The network effect on critical darling music is fascinating.
If you don’t already know what that term means, you’d be justified in thinking it refers to a network’s tendency to aid in the discovery and amplification of niche material. That’s very applicable to music.
That’s not what “network effect” means. The actual definition is subtly different.
A network effect is where each subsequent owner of a thing makes owning the thing more valuable. The classic example is telephones – they weren’t very useful until a critical mass of people owned them. The same holds true for any social media platform. Sure, we might like niche platforms where the cool kids are, but each incremental cool kid makes it that much more desirable.
It’s the second, actual meaning I’m thinking of when it comes to critical darlings. Our networked world relies on shared meaning. We don’t want to have just languages in common, but context. The network works best when all of our slang, emojis, animated gifs have caché Memes rely on being shared not only for their viral spread, but for people to get the joke and subsequent use as a reference.
Music is a part of that landscape of shared meaning, too. Each subsequent listener to an under-the-radar critical hit increases its cache as a signifier.
Case and point: Carly Rae Jepsen. She achieved ubiquity in 2012 with her debut hit “Call Me Maybe,” which achieved near-instant meme status in a way only summer singles can. Follow-up single “Good Time” was top 10 in the US, but never hit meme-level penetration in America. That left Jepsen adrift in potential one-hit wonder-dom.
Then, a curious thing happened. Jepsen’s 2015 sophomore full-length Emotion failed to generate another massive “Maybe” sized hit. Yet, the audience who stuck around for it weren’t the long tail of listeners who played “Call Me” repeatedly until it transformed into shrill self-parody in its ubiquity. Nope. It was a specific subset of taste-makers and hipsters, whose fluency with the disc (see “network effect”) spawned another meme for “Run Away With Me.”
Suddenly, Jepsen was a signifier of a totally different kind. Everyone knew her “Call Me Maybe,” but if you knew the source of the meme without being told you were in a secret in-club of hip kids who love unapologetic pop music.
Carly Rae Jepsen released an expansion of Emotion for its one-year anniversary. I have no doubt that Emotion: Side B is her best work yet. Most of the songs reach that coveted pop pinnacle of sounding at once innovative and obvious. None hits more squarely for me than “Body Language.”
Don’t be fooled by the Ke$ha-flavored opening instant with its synthesized slide guitar line. It takes only a few more seconds for this song to settle into perfect, neon-sounding throwback 80s pop to match the album’s cover. “Body Language” could be tracked in the middle of a playlist that also includes songs by The Jets. I realize that’s not a glowing recommendation in every crowd, but for me it’s the pinnacle of bubble gum.
It’s not just the 2s and 4s snare hit and swarm of synth keyboards. It’s the way the vocal trends up to a yelp on every line, which is anchored by a gang vocal at the end of each chorus. It’s how you barely notice a single word other than “Body Language,” half because of Jepsen’s tendency to under-pronounce but half because of the amplitude of the sonic gestalt of the track.
(I think a better word for it is the food-science concept of “amplitude.” The recipe of “Body Language” is so good that it’s hard to taste any of the component parts.)
I’ve met this song before: a pitch perfect b-side that I want everyone I know to know. The sad truth is that I wind up being the only fan of those songs I’ll ever meet.
And, here’s where the network effect comes in.
In the past, I’d pick up a song like this and flog it endlessly on every mix tape I made with no appreciable measure of uptake. Every so often I might hear, “Oh, yeah – I liked that one.” However,, in a networked world I can already see the impact of Jepsen, her B-Sides LP, and this song in particular – and, that gives each of those elements their own network effect. Heck, “Body Language” has already been someone else’s song of the day.
I’ve got a lot of “bubbling under” types of tunes I heard in 2016 that I want to highlight, but network effect pushed this one to the head of the class.