I was writing some music trivia questions tonight for an online magazine, and while I was perusing an old copy of Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop to confirm some dates and rankings, I came to a realization: The music industry started out on the wrong foot and never recovered. The entire vacuum of popular music in the 20th and 21st century has been the result of a colossal slip on a mighty banana peel. And the general public has been stuck laughing at the same sad shtick ever since.
There’s nothing in music today that fosters Art. Or even just art. It has all been a slow slide down a snowy slope that pushed the actual art and the people who could make that art off the course entirely, like Vinko Bogataj on a ski-jump. Businessman have skied the interests of the general public to the bunny slope, where their interests could be controlled and protected; where the businessmen could give the general public the interests they wanted them to have. The easily and readily reproduced ones. The safe ones that don’t encourage thought. The safe ones where just a simple bass chord and drumbeat controlled their movements, and pedantic lyrics controlled their minds. Bland, soppy, unrealistic words of love balanced with just the right power chords and musical hooks to keep the listener from disbelieving the moronic panaceas painted by those lyrics.
The only real art in the music now is the actual business itself. Much like Orwell's "art" of Newspeak. Hip-hop and modern pop music are as far away from actual music created by humans as cave paintings are from Imax movies. Canned music pervades the everything. Tracks are laid down without a musician ever being involved. Autotuned voices mean no one needs to learn how to sing properly and that everyone will sing properly in the same bland, whiny, patronizing voices. Nothing matters now but the nebulous land of the Top 40 and Top 10. Very few recording acts can really sit down anymore and record an actual honest-to-bogey album and make it a cohesive work. For the big acts, every track is methodically laid out and parsed so that manufactured hit-after-manufactured hit can be shoveled into the belly of the business beast.
It is almost a novelty to have a band that plays instruments while singing to have a hit now. Let’s let Bieber play his drums a bit and fiddle with a few instruments here and there, but make sure he’s out there dancing and lip-syncing. The young girls love that. Make sure Beyonce’s out there dancing like she’s a spastic Tina Turner-wannabe. The guys love that. That’s what the people pay for. That’s what people are told to pay for.
The iconoclasts are still out there; bands that play their own instruments in concert, sing their own songs, and rely on the power of intelligent words and carefully crafted music to bring their art to life. But a good number of these deviants-to-the-norm don’t even get recording contracts. And if they do, they have to make major changes to themselves in order to palatable to an audience that has been taught to expect perfection and tripe. Must look as white bread as possible for the sheep to baaaauy their singles.
This has been going on since rock started as “rock ‘n’ roll”. Everyone had to sound like Elvis Presley. Everyone had to sound like the Beatles. Everyone had to sound like the Byrds, like the Bee-Gees, like Nirvana, like Eminem, like the Fray. A small change here and there. A slightly different sound. But really, the same, safe sound, with new packaging. Bands have always been given chances to record “new” sounds, as long as they fit into official parameters. Frank Zappa was signed because a talent scout heard one song and thought the Mothers of Invention were a white blues band. Trying to fit a band into a niche that was co-opted into safety from an entire race. That backfired completely and wonderfully. Of course, not fitting into any of the corporate molds forced The Powers That Be to marginalize Zappa and his music. His only popular music hits were harmless novelty numbers, like “Valley Girl” or “Dancin’ Fool”. You’ll never hear “Mo and Herb’s Vacation” or “City of Tiny Lights” on the radio. Too complex, too long for the bacteria-like culture of short-attention spans that the music industry has created.
Oh, and sorry, white folks do NOT play the blues. They steal them. Just like rap. The only white folks who should be allowed to rap were the Beastie Boys, since they actually took it on as an art form rather than just a hook.This was one of the few instances of trying to fit a band into a niche co-opted into safety from an entire race that backfired completely. Of course, not fitting into any of the corporate molds forced The Powers That Be to marginalize Zappa and his music. His only popular music hits were harmless novelty numbers, like “Valley Girl” or “Dancin’ Fool”. You’ll never hear “Mo and Herb’s Vacation” or even “City of Tiny Lights” on the radio. Too complex, too long for the bacteria-like culture that the music industry has created.
Oh, and sorry, white folks do NOT play the blues. They steal them. Just like rap. The only white folks who should be allowed to rap were the Beastie Boys, since they actually took it on as an art form rather than just a hook.
Music has to be safe. Safe for our kids. Safe so it can make money. Which is the only reason the kids are needed in the first place. The business takes advantage of the inherent sense of rebellion on all kids, making something just a little different from their parents’ music for them to consume. Your parents liked Elvis? Oh, so not cool! Nirvana. Yeah, that’s cool and rebellious. Ka-Ching at the register. “Dad, I can’t believe you listened to Nirvana. All the mumbling … listen to this Arcade Fire album. See? That’s what speaks to me now!” Ka-Ching again. And again.
And the art of music dies just little bit more, with each mp3 download. The only thing that keeps it going is the simple fact that music is eternal. And it will find a way to be expressed.