Monday, May 5, 2014

"Pop" music in this country is a dying breed

The musical “pop star” seems to have been a creation of the 20th century, although pianist Franz Liszt came close to being a 19th century example, with his own stable of female “groupies.” Every generation in the past 100 years has had its own musical phenomenon that an older generation considered radical and dangerous to the well-being of the social order. Ragtime, jazz, swing and Rock and Roll all fell under this category, and it should come as no surprise that these forms were often identified with black culture, and thought to “undermine” white American morality and values. But by the latter half of the century, to rock critics “pop” music became almost synonymous with inoffensive middle-American pap; nevertheless it shared with all previous musical forms, at least, a common denominator: The artists prided themselves as musicians, not publicity stunts (the Monkeys and Partridge Family aside). Artists who sold millions of records became “stars”—and it was almost always through the vehicle of the hit “pop” song.

Today, “pop” music describes anything that has even the tiniest smidgeon of melodic content. Now, a “pop” song is something like “Feel This Moment” by someone who calls himself Pitbull, “featuring” Christina Aguilera, who can actually sing when she feels like it. Why is this hip-hop/rap conglomeration (seven people supposedly had a hand in “composing” it) considered an example of “pop”? Because it briefly samples a melodic line from Aha’s Eighties hit “Take Me On,” which at least has, well, a melody. But then again, it’s not even what is supposed to make the “song” commercial—it’s just a conceit of the performer.  

It is interesting to note how vast is the gap between how music is perceived in little more than two generations, and what is “good” and what is “bad.” Contemporary music bears almost no resemblance to what was contemporary 20 years ago, and the change has been so dramatic that many people (like myself) find it difficult to call it “music” at all. In an on-line question-and-answer posting, Richard Carpenter was asked “I would be interested to know if there are any artists on the charts today whose work Richard admires?” He responded thus:

I think Sting is really a talented fellow, but he’s been with us many a year, along with Steely Dan and U2. As for the new crop of artists, I’m not particularly impressed. Norah Jones is, at least, a genuine singer. 

Another fan asked “Do the artists winning Grammys today impress you as much as your own music did?” Carpenter’s answer seems to suggest even more contempt for contemporary “music”:

No, even if you take Carpenters out of the equation and look at some other people winning Grammys then, they were much more talented than now. The records now, with rare exception, are '’manufactured'’. 

Richard Carpenter is a smart enough guy to know that “manufactured” was a term sometimes used to describe he and his sister’s music, albeit unfairly. Carpenters records were the very definition of white-bread MOR, their success the product of white suburban America’s reaction against social and political change. While white suburban America wasn’t allowed to know that both siblings opposed the Vietnam War and disdained organized religion as “hypocrisy personified,” they did know that they accepted an invitation to perform at the White House—on the same day that Richard Nixon admitted complicity in covering-up Watergate, and listen to him call them “young America at its best.”  

Also not commonly known to fans was that their mother Agnes Carpenter was, as Randy Schmidt noted in his book Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter, an unabashed racist and anti-Semite who often mortified her daughter in front of her friends by allowing her bigoted thoughts to be expressed openly and without apparent shame. Richard Carpenter was close to his mother; although I wouldn’t suggest that he shared her views, the fact is that the music the Carpenters’ made was in direct opposition to political and social trends of the time, and after their 1972 album A Song For You earned little but contempt from contemporary music critics.

Thus some critics of the Carpenters’ might liken their music to white America at its worst, and emblematic in part for that was “wrong” with Seventies music (apparently even more so than ABBA, who were rather surprisingly elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, despite being much less successful commercially in the U.S. than the Carpenters, and their records much more artificial and robotic in its multi-tracking). Unlike music critics of today, who praise almost everything to stay “relevant,” critics then were not loathe to trash the commercially successful; music critic Mark Coleman gave all of the Carpenters’ studio albums a one star rating  in Rolling Stones’ 1992 record guide—meaning “Disastrous: Albums that are wastes of vital resources. Only masochists and completists need apply.” Even Barry Manilow came off better than the Carpenters, meriting a string of “mediocre” records for fans of the artist only. On the other hand, Olivia Newton-John didn’t even merit a mention despite having a half-dozen Number One hits, which may be good or bad, depending on one’s tolerance for rhetorical pain (mainly hers). 

Yet the Carpenters, Manilow and Newton-John were some of the most successful “pop” acts of the Seventies regardless of what the critics thought. Yet these artists were certainly not “typical” of the decade; in fact the Seventies were the most musically eclectic in the “pop music” era. And since then the Carpenters received some belated, if grudging, respect in Rolling Stone’s 2004 record guide—quite possibly because it was hard to ignore the polished musicianship and actual singing involved in their records in comparison to what has been put out for the last 15 years or so. The guide now lauded the duos’ “crystalline production” and “bittersweet pop.” Karen’s voice was “sweet and pure,” complemented by Richard’s “good-humored ditties.” This time, instead of one star ratings, Carpenters and A Song for You were given a lofty four out of five star ratings, with the reviewer noting that these albums—rather than the singles compilations—provided “a much more poignant picture” of their “hidden depth.” What?

The truth of the matter is that back in the Seventies the Carpenters’ music was successful partly because, as some cynics charged, your grandmother would like it—and that is still true today, since younger fans back then are that age now, and their music retains a nostalgic presence that is comforting in the face of rap, hip-hop, tuneless “rock” and the ragingly self-pitying bores doing a kamikaze attack on the ears from contemporary  radio, automobile stereo systems and on the I-pod belonging to the kid sitting next to you on a bus. Frankly, it would be truly embarrassing and maybe even suggestive of arrested development for someone of 70 still listening to such mind-numbing noise and its often irresponsible and vulgar “sentiments” and language. 

It is sad to note that pop music is a “dying” breed, and the reasons are as legion as there are people. I’m not a fan of Lady Gaga in particular, but I do agree with her claim that the music business has stifled creativity and musical options; people have fewer choices, and it may be that the audience is too disinterested to make them anyways. When Richard Carpenter accuses music today as being “manufactured,” he is no doubt referring to the use of Auto-Tune and technological tricks in place of singing and music-making. Vocals that are spoken rather than sung are so far out in front (especially in rap and hip-hop) that actual musicianship is irrelevant. Since Auto-Tune technology “auto corrects” pitch through computer software, there is no need to be able to actually sing anyways—let alone exhibit any personality, save a pose or “attitude.” 

It is true that vocal tracks could be altered electronically in the past; multi-tracking goes back to the 1950s, the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” was an early example of vocals altered through electronic synthesis, and singers could sound older or younger by changing the speed on vocal tracks. But in the pre-Auto age you still had to have some talent to carry a tune, and the human singing voice is as varied as there are people. John Lennon, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Don Henley, Rodger Hodgson and many others had the ability to be instantly recognizable as having separate musical identities, making Top-40 radio an adventure. Even if singing wasn’t their strong suit (Bob Dylan, Carly Simon), good-to-great songs could make-up such limitations. The point was that you had a myriad of choices, and created a diverse and continuously changing musical landscape that kept the pop music industry thriving. 

Today, because of the almost indistinguishable nature of rap and hip-hop which purposely strives for a limited audience “turf,” and the over-use of Auto-Tune, “pop” music has become less an “art” than a means to create a cult following. The singer-songwriter is a dying breed, with most “hits” requiring a whole platoon of “writers” to concoct. Some songs that sound half-way decent seem to have a dozen or more writing credits (such as the hits by Katy Perry). What this speaks to is “stars” whose own “talent” is more image than substance, where music is just a vehicle to 15 minutes of fame. Perry herself is so narcissistic that there are at least three DVDs out there that are nothing but about herself and what her fawning fans say about her; the music is practically an afterthought. 

The postwar (meaning WWII) generation for whom pop music was a release from “traditional” mores and even a vehicle for change is no more, and now we have roboticized “music” for a generation too busy glued to their “smart” phones to do anything artistically meaningful, let alone have a vision for the future beyond making a profit. The so-called “digital age” has been a disaster for the music industry. If it had remained in the realm of high-quality CDs and recording, everything would have been fine. Producers and engineers may say that today it is much easier to manipulate and artificially improve a poorly done vocal or non-musical track, but that also means that there is less incentive for an “artist” to make good music. 

Young people no longer spend their leisure time or dollars listening to or buying any records save the ones being put out by the people they see embarrassing themselves on TMZ, “reality” television shows, YouTube or in social media outlets. The music industry itself is only interested in profits, and fewer and fewer “alternative” genuine musical acts are supported, and fewer still are given radio play. MTV in the 1980s has been blamed for creating a culture of image over music, and it should be no surprise that the most of the artists with the highest number of hits (Phil Collins, Lionel Ritchie, Hall and Oates, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and even Prince), were products of the Seventies. Today, “music” is little more than a vehicle to create an image that sells in super market tabloids and red carpet photo ops. They are “successful” not at creating music, but a “posse.” 

The fallout from this has been rather astonishing. Because there is less good music in significant quantities being made, and what little there is can be weeded out and downloaded instead of browsing through an aisle and taking a chance on something that is a waste of time and money, full service record stores have all but disappeared. It wasn’t that long ago that there were several major record chains in Seattle with stand-alone stores. But even Tower Records, a place where you could browse for hours, and maybe even buy something, closed its doors by the mid-2000s. Why would the present generation ignorant of the classics of the past buy a whole album of today’s junk when you had legal (and illegal) music download sites where you could have just the songs you wanted for a nominal fee (or for nothing at all). And even if you wanted to buy a classic back catalogue CD, it is easier to sit in front of a computer and order it on-line.

It is perhaps interesting to note that the large majority of album releases in the past did not and never did make a profit, and the percentage only kept growing; in the “old days” the record industry relied on singles sales that persuaded listeners to buy an album, and the record sales of “mega stars” to make money. In 1975, 75 percent of all album releases failed to sell enough to turn a profit, but one platinum album with sales of one million easily made-up for a dozen releases that didn’t reach the “break even” point of 60,000 in record sales. With fewer “mega stars” selling fewer album-length recordings in recent years, that means that today there is no incentive for the music industry to bankroll new artists who may or may not “sell”—the industry looks no further ahead than this week’s barcode scan. 

Not, of course, that it matters much. There is little incentive to play a musical instrument with any aptitude. Music for music’s sake is almost dead in this country. Instead, what you have are people with no musical talent armed with a portable recording device, using Auto-Tune, maybe “sampling” music from the past and making “records” that people can listen to on-line and download if they give a damn; it is not as an effective promoting tool as the radio, but it costs next to nothing for a profit starved music industry. So it is that far fewer recordings are being heard on the radio; only those who have a track record of sales are being heard, with little effort to cultivate any “new” musical trend. You now hear the same dozen or so songs over and over and over again on contemporary “hits” stations, even over the course of an entire year. You have to wonder about the current generation; are they this musically and artistically moronic? 

Or am I just being an old fogey who doesn't "understand" the current generation's "tastes"? If so, why is it that I like much of the music I was too young to remember, or made before I was born? There has to be something "missing" from today's noise that once served as a common thread before--that unfortunately has been lost.

Unlike the 1960s or even the 1970s, it seems that the current generation has no values worth fighting for or promoting. It’s all narcissism. People who appreciated or were at least knowledgeable about music are no longer running the business, only business people and lawyers interested in the quickest and easiest way to make a buck. Some people complain that there was too much “throw away” music in the “old days,” and that the phenomenon of artists writing their own songs—often just “filler”—caused the decline of professional songwriters and thus “good” songs generally. I disagree with that, as well as with those who say that heavy production techniques (of, say, Pink Floyd and Yes) necessarily indicated an attempt to “cover-up” poor songwriting. The fact is that wordy songs didn’t necessarily make a good song, but the “catchy” music did; after all, isn’t this why classical music is “classic”? All too often I hear pompous and self-pitying lyrics being passed off as “meaningful” songs that in fact bore me half to death. 

To my ears, the era where the tight, catchy, hook-driven hit song dominated the Top-40 ended by the mid-1980s. There are those swell-heads who will say that songs that are wordy, but have no discernable melody, are “superior” and “artistic.” The “artist” wasn’t into “commercialization.” But they are just making excuses for not having the ability to write songs that a large mass of people wanted to hear. A large core of consumers still wanted to hear “silly love songs” because they were tired of the self-centered vulgarity, negativity and pouting (not to mention bone-dullness) that dominates most of what you hear today, but just something to uplift your spirits. With the de facto end of the pop music era by the early 1990s (“Pop” music is made today? My fundament), and the number of hit records drying-up, so goes the number of hit artists, and along with it, hit albums. And the quality of what albums are made are overblown by music critics concerned that their jobs are superfluous and a waste of true music fans’ time. 

It simply didn’t need to be this way. I don’t necessarily agree that “technology” needed to be a cause of the death of pop music. Overdubbing and multi-tracking, if used correctly, can achieve the same affect of a 40-piece orchestra, playing what the snobbish might call “real” music. But that is not what “technology” has wrought in today’s world, as mentioned before. It isn’t used to make “music,” but to repeat street-level gibberish over random noise. Even in the rare occurrence where an artist (and I use that term in the ironic sense) claims to be “influenced” by the real artists of the past, I struggle to discern it in their recordings. 

I understand (or try to) that each generation has it own “style,” although current “styles,” which would have been no more than fringe genres in the past, seem to be well past their natural expiration dates. Back in time I was not necessarily a hater of disco music; KC and the Sunshine Band and Donna Summer could offer up as catchy and memorable a pop tune as any act. But it had to go just as any “style” did. Unfortunately the “legacy” of disco continued on; the genre ultimately wasn’t meant to be music on its own terms, but a forum for people to show off their dance moves and be seen in exclusive dance clubs wearing garish outfits and platform soles that were associated with disco. It was all about “image.” That was the real damage done to “music” over the long haul.

But perhaps even the sins of disco paled in comparison to the MTV generation. Some may remember that one of the early MTV “hits” was “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Maybe not just video, but certainly in the way it altered the dynamic on how music was promoted. There were still artists who knew how to make good records (Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, etc), but while there were the occasional surprises by new acts (ABC’s Lexicon of Love), most new acts in the 1980s found that they could sell records by having the eye-catching accompanying video—not necessarily having the best song. But music videos were expensive to make, and as the teenage record-buying demographic continued to shrink after the Sevwenties, fewer people were purchasing fewer hit records in quantity to provide record companies a profit. As time went on, music videos were not cost-effective as a marketing vehicle (thus MTV became TV with a little “m”).

Now it was all about image, and even if the Madonnas of the world had their musical pretensions, their success was almost wholly predicated on the selling of their image. When I was on hiatus from the real world during a temporary stay in graduate school, I had a class taught by a female professor who thought that Madonna was greatest thing since the invention of the wheel. But a reviewer of her antics on the BBC, Michael Ignatieff, noted that

Last week, in an amazing abdication of editorial responsibility, the BBC's usually excellent arts programme, Omnibus, allowed Madonna to go on ... and on ... about 'her work'. Her work? You mean the bits where she writhes on satin sheets, miming self-abuse, while two Egyptian-style hermaphrodites sporting huge strap-on conical breasts give her a helping hand? Surely some mistake. But no. The usual po-faced 'cultural critics' were rounded up ... The weird thing about modern celebrity is that mediocrity does not give itself away when magnified to planetary dimensions ... When planetary marketing takes over, some smooth intellectual sucker can always be found to tell you it is Culture, with a capital C. 

 These days, Madonna fancies herself a British aristocrat, insulting us by speaking in a fake British accent (by the way, she has a homeless brother back home) and making bad movies and “music.” But she remains such a media “addiction”—at least among those of a bloated feminist bent—that she was allowed to insult us further by performing during the half-time show at a recent Super Bowl. At least she didn’t do her lip-synching in a phony British accent (although she probably tried to). 

And then there were the producers who were good at turning mediocre talent into “stars,” like David Foster and the Stock/Aitken/Waterman conglomeration, the latter who sold pretty faces behind computerized and roboticized synthesizer gimmickry; at least Phil Collins had the sense to employ a real music producer like R&B legend Arif Mardin.  The world has gone a long way in the wrong direction since Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the early 1990s emerged the likes of Mariah Carey, a product of industry only just barely redeemed by the ability to sing. The problem was that Carey was overly in love with her voice, and used it with all the subtly of a spastic gymnast. Somehow she has compiled as many number one hits as the Beatles, which only testifies to the lack of competition and the poor taste of listeners. 

The main problem with Carey, however, was that she set an “example” for subsequent female “singers” who believe that singing in a wildly undisciplined manner—even multiple tones within a single phrase—signified “artistry.” I’ll clue them in: It doesn’t; it just sounds stupid.  Anyone who remembers Karen Carpenter singing “Superstar” knows that a true artist can put ten times the amount of emotion into a song (provided, of course, that it is a good song) in a controlled vocal that emits emotion of a pure sort. 

Look: Pop music is supposed to be “fun”—it’s supposed to make you feel good and take you away from the humdrum of life, at least for 3 minutes or so. Maybe some vulgar, expletive-ridden hip-hop “song” or Adele’s latest boring pout may be ”fun” for a certain grade of listener, but it is certainly more a statement on the cynicism of this society, devoid of any hopes and dreams beyond personal narcissism and making a lot of money (without actually creating anything worthwhile). Improving the world is beyond their interest; young voters who helped elect Barack Obama expected him to do that for them—and then just sat and watched silently as the president’s enemies moved to sabotage the promise “change.” 

And so contemporary Top-40 radio is deader than a door nail; even Casey Kasem was forced to face reality—altering his latter day reboot of his old show into a “top ten” format. How if any of those “songs” are actually “memorable” enough to make it on an “oldies” station twenty years from now is a scary thought. Today, there are a couple of radio stations on the dial that still play the hits from the Sixties, Seventies and sometimes even the Eighties. One obvious reason is because there are people still alive today who grew up listening to that music, and still have fond memories of them. As long as there is a mass of people for whom pop music served as the “sound track” of their youth, of happier (presumably) and more carefree existence, that music will always find a home in the memory and some obscure place on the radio dial. 

The question is when that generation passes, will anyone still be listening? There is a chance of that, for the same reason classical music is still played. The most memorable of it has timeless quality to it. You certainly cannot say the same thing about what passes for “pop”—let alone music—these days. And that is the only “positive” that can be said about the state of music today.

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