The State of the Union (musically, that is…) Part 1

I have broken down this writing into five parts because of its length.  Each of the remaining parts will posted every few days.  Please let me know what you think! 

Popular music and culture have always been in a continual state of change and flux, even as far back as the early part of the 20th century.  Styles come and go while musicians become discarded with the waves of the fickle (oops, should I say sometimes fecal) choices of the public (LOL)!  Artists who have been christened as the next big thing are out of style and discarded 6 months to a year later.  In most instances, popular music changes as quickly as the seasons of the year, with only a few – an itty-bitty few artists being able to have long-term successful careers.

In today’s world, pop culture moves as quickly as the old Superman TV show intro: “Faster than a speeding bullet…!!!”  Now, it is not a matter of the last generation’s musicians being old news – it is literally that last night’s musicians are already history.  With the pace of society being incalculably faster than ever, music, culture and the speed of life are more frenetically disposable than ever.  Music often lasts about as long as a fast food meal – OK, maybe two fast food delicacies, sorry…

Can you imagine the songs of today being classics in thirty years?  In asking that, I feel there may be an even more profound question that needs to be posed:  “Are today’s songs even written from the vantage point of something that is supposed to last for thirty years or more?”  To me, the answers are most likely “no” to both questions.  Since most of society is only tuned into the ever-disposable moment, why would the majority of the art created within that societal format be any different?  It is mostly all done just for the transitory flavor of the fickle public’s pulse, representing a culture with very little that is based on quality, integrity or anything designed to last…

One can say, “Oh, you know, when you’re young, that’s the music you connect to and if you’re not 13 anymore, you don’t “get” the music of today.” 

I would respond to that premise with the concept that it doesn’t matter what age bracket “gets” the music, whether from toddlers to nursing home residents.  There is a tremendous lack of new artists shaking things up in a big way today:  Blockbuster record sales, innovative new music being created and offered to the world, huge concert events, and the buzzworthy excitement that comes with a phenomenon!  If you look at music since the onset of rock ‘n’ roll, there have been key artists, movements and phenomenons who really turned things upside down – revolutionizing the game – forever.  Here is a short and partial list:  The Birth Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, FM Rock Radio of the sixties, Punk, MTV, Thriller-era Michael Jackson, Rap / Hip-Hop, Nirvana, the Seattle Grunge scene, and the Alternative explosion of the early to mid 1990’s. But how long ago was that? 

Of all of the above-mentioned short list, only Rap is still a contender in regards of being potentially relevant today.  First, let me say that I liked the potential of rap, and began rapping myself when I introduced my controversial solo show in the mid 1980’s.  I appreciated Run DMC and Biggie Smalls, and really liked the social commentary as well as the possibilities of rap’s messages.  Hip-Hop could have easily become the counterculture protest music of today, but it is a checkered genre, as it has been largely watered down, overly commercialized and in many instances, quite formulaic.

With rap being used in countless corporate television commercials such as Burger King and McDonald’s, it loses some of its bite.  Many defenders of the “get all you can while you can” philosophy would argue that the life span of a rapper can be very short, so one has to gobble up all the cash while they can.  I would counter that viewpoint with the idea that making money is fine, but never at the expense of the integrity of your work. 

Worse yet, though, is that it is easy to draw strong parallels between today’s state of the union hip-hop and 1980’s hair metal.  First, the hit record formula:  Hair metal had power ballads – Hip Hop has party sex jams with seemingly new and endless metaphors for sex.  Next, the video formula:  Both genres feature hot, pouty, slutty babes, scantily clad, of course, who have to bang or give head to the artist (or underlings) backstage to be in the video.  Third, the lifestyle:  Either genre presents the illusion and aspiration of the high life: in hair metal it was the huge arena concert, while with rap it’s the yachts, luxury rides and bling, bling, bling! 

With these sensibilities, the content, meaning and message get replaced by the cold calculating machine mentally of making a hit record – just for the sake of having a hit record and all of the trappings that come with it:  Fame, prestige, sex, money and power.  And, I’m certainly not here to criticize one’s desire to make a hit record – the music industry has always been filled with that mentality – it’s just that mindset in overload diminishes the integrity of an industry already tarnished by an onslaught of formulaic music at a time when fame is seen as the equivalent of being seated at the right hand of Jesus! 

To me, when the crass and calculating machine like wheels create the music of a time period, it has the reverse effect that was intended.  Its calculated purpose is of course to keep the piggy bank growing ever bigger to make lots of money.  And the people behind the creating and marketing of such empty minded work get smarter, and wiser through time as to what to do and not to do.  The result is that it all becomes more sanitized, safer and utterly more predictable. 

But it has the reverse effect that was intended.  Consumers turn off and tune out and record sales suffer, as people just don’t get too excited by what’s happening anymore.  If you think that I not open to the music being made today, you’re wrong.  I am receptive to music in ALL time periods, but here, we’re looking at the overall state of the union.  Here are some questions worth asking regarding where things are currently at:

What new artists now are selling out huge concerts and causing pandemonium today?  What new artist’s today are changing the landscape of culture via music at this time in a profound way that is well known to the world at large and is likely to change history?  What new artists are having blockbuster sales with new records?  If your answer is Miley Cyrus / Hannah Montana (who had three albums simultaneously in the Billboard Top 40 in March 2008), my point has already been made!  There has always been a place for the teen idol, now for the “tween” age group, but these performers hardly ever usher in a new aesthetic.  So where is the new and revolutionary art, then… – but wait, is that what the world really wants anyway…?

Coming up next:  Part 2 – The struggle to “make it big”

© 2008 Skafish All Rights Reserved

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