Computer-generated with soul left intact

April 21, 2006

CRAZY: The UK number one single by Gnarls Barkley

The conventional wisdom is that if the pop charts ever mattered, they don't anymore. They no longer serve as a barometer of the taste and cultural vitality of the nation, their audience fragmented in the age of the internet, multichannel and short-attention-span celebrity culture. And where once a number one could make a fortune and define a moment - be it Ghost Town or The Birdy Song - singles sales are now economically insignificant, a loss leader for the major labels that turn a profit on albums.

Nowadays, a single can top the charts by selling a fraction of what was once required before being replaced by another ephemeral popstrel the following week. This is why the current number one - Crazy by Gnarls Barkley - comes as such a surprise. First, everyone seems to be talking about it, buying it, loving it. Second, the track is really rather fantastically good. Third, it is the first number one to get there on the strength of download sales alone.

Cyber-pundits have long talked up how the internet's inherent abilities to create and distribute at low cost would fundamentally challenge the political economy of the music industry. The promise was of "democratising"

the media space - more diverse and better music, produced and distributed digitally, circumventing the major labels with their arrogant gate-keeping strategies, their big-budget studios and creativity-cramping contracts.

Record companies ignored the threat and then came over all litigious. But gradually the piratical spirit of the file-sharers was tamed. The coup de grâce came in a cute white box: the iPod. This alchemical gizmo transformed the lead of illegal downloaders into the gold of legitimate consumers.

Gnarls Barkley are signed to a major labelJ - Warner Music - that "released" the downloadable single, in advance of the conventional CD single, through paid-for download services such as iTunes. The 31,000 people who pushed Crazy to the top of the UK charts were not copyright-busting file sharers - they were customers. Crazy is not the triumph of the cutting-edge download generation - it marks the co-option of the new distribution system by the old.

Yet the bitter pill is sugar-coated. There is even something hopeful about the song itself. Featuring the un-slick, soulful vocals of Cee-Lo Green, over the perky not-quite-hip-hop beat of producer Dangermouse, the track exemplifies aspects of our current age worth celebrating. It is digital "lo-fi", marrying the DIY portability of the laptop with the timeless qualities of pop songwriting - catchy hooks, intriguingly vague lyrics and a real sense of collaboration. Digital need not mean mechanical; the computer can enable the organic. Culturally the song symbolises the ethos of the "mash-up". It is music of the digital cosmopolis. Clearly hip-hop and soul influenced, it does not trade in the cliches of black identity. Cee-Lo is a soul singer in the "southern fried" surrealist school, an Al Green with a dash of Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Dangermouse made his name producing an album that blended The Beatles' White Album with rapper Jay-Z's Black Album (the Grey Album , geddit?). The song has something insistent but fragile, an uncanny grain in the voice, the sign of something missing for a long time from pop - an iconoclastic, rhythmic intelligence.

Despite the digi-dazzle, the economics of Crazy sing the same old song. Yet it does carry the unmistakable tang of a new era, one beyond the tiresome prison language of identity.

Caspar Melville is editor of New Humanist magazine .

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