Monday, December 7, 2009

But Seriously, Folks....

You folks who read here know that I joke around a lot, that even when I'm serious I tend to make feeble jokes, even if I'm trying to convince you to take a chance on a new album or the best book I've ever read.
But now I'm being serious, pretty much. If you haven't checked them out already, I urge you to read some comments on current music by a guy named Sadler Vaden, posted Nov. 30 at Seano's "Circle of Fits" blog ( Sadler is a working musician, a singer-songwriter-guitarist with a band called Leslie. His comments were posted after he watched the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert.
Sadler's opinion (posted under the title "Rock and Roll is Not a Joke") is that most current music sucks -- that it's way more about presentation and shock effects and way less about talent and soul -- that little of it's memorable, that very little of it will last, that the commercialization and celebrity-ization of it has taken over, and that the music has suffered.
His feeling is that older, "classic" rockers (Springsteen, U2, Stones, CSNY, Simon and Garfunkel, etc.) are the only ones who got it right -- that VERY few current or "newer" acts can hold a candle to the Greats.
And maybe he's right. But while I agree with many of the points he makes, I also think some of the things he says make him sound even crankier and more out-of-touch than I am.
Now, I'm the last person to stand up for most new music. I agree with Sadler that little of it's memorable -- at least, most of the stuff you hear on the radio or TV. I'd say 95 percent or more of it's crap.
But. I think Sadler's maybe looking in the wrong places.
It's such a big musical world now -- so much larger than when I was growing up, and there are so many different ways to track down new music now: Internet Radio, MySpace sites, through and other places -- there are TOO MANY websites where you can download all kinds of new music and try it out.
But Sadler seems to mainly focus on what he's been seeing lately on TV, and I think that's definitely the wrong place to go to find out what's new and good -- and I don't think radio's much better. Sadler's disgusted by AMERICAN IDOL and recent antics at the American Music Awards. I wonder why he should care about either. Awards have never been a very good barometer of musical quality -- the Grammy Awards have stepped a little closer to reality in the past few years, but they were a joke for AGES -- the Beatles only won four minor Grammies, one for SGT. PEPPER: for "best engineered album." The AMA's are chosen by fans -- but who knows how old those fans are? And neither AMERICAN IDOL nor most of the music featured on the AMA's are anywhere near what Sadler or most of us would consider "real rock and roll."
Before even mentioning current acts that I think are worth listening to, I think maybe Sadler is mis-remembering his musical past. It wasn't all golden. It just seems that way now, because he hears so little good stuff these days.
Here's the thing: Millions of people buy crap. Musical junk food. They always have, and I don't see any way that's ever going to change. All you can do is hope their tastes expand and that they trip over the Good Stuff someday. But don't hold your breath.
Today's empty "Flavor of the Month" (whoever it is) will be gone by next year. And five years from now, no one will remember or care who they were. Remember David Cassidy, Shaun Cassidy, Donny Osmond, Leif Garrett, Debbie Gibson, Tiffany ... Britney Spears?
Consider: When I first started listening to the radio in the fall of 1970, musical greats like the Beatles, Stones, Who, Doors, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Joplin, CSNY, Simon and Garfunkel, and others were being played heavily, and some were in their absolute prime.
But at the same time that these folks were all over the radio, "music fans" were buying millions of records and filling the bank accounts of "artists" like the Archies, Bobby Sherman, the Osmonds, and the Partridge Family.
Now don't get me wrong. "Sugar, Sugar" was a great piece of bubblegum pop, and I treasure my old Partridge Family albums. But I don't play them much, and in no way do I consider them "real rock and roll."
There will always be crap -- lots of it. Science fiction fans are familiar with Sturgeon's Law, which says that 90 percent of everything is crap -- books, music, movies, TV, people, relationships, everything. There are only going to be a few that you'll remember forever. Only a few are worth it.
Some of this "new music vs. old" stuff maybe boils down to matters of taste, which are pointless to argue about. Sadler has his views and his favorites, and I have mine, and God bless both of us -- and ain't it great that we live in a country where we can compare notes and comment on each other's views?
But some of what Sadler says makes ME look open-minded. And I try to be, but I don't think I AM. (I'm still wrestling with a couple fairly recent albums, one released earlier this year, trying to decide if they're crap or ... not-crap. And until I decide, I won't be reviewing them here.)
If only the greats of your younger days can make the music of your dreams, what's the point in listening to new stuff? Won't that just frustrate you? By the same token, after however-many years of listening, do you still expect an album or a piece of music to change your life? (That would be great if it happened, but I sure don't EXPECT it.)
It's easy to have an album or song change your world at age 12, or even at 18 -- you haven't seen or experienced that much. Later on it gets harder. Much harder. I've had BOOKS alter my reality a couple times over the last 20 years (Kathe Koja's SKIN, Lewis Shiner's GLIMPSES), but I can't remember the last time an album or a song had that kind of impact on me. (Nick Drake's BRYTER LAYTER, maybe?) And maybe that's sad. But I don't blame today's music for it, as bored or frustrated as I may get when I'm forced to listen to some of it.
Besides, I don't think it's ALL crap -- and with the many ways available now to learn about and hear new artists, I think it's unfair to paint all new music with the same negative brush, to say that it's all crap, that it lacks heart and soul. With an outlook like that, Sadler's not going to be able to hear the next example of Good Stuff when it finally appears.
Recent music that I think is worth hearing (over the past few years):
* Jordin Sparks' first album was superb -- a solidly-produced, catchy, immediate piece of urban/R&B/hip-hop with a few excellent ballads. She has a great voice and isn't just a front -- she co-wrote a few songs. "Now You Tell Me" and "Tattoo" were painful and brilliant, and Sparks co-wrote the best ballad, the gorgeous and intimate "Worth the Wait."
* Fleet Foxes' first album was pretty cool, sort-of early-'60s folk meets the Beach Boys. When I first heard it, I played it all the way through three times in a row. Been awhile since I've done that with any album.
* Keane's first album HOPES AND FEARS had a few excellent songs on it, the gorgeous "Bend and Break," "Somewhere Only We Know," "This is the Last Time," and the dreamy "Your Eyes Open."
* Norah Jones' first album was OK, and she has at least one GREAT song, "Shoot the Moon." "The Long Day is Over" ain't bad, either.
* Coldplay has done a few good songs, including the gorgeous "Clocks" and "Talk," and "Viva La Vida" is growing on me. But I admit a lot of their stuff has no effect on me at all.
* Coheed and Cambria's "The Road and the Damned" is one of the prettiest heavy-guitar ballads I've heard in ages, with a gorgeous, mournful melody. C&C's "Feathers" is an excellent, catchy, rockier number with GREAT choruses -- but a weak ending.
* That high-speed remake of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" that came out a couple of years back was pretty great, but I couldn't tell you who performed it....
* I didn't even realize until the past couple weeks that I'd actually HEARD anything by Taylor Swift -- that song about her being a princess or Juliet, with the chorus that ends "Just say yes," is pretty great. (That is her, isn't it?)
* Avril Lavigne did some great stuff -- I'm especially a sucker for "I'm With You." (But where is she now?)
* Vertical Horizon's "Everything You Want" was a classic....
* Sarah McLachlan's "Stupid" rang all the bells for me a couple of years back -- it's like she took the drama of "Angel" and added the tunefulness of "I Will Remember You," only with 10 times as much melodrama! I liked it a lot. But she can also be dull ("Angel") and lazy ("Sweet Surrender").
* Outkast's "Hey Ya" was joyous and silly, "I Like the Way You Move" and "Roses" were both pretty good, and some of the other tracks on SPEAKERBOXXX/THE LOVE BELOW are also interesting, including the comedy bits between songs....
* My Chemical Romance's "Teenagers" is hilarious, and not at all what I'd expected from them....
* Panic! At The Disco has some interesting stuff -- their song where the groom learns his bride is a whore ("I Write Sins Not Tragedies"?) is pretty good until it starts to repeat itself endlessly. But the lead vocal is amazing!
* Fall Out Boy has a few good songs -- "Thanks for the Memories" is pretty funny, and "Sugar We're Goin' Down" and "Dance, Dance" are pretty grabby.
* Good Charlotte's "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" was pretty funny, but I haven't heard anything else by them that grabbed me....
* Anna Nalick's "Breathe" was pretty great, but I don't know what she's done since....
* Even John Mayer has done some good stuff -- there were several above-average songs on his first album for Columbia (the one with the puzzle-pieces cover), but "Bigger Than My Body" was the last thing of his that grabbed me....
* Five for Fighting's "100 Years" was pretty great, and he's done some other interesting stuff....
* Beyonce's "Irreplaceable" was a good mellow R&B ballad with interesting lyrics....
* A fairly recent, mellow R&B ballad about cheating and breaking-up as a performance ("Take A Bow"? "It's Over Now"?) had a pretty great vocal by whatever woman sang it. (I am SO out of touch....)
...I guess maybe that's not so much, and little of it's probably what Sadler would consider "real rock and roll." I'm sure there's a lot I've forgotten, and I know there are many songs I've liked where I never heard a title or who sang it. But maybe this newer stuff isn't meant for someone my age. People much younger than I am will decide what good stuff will last -- they'll decide what the good stuff IS, period. There will always be something good to listen to.
"Rock and Roll is Not a Joke." No, it isn't. And yes, it does need to be nurtured, and we do need to be reminded about the greats of the past -- God knows I do that a lot here. But rock and roll is definitely also a business -- for some it's a long-term career.
Because he makes an issue of older rockers' integrity, I think it's worth noting that some of Sadler's heroes sold-out early. The Who's Pete Townshend sold some of his songs for use in commercials and TV shows YEARS ago. I remember being disappointed when I first heard "Love, Reign O'er Me" in a soft-drink commercial. But by the time "Who Are You" became the theme for CSI, it wasn't too bad a shock.... The folks at Michelob heard Steve Winwood's "Don't You Know What the Night Can Do?" before his album was even released, and the commercial quickly followed....
(There are exceptions: Brian Wilson's '60s classics for the Beach Boys were sold for commercials at the end of that decade, allegedly sold-off by Brian's father when he thought they wouldn't be worth anything anymore. When we heard "Good Vibrations" used in a Sunkist orange soda commercial or "California Girls" in a Clairol Herbal Essence spot, that wasn't Brian's fault.... Michael Jackson sold-off the Beatles' songs for commercial use -- remember hearing Lennon's "Revolution" in a Nike commercial?)
The thing is, it's a whole different world now. Music fans will never again be as united in agreement as they were about Elvis, the Beatles, Stones, Who, Supremes, Jackson 5, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Prince. Things have expanded too much now. There are so many different musical approaches and so many different tastes. Anyone who could unite almost all music fans now would have to be an INCREDIBLE artist.
And remember: There was a time when even U2 was considered too dangerously new and scary. When I worked in a record store, we couldn't GIVE AWAY U2's first album, the brilliant BOY. (But millions of people bought The Knack....) Springsteen was considered too much of a throwback to the late-50's and early-'60s for awhile. Even "Born to Run," brilliant as it was, didn't break down all the opposition. It wasn't until "Hungry Heart" or possibly even "Dancing in the Dark" and "Born in the U.S.A." that Bruce could really be said to have "arrived." And some of us are still trying to figure out what all the fuss over Nirvana was about....
Memories can be a tricky thing. Most of Sadler's heroes were once sort of dangerous, daring young artists, and there's always resistance to that sort of thing. But maybe Sadler missed that part -- because he adored them from the start. These days, if someone dangerous and daring DID come along, Sadler might miss them -- because he'd be too busy being turned-off by their "antics." But apparently, in his opinion, nobody good is ever going to come along again -- or at least the chances of it are vanishingly small. And that's maybe the part that gets me most.
Rock and roll has been through some bad and boring times before and always survived. Take for instance the late '50s and early '60s -- Elvis in the Army, Chuck Berry in prison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard silenced, the return of the empty Teen Idols.... Or take the late-'70s/early-'80s: Disco dominant, Donna Summer and Olivia Newton-John as Queens of the Airwaves (though Donna had some talent), Punk Rock stillborn in the U.S., New Wave making a little more headway.... And in both these droughts there was still good music -- there always will be. It's just a question of finding it....
This isn't intended as a (lengthy) assassination of someone I've never met. Sadler's comments just got me thinking about a lot of things -- about why I'm so often closed-minded about new music ... until it grabs me by the throat and won't let go. About the fallacy that just because something is old, that makes it good. It doesn't. I don't see time improving the music of Debbie Boone. Or Pat Boone, for that matter. Just because something's brand-new doesn't make it good, either.
But I'd submit that if a lot of new music is "surfacey," as Sadler feels most of it is (and I'd agree), it may be because a lot of LIFE has become kind of surfacey, because we've all allowed it to become that way -- and maybe we should dig a little deeper to find the Good Stuff, to keep in mind what it all means, to get the most out of each minute, to not let it slip by.
I'd also submit that anyone who seems to feel that most of our lives have turned into little more than "financial woes and cheap fear" has more to worry about than what kind of music is being played on radio and TV....


drewzepmeister said...

I agree that most of today's music suck! We've got rap, Brittany Spears, and other MTV garbage shoved in our faces by the media. If I were to filter through this crap, I'd find a slew of excellent music out there. Bands like Gov't Mule, Back Door Slam (which I saw them over the summer and they are awesome), My Morning Jacket, and Them Crooked Vultures bring me great joy in knowing that rock and roll is not dead.

rastronomicals said...

To say that the music of any arbitrary period ago was better than it is now is myopic.

There sure is a lot of crap out there . . . there's ALWAYS been a lot of crap. It's just that nostalgia (and classic rock stations) filter it out.

Now if you are looking to find current Music That Sounds Just Like What You Like From Back When, well, you might be disappointed.

Instruments, methods, and compositional launching pads all change, and that's a good thing.

To my mind, it's all the "old school" artists "still rocking," as they say, still writing the same kinds of songs they wrote 30 years ago that disappoint me. I like lots of music from the '60's and '70's, but the only artist from those times who I follow currently is Neil Young, because he's the only one who continues to revitalize himself, and who writes songs inspired by and about these times, rather than those long ago times.

Plenty of good bands out there, without having to name Dead-inspired Jam bands--Arctic Monkeys, Panic at the Disco, Deerhunter, Mono, TV on the Radio, British Sea Power, Gomez, Cat Power, Ted Leo, 65 Days of Static, Boris, and of course whatever project Jack White is currently fronting are all quality "today" bands. And that's without even getting into the heavier bands that I'm most into.

And that's also coming from someone who is by no means an expert on today's music. Like Tad says, I try, but hell, I'm just about 45 years old: I know that this old fart must be missing a bunch, even after the lot I'm aware of.

Anyway, good music's out there, plenty of it.
So is bad.