Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Timbaland: Today's Beatles

I'm listening to Timbaland's Shock Value for the second time right now. It's a strong album, not quite as effective as his work with Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado last year, but it's seventeen weird, but catchy songs like only he can make. At this point, Timbaland is so ubiquitous, and just so fucking good, he's creating songs that are critically respected and beloved by club kids, hip hoppers and elitist indie hipsters. His work transcends boundaries in a way that reminds me of very few artists before, one of the most notable being The Beatles.

The Beatles have become something of an institution, they're so good, it's barely worth talking about them. What can we really say that will add to what's come before? Perhaps a little something. I think of the most notable things about The Beatles is the fact that they were simultaneously the most groundbreaking band in the history of recorded music and the most popular. That happens so rarely, in film and literature, it always seems to take a few years for people to catch up to the really good art. Spielberg is probably the closest thing film has to a Beatles, but he's much more mainstream and traditional than The Beatles were.

The genius of The Beatles was their ability to experiment so much within an accessible form, the three minute pop song. Part of the reason they've been so analyzed is the layers within the songs, the many instrumental tracks and subtle details. Like a lot of great artists, they seemed to be positively running over with ideas, leading to songs like "A Day in the Life," which fuse together two potentially good songs into one great one. Listening to Rubber Soul or Revolver is intimidating, to hear just how many now classic songs they stacked, one after the other. Virtually all their songs have become part of our collective culture, everyone just seems to know every Beatles song, you can't say that for other very respected bands from their era, even massively popular ones like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin.

While there certainly isn't a direct correlation between popularity and artistic credibility, I think it's important to look at music's place in our collective consciousness. While I may love some Daft Punk songs more than ""One More Time," if I was in a club, I'd rather hear "OMT" than " Face to Face" just because it's what people know. There's nothing like hearing people cheer when a song is dropped, and a song has to have a certain level of popularity to reach that point. That's why it's important that we still have mainstream radio, or some kind of media through which songs can become widely popular. Without that, we lose our shared culture. Part of the reason that 80s songs are so ubiquitous today is because everyone knows them, and you can't say that about most bloghouse tracks. I'd imagine a large part of why people go to concerts is just to be with a bunch of people who know the same songs and love the same band, it's the collective experience as much as the performance.

The 90s was a downtime for pop music, a lot of bad songs were wildly popular. Now, there's always going to be bad songs that go over, but there's very few popular 90s songs that were actually good. So, I've been really happy to see pop music resurge in the 00s, thanks primarily to two producer teams, The Neptunes and Timbaland. These two put together a list of incredible songs that were both great songs and incredibly popular. The Neptunes have slipped off the radar a bit, but looking at the songs they were involved in earlier this decade is astonishing.

But, this past year, Timbaland has surged ahead, with an unprecedented dominance of radio and the pop culture music space. Most of this is his work with Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake. It's been amazing to watch Justin go from middle school girl icon to one of the most respected men in music, largely because his work with Timbaland is just amazing. The album has spawned five singles, and there's still a bunch of strong tracks in the wings. It's so rare that a song become both incredibly popular and get such strong critical response, but "My Love" did just that, getting love from everyone.

What does it all mean? Basically, I think it's important that we have a collective musical experience to draw on as a culture, and I'm glad that Timbaland is making it such a good one. He's making the best and most popular songs, and dominating things in a way that The Beatles did before him. Artists may say they don't want to be popular, or it doesn't matter to them, but I think ultimately all of us want people to love our art, only some artists are most willing to make compromises to do that than others. I pride myself on making the movies I want, but it's tough to watch people respond to a mainstream comedy more than my stuff. What I want is for people to love the movie I want to make. I'm not quite able to do that yet, but with music, Timbaland is. It takes a little bit, but already, his solo album is spawning a bunch of hits. "The Way I R" hooked me, and it's getting better with very listen. I'm really glad to be part of a time when an artist like Justin Timberlake can get the respect of everyone, that we've moved past the idea that being popular, or being pop, is equal to selling out.