be exactly as happy again, and that’s the only thing that counts.