Owen Myers on how the middlebrow came to be the place to be
With his Blog Popping Off, Dazed’s new music editor Owen Myers reports on pop music.
The Middlebrow is the epicentre of the mainstream music industry that everything revolves around, with Emeli Sandé and Mumford & Sons the golden geese du jour. You hear the tireless pulse of the Middlebrow in nigh on every ad jingle, Pride of Britain ident and A-listed grown-up guitar twang. It's the bread and butter of pop that wishes it was a sourdough baguette.
The Middlebrow is a thorny and unpindownable thing, a bit like a giant loofah wedged between the high and low brow as it sucks moisture from both. Just as the avant-garde is by definition ever-changing, and the forces of the lowest-common denominator fluctuate constantly, the Middlebrow is always chasing its tail as it mercilessly subsumes the once-boundary-pushing into its sticky hodgepodge. U2 and Muse fell into this chasm at some point in the last decade. Poor Dido never made it out.
But as delicious and chart-dominating as the Middlebrow can be, it's surprising that it's so critically ignored (apart from in the sunday supplements of dentre-right broadsheets). Why is the Middlebow the elephant in the room? The easy answer is that, frankly, a lot of it's not very good. A waste of everyone's time – so tasteful that it insults taste, too sure of its intelligence to provide anything intelligent. But we need to talk about the Middlebrow, not least because everyone has a memory of how it informed and shaped their current taste.
For me, the pop/rock singer Michelle Branch was my initiation to The World Of Alternative Music. She was launched in 2001 by Maverick Records as an Alanis Morissette for the Dawson's Creek generation: alternative enough for a vintage tee, but not above a slick of Juicy Tube. For about a year, all I listened to were the catchy confessionals of her debut album The Spirit Room, which in its own roundabout way got me into No Doubt and Riot Grrrl, and later Suicide and Throbbing Gristle. At its darkest turn, it was a road that had me as a tank-top wearing student trying to instigate a 4am singalong to Slint's 'Good Morning, Captain'.
The alternative and mainstream converge in the middle, just by the CD racks in Tesco where the Les Misérables OST and Adele battle it out for best-seller. If there was a Middlebrow Mall, a mid-morning stroll around it might throw up Sonic Youth's Starbucks compilation Hits Are For Squares, Green Day's ¡Tré! on yellow vinyl (exclusive to Hot Topic), and Taylor Swift merchandise on its dedicated Walgreens stand-alone. Should you wish to sit on the country chanteuse's face, you're in luck - a deluxe package of Red includes a rug branded with Swift's visage.
The online magazine DIS was launched in 2010 and seeks to give a platform to the Middlebrow. “We are more interested in Burlington Coat Factory than Prada," said DIS co-founder Lauren Boyle to The New York Times last year. "Midtown isn’t high or low, it’s medium. For us that’s where the fertile, untrodden ground is. Mass-market department stores are not where the trends go to die, it’s where they culminate.”
You feel that Boyle and her DIS colleagues would find more of interest among the JLS posters and outdated iPhone 4 accessories of HMV's closing down sale than the tasteful listening booths of Rough Trade. HMV was not known for its curation or taste but its adaptability to the needs and desires of consumers, and was the place where the (occasionally bracing) reality of UK music consumption reached its apex. As a barometer of general listening habits, it's irreplaceable.
Radio and mainstream formats often influence the work of the musical avant-garde, too. Fatima Al Qadiri is a regular collaborator to DIS who talked about finding inspiration in the Middlebrow when we spoke around the release of GSX Remixes. "I've been interested in the remix album as a format 'cause it's this hangover from the 90s," she explained. "It was just a marketing scheme employed by record labels to sell a record twice, you know? It's a shitty formula that I wanted to try my hand at." They say you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
What might it mean to give the Middlebrow the reverence afforded to critical darlings like My Bloody Valentine, Radiohead or Bat For Lashes? Singer/songwriter Mikky Ekko recently told me of his respect for 90s MOR staple The Cranberries. "I bought Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We? because that one has all the soft hits on," he recalled. "It's incredible, and I didn't realise how unique and creative it was till I went back to it later on." Maybe there's nothing so middlebrow as criticising the Middlebrow.
Perhaps we should be willing to venture into the Middlebrow's humidified air now and then, whether to sip Innocent smoothies with Michelle Branch or Sia (whose own material has featured on Middlebrow staples Six Feet Under and Grey's Anatomy - both very good, incidentally - and is now working with Angel Haze). Just as many artists have dipped their toe into the sage-green waters with an open mind and come up trumps, maybe we'll also find that the Middlebrow isn't always that middling after all.