Sunday, April 24, 2016

The passing of Prince, and of contemporary music generally

The passing of Prince, one of the megastars of the 1980s’ pop world, last week is a reminder how much music has changed for the worse. He may been short (relatively tiny at five-feet tall), but after the release of Purple Rain, Prince he was generally acknowledged as a giant, the most important and innovative musical artist of the decade. I wasn’t really a fan of his, but being someone who appreciated a tight and tuneful song, I liked Rain and the follow-up album Around the World in a Day, which had put-off some Prince fans but I found to be an attempt at a “Beatlesque” sound.  

Prince was a rarity even then: a multi-instrumentalist, particularly proficient at guitar, and wrote a continuous quantity of good-to-great songs, charting a string of singles that included five number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100. There was certainly no mistaking Prince from other artists at the time. Unlike other superstars of the Eighties, like Billy Joel, Bruce Springstein, Phil Collins, Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, he represented the zeitgeist of the Eighties music scene; unlike Madonna, he was a musician promoting music, not using music to promote himself. He was certainly an enigma with his “androgynous” appearance, his tendency to wear 18th century-styled outfits (usually purple), and his sometimes inscrutable pronouncements and behavior. 

There have been “tributes” from current “artists” who really have no clue about his level of professionalism and dedication to the art of music. A great singer with a naturally agile voice, he didn’t need Autotune to “fake” a sound he couldn’t produce (like, say, Lana Del Rey), something that has turned most “singers” into almost indistinguishable robots or singing chipmunks. Perhaps what he thought of them could be gleaned from these comments from USA Today interviews:

“Nobody is learning how to make music, how to read and write it, and how to play. I worry that we’re raising a whole generation that’s going to turn out nothing but samples and rehashes.” That was in 1991. 

“You can’t bring a prerecorded event to the stage. You have to be able to vibe off the audience and let a song marinate. Keep it alive! Where can you see a real band anymore? You can’t get a machine to play like my drummer.” Anyone notice how often “singers” and “musicians” lose their “queues” and look ridiculous in the process? Like Katy Perry pretending to play a flute with a stage hand holding a mike to it—and when she lost her “key” he was still holding it in place like an idiot as the instrument “played” on and Perry was acting all flustered in embarrassment? Or Ashlee Simpson’s cosmic meltdown on Saturday Night Live?

“I’m single, celibate and sexy. I feel free.” I thought I’d just throw that in there as an antidote for the Adeles, Kelly Clarksons, Fiona Apples and Alanis Morissettes of the world.

Anyways, this give me an opportunity to mention how awful the “music” business is today, the contemporary part of which continues to make me cringe in agony. Before Billboard decided to use the Soundscan system to chart albums and singles, what songs and albums that were put out generally were controlled via separate  charts, like the “mainstream” Billboard Hot 100, the R&B chart, the Country chart, and so on. “Hardcore” songs from the “genre” charts rarely made it onto the “mainstream” chart, the charts from which most contemporary radio stations chose their song lists. In that way, what music was put-out was largely controlled by the large music companies.

But with the advent of the Soundscan era, any song from any genre could not only make a huge splash on the “mainstream” chart which originally catered mostly to the taste of young white listeners, but to dominate it. Thus rap and hip-hop sales started to muscle-out rock and pop, and an “industry” out to make money, went to where the money was “now,” and that “now” doesn’t seem to ever end. Oh sure, there are are exceptions, of course. I liked songs like Fun’s “We Are Young”  and Maroon 5’s “Sugar” which reminds me of Earth, Wind and Fire from a distance, although close-up both songs tunefulness and harmonies are just barely winning over the auto-tune robotics and thin production. 

The alleged “top three” in contemporary “pop” music—Taylor Swift, Beyonce and Adele—are part of the problem. Great songwriters, like, say, Paul Simon, knew how to transform a simple sentiment into something eloquent and universal, such as this selection from his “Something so Right”:

Some people never say the words I love you
It’s not their style to be so bold
Some people never say the words I love you
But like a child they’re longing to be told

On Jimmy Kimmel Live a few years ago, Kimmel presented Swift with some examples of her own lyrics, expressing a “need” to know what they meant. One example was this:

You always knew how to push my buttons
You gave me everything and nothing

I’m not going to quote Swift’s convoluted effort to apply “meaning” to this expression, or her pompous failure to realize that Kimmel was poking fun at her, later claiming that some made-up lyrics that she didn’t write that actually made sense wouldn’t get much “praise” from critics. Swift must have spent a long time with her team of “song” writers to come up with something this vapid and vague, which probably doesn’t matter because you can’t quite make them out between the autotune mixer and  the loud, droning electronic drum sound that is only “instrument” that is actually heard. 

Beyonce, on the other hand, uses convoluted vocal gymnastics to carry utterly tuneless songs. Some people might think this is “talent,” but such an excuse is utterly unworthy of those great singers of the past who could naturally carry a tune. Maybe vocalists like Swift and Beyonce might actually be forced to “sing” if they had better songs to work with and didn’t use Autotune, but somehow I doubt they’d get the point, or would their “fans.” I sorely miss the old days when I could appreciate the truth of what Robert Christgau wrote in his review of Carole King’s Tapesty: “Not that lyrics are the point on an album whose title cut compares life to a you-know-what--the point is a woman singing. King has done for the female voice what countless singer-composers achieved years ago for the male: liberated it from technical decorum. She insists on being heard as she is--not raunchy and hot-to-trot or sweet and be-yoo-ti-ful, just human, with all the cracks and imperfections that implies.” 

I think Adele could be a “great” singer without Autotune, and with songs that actually have melody, but unfortunately she panders to the conceited, arrogant, self-serving, self-pitying  “victims” of the world—you know, the "educated" ones who have good jobs, make a lot of money and get themselves on the cover of TIME magazine. More to the point, Adele is no Karen Carpenter; an album of her songs just sound like one long boring drone. Maybe some orchestration might help—except that it is kind of hard to reproduce on a computer.  

There was a time when every three months there was a complete change in the radio playlist, instead of the same damn dozen “songs” played endlessly for a whole year, or so it seems. It just shows the complete loss of music appreciation that Prince spoke of. Truly talented musicians and songwriters can transform the mundane into the sublime, songs that can for a brief time turn the world from what it is to what one would like it to be, which is what occurs to me every time I plug in my mp3 player to listen to my favorite songs of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Unfortunately, we now have a generation or two who know only the rude, self-serving and the vulgar.

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