You can learn a lot from a dummy. That's what kept running through my head the other night at 4 am when I was incapable of sleeping and was trying to zone out by flipping between MTV and VH1. I don't watch a lot of tv, usually it's just there for times like this when I don't want to be in front of the computer, but I don't feel like reading and I can't sleep. So there I was, watching the music channels during the one time of day when they actually play music videos and it was interesting, so I took some mental notes.

Good Charlotte The new Good Charlotte song "We Believe" sounds nothing like you would expect G.C. to soung like, but it's got one of the purest most saccharine hooks of any song ever. My first exposure to this was in a commercial for their tour and I thought "that can't be Good Charlotte," but it was and it is. Now, after hearing the rest of the song, I can't help but feel like the amazing hook is unfortunately buried in an otherwise bland song. I don't know how their producer coaxed that vocal performance out of those guys, but it's awesome for 16 measures and then it's wasted. The thing is, it's very clear when you watch the video and listen to this track what they are doing. Good Charlotte basically took the mall-punk thing as far as it could go about as quickly as possible. There's no need for more punk-power-pop mall music, between their records and Blink182 and Green Day, it's basically been done, and they seem to know it. This new track of theirs is like the announcement: "We are a serious band! We do more than just one song!" It's them visibly trying to turn a corner, and believe it or not, that's a lot more relevant to Larvae than one might think.

After Monster Music, I knew we needed a 'serious' album, so the next one was less playful and more grounded. Then Empire was a deliberate shift back into being silly and upbeat, whereas the new record is yet another turn away from genre and style and preoccupation with format. Eventually, I'd like to get to a point where I sit down and just write songs without any regard to if they are or if they aren't fitting some sort of mold. In a certain way, an artist is always going to be working with a particular voice, but I'd like to think that what that voice has to say and how it works can change more fluidly, without so much organized effort.

Backstreet Boys: Okay, these guys are still around? I thought this was over. Apparently they knew it was over and have tried to reinvent themselves by removing the choreographed dance and pop beats. However, the interesting thing about their new track is that it rides the line between vague love song and vague Christian anthem, and it's something a lot of Christian music does. I talked about this with my brother-in-law who has a lot of first-hand experience with Christian Pop music, and it's not so surprising really. Christian bands sometimes make their tracks vague so that they might appeal to a wider, secular audience. The idea is that once people find out Jars of Clay is actually a Christian band, maybe they'll get into the message--it's a kind of sneaky evangelism mixed with the need/desire to sell more records. But Backstreet Boys are seemingly going the opposite direction--from glossy, vacuous pop music to something that might actually be interpreted as a song with some soul-searching depth (as much as a Backstreet record can honestly be expected to provide.) Maybe the BB's know that the gig is up and that there is still a Christian audience out there that will love them if they sing about God instead of parties. Who knows?

But again for me, it comes down to this idea of compartmentalizing the music based on the audience. It's less a sell-out than a buy-in: instead of watering down the music to appeal to a broader audience, it's a way of intentionally stuffing the songs with little winks and nods to a particular audience in the hope that if you can at least gather some rabid, dedicated fans within a sub-genre group, you might one day make a go at it. This is again the kind of thing I always struggle with--trying to figure out how much of a stylistic choice is my own and how much is subconsciously dictated by the label I'm working for, the stores that will carry the record, the audiences at the shows, and so on. Sometimes the answer is clear cut--Empire was made to be a DJ 12". But sometimes, as with these new songs, it's harder to say.

So even in the cultural sinkhole that is MTV at 4 am, there's a little nugget of truth.