Commentary

Put some more thought into your pop

Updated: July 28, 2009, 1:28 PM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

Passion Pit is a current darling of the indie1 set. In 2008, the electropowerpop band released "Chunk of Change," an EP that was an extension of a four-song demo that lead singer Michael Angelakos gave his girlfriend for Valentine's Day. The songs on "Chunk of Change" are sweet like a watermelon Blow Pop coated in powdered sugar and dipped in unicorn dreams. They're so sweet, in fact, that it is difficult to believe the indie population -- once the bellwether for bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden -- could embrace it.

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Tim Mosenfelder/Getty ImagesMichael Angelakos' Passion Pit released a near-perfect album earlier this year with "Manners."

The Pit released their debut full-length in May. If it were up to me, that release would have been accompanied by universal acclaim and a run up the charts. But it's not up to me, and I'm left to wonder what, exactly, people want out of their music.

As of this writing, the Billboard Hot 100 is dominated by the worst music group ever concocted (the Black Eyed Peas), two marketing geniuses (Lady Gaga and Katy Perry) and assorted one-act wonders (e.g., Taylor Swift and Sean Kingston, whoever that is). As is almost always the case, the chart is controlled by pop music.

Passion Pit also performs pop music. But theirs is original, with lyrics that are neither banal nor completely predictable. The No. 1 song in the land, on the other hand, consists of lyrics that I would write if I were (A) 7 years old and (B) the recent recipient of a lobotomy.

In years past, I understood the mainstream's rejection of indie music. I don't expect the average sorority girl, whose days are filled with easy classes and doting boys, to relate to "Lithium" (Nirvana song, for the uninitiated). Nirvana is for people like me -- people who are subject to existential crises after activities like waking up in the morning.

Several years ago, I dated a young woman who was an afternoon DJ for one of the pop radio stations in Kansas City. One night, I got to tag along to a dinner with Mandy Moore, who was in town to promote an album of covers she had recorded as a departure from her more bubblegum days. I had spent the afternoon prior to the supper wondering how I was going to get Moore to fall in love with me while handicapped by a date. My concern was unwarranted; I spent the two hours willing myself not to gouge out my ears with a fork: She was that vapid, and that self-absorbed.

I'm sure Moore has matured into a lovely person; it isn't my intention to engage in a character assassination. The point is what happened after. When we got to my date's car, I launched into a tirade against popular music. It was the sort of tirade for which I am well-known among my family: uncompromising, vitriolic and obnoxious. But somewhere in all that anger was a good point. Why, when there is all this good music in the world, was my semi-girlfriend's employer kowtowing to "artists" like Mandy Moore?

My question still stands. Why, when Passion Pit is churning out a near-perfect album like "Manners," are the Black Eyed Peas still famous?

Not dance-tastic enough, you say? Try "Little Secrets" on for size.

Not enough hooks? Give "Swimming In the Flood" a listen. Convince me that it doesn't have the best keyboard intro you've heard in months.

Still skeptical of this brand of indie pop? Admittedly, Angelakos' voice might not be for everyone. It does have a tendency to veer into territory occupied by Sunny Day Real Estate and the Polyphonic Spree. In that case, I have another submission -- one that still qualifies as indie, although I can barely believe it.

The band is Discovery; their album is, uncreatively, called "LP."

Discovery is Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij and Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles, plus 86 synthesizers and 147 MacBooks Pro. (Statistics are unsubstantiated.) Their album is -- if this is even possible -- more saccharine-sweet than Passion Pit's. And while I'm a sucker for a happy tune, it's almost too much for me; I'm not sure it will be in my collection a year from now. "LP" might be this summer's black snakes -- those quasi fireworks that turn into, well, black snakes when you hold a match to them. Fun and thrilling, but also disposable and short-lived.

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Graham Denholm/Getty ImagesRostam Batmanglij's Discovery "LP" might fizzle out eventually, but it's fun while it lasts.

Which isn't to say that Discovery isn't worth a purchase. For preparation for a night out, nothing is better.

But "LP" probably should have been an EP. About half the songs on Discovery were ready for release; the other five need further incubation. There are highlights -- including an Auto-Tuned cover of The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" that I bring up not because of a pop star whose bizarre predilections have been forgiven by death but because it's sort of awesome.

The "sort of" pops up because I'm leery of Auto-Tune, the voice enhancement software utilized to the point of ubiquity by Akon and T-Pain. Auto-Tune makes me think of computer-generated actors and magazine photo spreads that are airbrushed until dumb males like me start to think that women's bodies are actually that perfect. But I'll save my neurotic concerns about the future of entertainment for another day. I'm trying to answer only one question here, and I still haven't done so.

Passion Pit is not making music in a vacuum. They have a label; they play shows; the Internet does exist. Discovery isn't anonymous, either. So why are people not listening to their music?

The answer, I'm afraid, confronts me every day when I leave the house. I often forget that half of the humans who make up the world's population have IQs below 100. I also forget that James Patterson makes The New York Times best-seller list by vomiting on pieces of parchment and binding them together, while David Mitchell novels go largely unread.

Stupid people consume whatever is put in front of them. What is put in front of them, musically, is crap that appeals to the lobotomized 7-year-old inside of all of us. Which means the Black Eyed Peas get rich, and Passion Pit stays obscure.

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Danny Martindale/WireImageYou don't "gotta get-get, gotta get-get" anything by the Black Eyed Peas.

None of that explains why you, dear reader, don't know about either of these bands.2 If you're reading this, you can work a computer and navigate the Internet to this page. Which means that you are not an idiot. (Unless you came from the NASCAR section.) Congratulations are in order: Like me, you're prone to the occasional existential question and you might be in line for a nervous breakdown one day. Aren't you lucky?

Unfortunately, you might not have time to combat the sheer depth of idiocy at work in the world of popular music. You have to do things such as working and sleeping and dealing with your senile Uncle Lenny. You can be forgiven, as long as you take advantage of this opportunity. Use that massive brain of yours: Listen to music that is catchy and has something to say. Listen to Passion Pit or Discovery.

But do it fast, because it seems unlikely that the current indie music trend will last much longer. Soon, things will go back to the way they were: Bands will figure out that happy music gets them just as far as sad music did, and "indie" equation will once again = The Walkmen + Calla. Enjoy engaging your inner microcephalopod while you can.

And then tell someone about it.


1 As it applies to music, the term "indie" was coined to describe the music released by independent labels. Eventually, its definition morphed to encompass music that sounded like the music released by independent labels. Now, the word has flipped from purveyor to audience, so that "indie" music is the music of the "indie" crowd. That is, indie music is the music preferred by the crowd that used to prefer independent labels but can no longer distinguish which labels are independent because most of those labels have been bought by large corporations, or have become large corporations themselves.

2 Unless you do. Know about Passion Pit and Discovery, that is. If that's the case, I hope that you were at least able to enjoy my condescending attitude toward stupid people and that you won't hold against me the fact that it took me this long to write about The Pit.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.

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