Bobbyisms: In favour of substance, in defence of style

I write about random things a lot. I write a lot about random things. And I have a confession: I have borrowed a copy of Jello Biafra's spoken word album I Blow Minds For A Living from a dear friend for far too long.

His third spoken word album recorded since the Dead Kennedys disbanded, I Blow Minds For A Living casts Biafra's fiery stance on issues like censorship, the war on drugs and his 1981 run for mayor of San Francisco against disarming wit and humour. His message is well-delivered, but one could say that Biafra's delivery is an art form in itself.

I've taken exceptional care of it, but even I can't deny that I'm no better now than everyone who hasn't returned a CD to me. And I know this album means as much to my friend as The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me by Brand New does to me — the album's impact is rooted in inspiration, and there's hardly a more substantial connection to be made.

The topic of substance in popular music seems to come up in conversation a lot lately, particularly as award shows litter the entertainment world in the first few months of the year. Unfortunately, commercial acclaim in the music industry is as rare as it is difficult to earn, and you should only engage someone in discussion on the merit of an artist or album if you're prepared to have an argument without a clear winner.

Conversely, the argument in favour of style speaks largely for itself — anyone who has ever admitted to having a ‘guilty pleasure' song or CD knows exactly how it feels to shrug off a corny lyric or cheeseball dance move and just enjoy music for the way it makes you feel.

These days, the perennial battle of substance vs. style seems to be more divided than ever. Patrick McMullen — a senior analyst at Fizziology, a company that translates social media data into market intelligence for businesses — wrote a guest column for Digital Media Wire recently in which he described how music listeners consume music online in remarkably similar ways to that in real life.

“Like comparing FM radio listeners to mix-CD makers and record store enthusiasts, people vary widely in their preferences for how and what they listen to online,” McMullen wrote. He noted that listeners who prefer Top 40 and other popular radio formats prefer playlist-based services online, like iHeartRadio, Songza and other radio-like services.

“iHeartRadio users are mentioning Top 40 artists and songs in 28 per cent of all social media posts about specific bands, artists, songs or genres,” he explained. “In contrast ... people who listen to music on, Rdio and Spotify mention very little Top 40 music. Less than 2 per cent of all music-talk from users of any of these services mention Top 40 music.”

Even online, audiences are divided by how they wish to consume music. But on the bright side, depending on where you wish to spend your time, whether at the record store or bumping on the Internet to Songza, you are going to be surrounded by a community of like-minded listeners.

And the next time you feel inspired to debate the importance of music or the connections that people make with it, consider this: around the same time as spiritual songs drove slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, Ludwig van Beethoven was still composing and performing in Europe, where chamber music was still popular entertainment.

There is room for variety, so take heart — whether you're in support of or against the idea of Fun. taking home an armload of Grammy Awards, or that the JUNO Awards are so pop-centric year after year, keep in mind that substance comes around again soon enough. Don't forget it was only last year in 2012 that Adele took home a stable of Grammys, and when the music gets powerful enough, it will happen again.

For more music news, views and perspectives, consider following this column on Twitter @fsu_bobbyisms. Most heartfelt congratulations to the recently announced JUNO nominees for 2013, and particularly to those who have appeared in Interrobang, including Classified, Big Wreck, Royal Wood, Cancer Bats, The Strumbellas and more. All the best for the big show! I'm out of words.