Karmin and the uncanny valley of pop

We need to talk about Karmin.

One of the reasons why Saturday Night Live has remained one of the more coveted performance slots on television is that the show’s music bookers have always balanced the big names with up-and-coming artists. Because the show’s audience is rather consistent—and because, these days, new artists can generate buzz online—SNL’s music bookers have always been keen to take a few risks in the name of staying trendy.

Sometimes, those risks don’t pan out. You get artists who aren’t quite ready for prime time (Lana Del Rey, last month), or who are too fresh to overcome the oft-questionable SNL sound mix (Sleigh Bells, this week). But rarely do you get a performance as uncomfortable as Karmin two weeks ago.

Karmin don’t have an album out yet. The duo—engaged couple Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan—have a studio debut lined up for April, but their SNL booking was really about launching their new single “Brokenhearted.” And for the most part, it’s a pleasant enough pop single, which the duo and their band performed perfectly pleasantly. It’s almost good.

Except for two things that make the entire performance jaw-droppingly awful:

  • The rapping
  • The mugging

Heidemann’s schtick must have been bewildering to most of the people watching, but it would have come as no surprise to the band’s followers on YouTube. Karmin made their name and Internet fame with their YouTube videos – hip hop covers that manage to be both tongue-and-cheek and totally sincere at the same time. (In that way, they’re quintessentially 21st century.) But in translating that idea to making actual pop songs, Karmin seem to somehow come this close to a hit while also falling incredibly far from the target.

Welcome to the uncanny valley of pop music.

The uncanny valley is a robotics theory that purports that as robots become more and more human, our esteem for them will increase until they become almost human – and at that point, we’ll experience a revulsion towards them.

Why? Because the closer something gets to seeming human, the ways in which it is not human become more pronounced. Think about CGI animated films: we’ve never batted an eye at seeing dogs, cats, toys or cartoony characters brought to life, but remember how off the people have been in these movies? Look at the reviews of any performance-capture film—even more recent ones like Tintin—and you’ll see all sorts of comments about the vacant stares, the awkward movements and several uses of the word “creepy.”

“Uncanny” is a better word for this feeling, popularized by Freud, who (of course) connected it with oepidal guilt and a fear of castration. But many of his examples of the uncanny also involved repetition, like when one experiences deja vu or experiences the feeling of having a “double” or doppelgänger. Put differently: at the centre of the uncanny is the feeling that this should not be, even though the source of that feeling is clearly there right in front of you. An almost-human robot is unsettling because it’s copying us, and its small differences from us betray its un-humanness.

What does this have to do with pop music? On the surface, little: pop music is designed to appease and entertain, not leave one feeling creepy and unsettled. But while we’re talking about robots trying to become humans, it’s interesting to consider the degree to which the pop music we listen to today is mechanized. The ProTools/Garage Band era means that almost everything that we consider “performance” is digitized and then manipulated to build the songs we listen to. Heck, one could argue that it’s actually the machines doing most of the performing.

It’s not just that, though: the need for today’s tracks to pop out of cheap speakers and noise-canceling earbuds means that even vocal performances bear the hallmarks of machines. (Have you ever listened to a Katy Perry “acapella” track?) One of the hallmarks of the Dr. Luke production style is the blurring of timbres: there’s minimal sonic disparity between his drums, his guitars, his synths and his vocals. They’re all distorted, amplified and mashed together in a hyper-compressed, forward-driving army of sound – massive, mechanized, unstoppable.

This leads to some pretty incredible pop recordings because Dr. Luke, it must be said, is a brilliantly evil supergenius. He builds pop robots so good that their inhumanness doesn’t show; they leap right over the uncanny valley and into our eardrums. But what happens when you have someone who isn’t a brilliantly evil supergenius try and create pop robots?

You get “Friday.”

I won’t lie: at one point, I reeeeeally wanted to name “Friday” as my top single of 2011.

Thankfully, I forgot about that idea before I made my actual list, but I remembered it when I watched Karmin perform on SNL last week. My motivation wasn’t to make a joke; I honestly felt few songs last year were as compelling as Rebecca Black’s viral hit.

Here’s the thing: when “Friday” made its way around the Internet, most people who shared it did so because they thought it was bad. But start picking apart that judgment and things get complicated: how different is “Friday,” really, from the songs that top the chart? It’s got the driving beat of a Rihanna song, the ear-stuffing synths of a Katy Perry hit, the questionable diction of a Ke$ha track and—like all of them—autotune to burn.* And considering the number of people you’ve probably caught humming it, “Friday’s” certainly no slouch in the earworm department.

*You may consider all of these artists “bad” which, I suppose, is fair enough – but their success means that they’re hardly bad in the same way people thought Rebecca Black was bad.

What’s striking about “Friday” is just how almost “good” it is. But, of course, it’s not good, and that’s because it falls into the uncanny valley of pop: it betrays its un-humanness. Most of the blame is rightfully directed at the vocal: not just the way the autotuning and overdubbing slur “Fry-daaay,” but the way in which the lyric is just barely too stupid (or is, at least, not self-aware about its stupidity). The video, though, also plays a part, with its cheap approximation of party tropes betraying that this song lacks the marketing budget to tell us we should care about it.

“Friday’s” almost-ness suggests that the gap between a joke and a hit is short, but deep. And it’s the same gap that Karmin seem to content to dive right into.

Karmin’s creations, of course, seem infinitely more “human” than “Friday.” But all the same, they fail because their attempt to recreate what we consider “real” pop music comes with glaring, uncomfortable cues suggesting that what they’re peddling simply doesn’t match what they’re imitating.

Like “Friday,” some of these cues from the SNL performances are visual, in particular the way in which Heidemann’s gestures and poses try way too hard; she’s for aiming Nicki Minaj but ends up more ham than unhinged. At least “Brokenhearted” has a pop song to fall back on, though: “I Told You So,” Karmin’s second performance, is basically a rap song and it’s almost 100 per cent uncomfortable. Listen to the way that Heidemann says “hip hop song” and you can almost feel a shudder go up your spine: something is off here.

As mentioned earlier, Karmin made their name doing YouTube covers of hip hop songs. Among their most famous is Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now,” and Heidemann is clearly doing her best Busta Rhymes in “I Told You So.” But that gets to the problem here: someone made a decision to back Karmin under the presumption that what plays well on YouTube can translate to the pop charts.

In an essay on the AV Club last week asking “Why can’t original music break out of the YouTube ghetto?” Genevive Koski gave some obvious but valid answers why it is that there aren’t that many “serious musicians” being discovered on YouTube: people want to listen to something familiar (which is why Karmin made their name with cover songs) and that YouTube needs a visual hook. But she only hints at a larger issue: that what plays on YouTube might be fundamentally different than what plays in popular music more broadly.

In other words: I don’t think pop novelty and YouTube novelty have much in common at all. YouTube’s viral culture values content that begs to be shared, but which asks no more than two or three minutes of your life (if that, sometimes). It’s content that provides short-term social value. Pop music, in contrast, is built to repeat: it’s meant to grab your ear, but then bury its way into your daily life (sometimes welcomely, sometimes intrusively). It asks for a lot more than just a one-time experience.

Karmin are the very definition of a one-time experience for most people: their schtick is worth a watch, but very quickly the “whiteness” and over-the-top mugging becomes unbearable. It has its fans, but the musicality of the experience is decidedly beside the point.

It’s YouTube novel, but downright uncanny as pop music.


4 responses to “Karmin and the uncanny valley of pop

  1. Hi Ryan, I’m just curious as to whether you accept music submissions for consideration? I just found you via Technorati and the writing is intensive – gets people to dig in whether they agree or not.

    Thanks for your time!

  2. YouTube musicians too often make the mistake of assuming the online audience and the mainstream radio audience to be the same. Good post!

  3. Pingback: Welcoming the Zeitgeist: One Direction’s Saturday Night Live Invasion | Cultural Learnings·

  4. Pingback: Welcoming the Zeitgeist: One Direction’s Saturday Night Live Invasion | ZT News Today·

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