Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Anniversary of John Lennon's passing cause to contemplate current state of music

Today is the 30th anniversary of the assassination of John Lennon. I was in the Army at the time, stationed in Germany. I was not a Beatles fan then, at least insofar as their music was not frequently heard on the top-40 stations I listened to. “Here Comes the Sun” was then as now a staple on stations whose format focused on the “classic” hits of the 1960s and 70s, and it wasn’t actually a hit but an album cut from “Abbey Road.” I knew the Beatles were “great,” but because “Road” most closely resembled the music I grew-up listening to, it was my sole entry point into their repertoire. I recall that it was big news that John Lennon had just released an album called “Double Fantasy,” his first record of new material in five years; he had the most distinctive voice of all the Beatles, the “intellectual” and political and social activist Beatle. Although I was not a “fan,” listening to the single “Starting Over” making its rapid climb up the charts seemed to have some special significance in the grand music scheme. Nevertheless, Lennon was for me just another icon on another iconic band that I was familiar with almost solely by reputation.

But that would change after December 8, 1980. Even for someone who hadn’t experienced “Beatlemania,” something incomprehensible had occurred; a living legend, someone who had made America his home, had reemerged on the music scene almost immediately to be silenced forever. The whole shocking event received suitable attention on Armed Forces television, and on the radio whole blocks of airtime were devoted to Beatles music. On German radio, a few stations played Beatles music all day for days; it seemed that people had to be reminded how great the band was. All of sudden, the local record store bins were overflowing with Beatles LPs and cassette tapes (CDs were still two years away, and for the Beatles catalogue, another four years). I suddenly discovered I liked not just some of this stuff, but very near all of it; while records by most artists were filler with one or two hits, a typical Beatles album contained so many memorable tunes that any one of them could pass for a decent band’s greatest hits set. Even today, although I have no memory of them when they filled airwaves, pop confections like “Please, Please Me,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and the cover of “Please Mr. Postman”—all with Lennon singing lead—are counted among my favorite songs to listen to when I need an emotional lift. Although Lennon’s solo work was not on the same level, his “Imagine” LP is an essential record, its personal poignancy and catchy melodies much more accessible than any of his other post-Beatles output.

Today, judging from what the “kids” listen to these days, it’s unlikely they would understand what I’m talking about. There is very little “uplift” of a positive nature in music today, and worse is the lack of variety. Back in the day, Top 40 radio consisted of songs from many genres—rock (soft and hard), pop, soul, R&B, folk, alternative and even a country song here and there—and the playlist changed at least every two months. In the coffee and ice cream parlor I frequent, the kids behind the counter have the radio tuned to a so-called contemporary hits station. I can’t say that I find much enjoyment in listening to it, but the song selection is remarkable in the fact that the same ten songs have been played over, and over, and over again ad nauseum for at least a year. One song eventually grew on me: Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” which sounds like it could have been a hit in 1973. I wasn’t the only one who remembered what a great song was, either; “Crazy” was number one on Rolling Stone magazine’s “50 Best Songs” of the past decade. The problem was that song was a hit back in 2006, and I was still hearing it ten times a day on this radio station; it was great, but not that great. This song should have had its day in the sun for a few months then moved on to occasional airplay; instead there is such a dearth of new music that this song remained one of a handful of “contemporary” songs deemed worth playing. The music industry complains that illegal downloads are destroying profitability; the real issue is the failure to diversify the listening experience, and its collusion with radio to milk the same songs over and over again to death before introducing new songs. The industry can only grow if new sounds are allowed to inspire new listeners. And frankly, the music scene needs to lighten-up a bit; positive and idealistic messages are the kind that inspire people to do positive things.

The Beatles were successful because they were masterful at inspiring positive, uplifting and creative impulses; albums like “Revolver,” “Sergeant Pepper,” the “White Album” and “Abbey Road” showed a band striving to go beyond the expected, and still making the listening experience a positive one for as many people as possible. That is something that the current crop of artists—and the music industry—could learn from.

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