I just heard one of the best pop hits I've heard in months. Obviously, it wasn't on the radio. Being neither a 14-year-old girl nor a 12-year-old girl, I am largely disenfranchised by pop radio. But that's why Al Gore invented the Internet. So that people like me could find listenable new music and so Charles Ramsey could become a pop sensation.
The Cleveland resident is a genuine star, on his way to earning $10,000 a pop for future speaking engagements. This is quite a leap from complete obscurity in just a month-and-a-half. In May, Ramsey became a YouTube sensation, unwittingly providing vocals for the autotune instant-classic, Dead Giveaway.
Ramsey's performance was one of nimble hilarity, especially considering the gravely unfunny circumstances that inspired it. Check the tapes for the carefully worded first-person testimony on his heroic rescue of the long-disappeared Amanda Berry and her fellow captives. Ramsey's humble everyman account of his actions, his perceptive observation on the fragile balance of racial relations in America's inner-cities, his use of the anatomically correct term testicles over the more colloquial 'balls' ...his local news sound-byte had it all.
Perhaps it's an exaggeration to say Ramsey is an accidental Chuck D. But he's not less charming than Flava Flav.
"Dead Giveaway" follows the formula of cut-and-paste songification that previously launched Antoine Dobson and Sweet Brown into the Internet Meme stratosphere.
From a musical standpoint, Ramsey's performance is a shade better than Antoine Dobson's "Hide Your Kids, Hide Your Wife," but nowhere near the musical revelation that is Sweet Brown's positively indelible "Ain't Nobody Got Time For That."
The rapid ascent of figures like Dobson, Brown and Ramsey speaks to the disposable nature of pop music in an era where content is free. Not to suggest we were ever that discerning before about the music we buy as a collective, but now that things are free, we don't have to give a second thought to dedicating 40 million YouTube plays to Sweet Brown, the Oklahoma resident who narrowly escaped an apartment fire without her shoes. We just have to decide if it's worth almost three minutes of our time.
Here's the funny thing about this one; it is worth your three minutes. It really is. The thing about the Sweet Brown song is -- um -- it's pretty good. No, that's not fair. It's really good. It's stuck in my head all the time. And as somebody who maintains a very busy work and social calendar, I recognize that when it comes to bronchitis, ain't nobody got time for that. And...and...I challenge you to tell me how Sweet Brown isn't better than Chris Brown?
Chris Brown worked for years to perfect that shitty sound. Sweet Brown got it right faster than you could smack a bitch.
And a star was born. Sweet Brown has commercial endorsement deals, t-shirts and a YouTube video with as many views as half those Mumford and Sons tunes.
I don't begrudge the Ramseys, Browns and Dobsons of the world their 15 minutes of fame. To put aside the potentially disturbing implications of fetishizing African-American stereotypes as channeled through Autotune, the YouTube sensations all share the more important common feature of being generally affable. I presume that if they came off as assholes, they'd have made poor protagonists for the narrative-style R&B tunes in which each has been featured.
They are part of the changing landscape of pop stardom. Punctuated by the cultural success of the Harlem Shake in all its (far, far too many) forms and the epidemic proliferation of the evocatively 1992-ish "Gangnam Style", YouTube is a powerful alternate path.
The way that we create 'hits' is many worlds away from that quaint era where DJs actually got in trouble for accepting bribes to play certain records. [Learn more about payola at your local library, but actually just at this link] The thought that a DJ could even influence the records you listen to is laughable. Satellite radio is a great place to listen to music but it's far too diffuse, splintered and random to promote hits. Mainstream radio is too homogenous and protectionist to allow random penetration.
YouTube is singular, it has no gatekeeper and there are no limits placed upon it, either by the record industry, the broadcast industry or available programming hours in a given day. This is a phenomenon that allowed Charles Ramsey to accumulate 16 million hits in less than a month.
Sweet Brown has registered almost 40 million hits, just a few clicks more than Justin Timberlake's "Suit & Tie" .
Antoine Dobson has 115 million hits, which is almost 17 million more than Rihanna's "Umbrella" has garnered since late 2009.
In case your curious...Psy's "Gangnam Style"? 1,637, 277, 021
Yeah, that's not a typo. More than one and a half billion listens. There's isn't much I can say about that. All I can do is pick up the pieces of my recently exploded brain and move on.
But at least Psy is an actual recording artist...of sorts.
His colleagues in the YouTube racket are just a couple of nice, lucky folks whose sunny disposition and individual eccentricities helped turned tragedy into levity.
But perhaps I'm minimizing their accomplishments. Perhaps Sweet Brown, Charles Ramsey, Antoine Dobson -- even that weird kid from the Chocolate Rain video -- perhaps they are actually performing an important function, fulfilling an obligation otherwise not met by the same-faced collection of soon-to-be-anonymous pop stars filling out pegs on the Billboard Charts. The rusted machinery that moves the old music business is, to put it gently, risk averse. Risk is largely represented by personal distinction, regional charm and individuality, the personality traits that once drove Jazz, then Rock, then Hip-Hop, to new heights of both artistic and commercial success. Today, the music industry is so desperate for short-term revenue that it fears anything or anyone that might undermine the generic cross-market appeal of an intentional hit.
The industry prefers to scrub its stars clean of individuality. The reason that Chris Brown is so hard to like, besides the obvious, is that his music does nothing to amplify his true personality, which is really what art should do. Art doesn't even have to be that good. It should just be a little honest. The reason Chris Brown can sing about love, romance and booty while behaving in a violent, insipid and deplorable manner is because he's really little more than an empty vessel through which professional songwriting and ace studio production are channeled. Meanwhile, he can carry on his separate life without ever missing a carefully choreographed beat.
Maybe the reason that we love Sweet Brown is that she is exactly who she appears to be.
With everything you hear on the radio, anything that charts on the Billboard, you understand that you're being sold something. You can feel that you're being sold something. Sweet Brown isn't selling anything...or at least she wasn't before. (Now she's in commercials for stuff like dentistry and auto-insurance lawyers. Incidentally, both commercials are just a little amazing.)
Sweet Brown's original local news performance was completely genuine and, obviously, without pretension. And the result was an Autotune song that is good enough to have been written by a professional songwriter, sold to Rihanna, popularized over three months of dance floor overplay and ultimately forgotten. Instead, "Ain't Nobody Got Time For That" has entered into the popular lexicon, permeated everyday conversation and penetrated our shared consciousness. It may only be another few months before white politicians are using the phrase in embarrassing ways to appear less out-of-touch with us common-folk.
Popular mainstream music lacks idiosyncrasy or memorable distinction as a matter of design. And so long as the music industry willfully avoids these qualities, we'll just have to find our pop music characters elsewhere.