Friday, May 24, 2013

The Devolution of Music: Intermission: The 70-year Old Pop Song

It's always easy to pick on the new kid at school, he hasn't any friends to back him up yet. Similarly, it's easier to pick on the new form of music, and the current and seemingly easiest target is the super-popular dubstep. (To me, it sounds not that much different from early nineties techno and early industrial, but I guess the next generation might disagree.) In any case, dubstep fans will be glad to know that this blog is not intended to pick on dubstep or blame any one-type or genre of music for the demise of all, but rather to shine a light on the overall descent in the quality of music that has been going on for years, dubstep included. With that said, instead of taking on the new kid, let's take full aim at the big bully of the class and see if we can't take that elephant down.
  Pop music, or what is generally called Pop is the biggest of big bullies of the musical schoolyard. It dominates radio-play, crowds out local talent and relegates genre music to the back of the record store. It emphasizes a single performer, usually the singer, above a group of musicians. It also draws attention away from musical talent, or lack thereof, by emphasizing sexy outfits or dance moves or outrageous stage antics. Further, pop over-emphasizes the recorded version of music, not the performance. What matters in pop is not a live musical or artistic performance, but a show. And pop can put on a really, really big show.
However, no matter who may be King or Queen of pop at the current moment, this big bully, is an old bully. Seemingly still strong, but much older than you might think. Most people generally place its age alongside the beginnings of early rock n' roll....about 50-55 years. However, I would argue that the pop song is at least 70 years old, if not older.
 Take a look at this 'video' of Gene Krupa's Orchestra. Gene Krupa was one of the best jazz drummers that's ever been. He has/had a much wider range of music than this song would suggest on its own... but this song is definitely a pop song. Anita O' Day and Roy Eldridge (also both capable of more than pop) are shown here singing a song called 'Let me off Uptown'. (I'll wait while you watch the video.)
    The first thing you might have noticed is that Anita O' Day said 'groovy' in 1941, which is about 20-years before hippies invented the word. Also, the basic structure of a pop song is there. Verse, chorus, solo, some dancing and a big finish. In fact, sometimes, the musicians actually announce the structure for you such as when Roy Eldridge says: "I feel like blowin'" when he wants to do the solo. Sure, the introduction music seems long for a pop song. The song also has a bass player playing a bouncy-sounding bassline. (A bassline is what old people used to call bass, played by a bass-player, but which has now been replaced by a loud monotone blasts of computer-generated 'BASS' which is supposed to be just as good but really isn't). In any case, this pop song is a basic verse chorus structure and is about a girl telling a guy where the 'hot' clubs are, in this case 'uptown'. Sometimes the hot clubs are 'downtown' or 'on the west side' or some crap, and....dance, dance, dance....blah, blah, blah... you have a pop song.
     And just to make sure you realize how much this has all happened before, let's take a look at some young, cute kids who've learned a classic rock tune called Route 66. The Strypes as they call themselves actually do a decent job on this hip number from way back in the olden days. (This video came out in 2012, though it's made in Black and White so they look extra kewl.)
   The Strypes have done some pretty cool things with this tune, however, the old fogies and grandmas and grandpas know that the original version of the song Route 66 was done by the Rolling Stones circa 1966, except it wasn't.
   And although you'd be wrong again, some of us real geezers in the blog-audience remember the 'true original' version that was done by Chuck Berry way back around 1956 . Except he didn't.
  That wasn't the true original version. And the reason that you don't remember the true original version is because you're probably not old enough. So when you go look up the tune on wikipedia, you'll realize that Route 66 was first written and recorded in 1946, and this version was performed by Nat King Cole, who passed away in 1965. Now, you've realized two things...one is that you're old...two is that route 66 may have been written by The Strypes great, great, great grandpa.

Won't you get hip to this un-timely tip....The basic structure and premise of a pop song is still the same...but it's 70 years old. I could spend two and a half blogs coming up with mid-1940s examples of songs about the hot dance club, the cool street, the hot girl, etcetera etcetera, but I'm pretty sure that the whole idea of the pop song is at least 70 years old. It began, I believe, at the same time that the original 'swing' era was ending. Musical pieces became shorter, bands got smaller, vocals became more prominent and generally speaking the music of the band moved into the background while catchy choruses move to the forefront. Thus the three minute pop song was born.

So, you might be wondering....what the heck have we been doing all this time? Why did we stick to this silly format of 3-4 chord songs of boy meets girl songs and party music and dance clubs and where to 'get your kicks'? Haven't we done this to death fifty years ago? Why didn't anyone try to change this? Seventy frickin' years? OMG, what the hell is wrong with us?

The answer is simple. We did try to change it. At least, the artists tried to change it. You see, there's nothing an artist likes more than to create something completely far out and groovy. Something new and wild and exciting and mind blowing. And some of these artists knew that they were in a rut and doing the same thing over and over and so they took some drugs and contemplated the universe and decided to see what they could come up with. And some of them came up with some really different stuff. Such as the Chambers Brothers song Time Has Come Today.
The only problem was all that groovy music was about seven and a half minutes too long for radio. You see radio, corporations, and business-people (i.e: jack-offs with money) only care about money-grubbing and not art, and so every second of radio-time that they use to play a song is a second that they can't use to sell crap, or annoy you with another stupid prank call or useless-but-sponsored traffic report. So, ironically, in order to save time, they chopped this masterpiece down to a four minute tune and sold it as a single, you know, to make it seem as pop as possible, even though it wasn't. Strangely no one was fooled into thinking this was pop and most people felt ripped-off when they realized that they didn't get the whole song. (Incidentally the Chambers Brothers are perhaps the band that has been screwed by corporate douchebags worse than any other. They have received little or no royalties to this day, while their music is still used in hundreds of movies and TV shows with or without their permission.)
   Well, while good music was being downsized into pop-size singles whether anyone liked it or not, some clever dudes in Britain inadvertently realized that, through this new invention called the LP (long playing record album), they could pretty much do whatever music they wanted, so long as they managed to squeeze out a 'single' to make the record company happy. And so you consumers finally had a choice. You could buy the single and hear 'Yellow Submarine'. Or you could buy the album and hear the song 'Tomorrow Never Knows' with lyrics inspired by Timothy Leary's interpretation of the Tibetan Book of The Dead. The Beatles, of course, would go on to produce the first of what is now known as 'the concept album' in Sgt Pepper, but I will not talk about Sgt Pepper because that's been talked about enough.
   For a while, with the surge in sales of albums, it looked like the world was finally turning in favour of the artist and against the pop-hit single. Appropriately enough, one of the first really breakthrough best-selling everyone-has-to-have-it type of albums was one titled 'Tapestry' by Carole King. Carole King had previously written music for several artists, including some of your Motown favourites. But in making/writing an album, she proved herself a true talent, taking the listener on a journey that is emotional and yet inspiring. The LP album was a breakthrough, allowing somewhere between 44 and 60 minutes of music. And it was the album format that seperated the real artists, like Carole King, from those one-hit wonder pop chuckleheads once and for all. With albums taking the forefront, some pop-star couldn't get away with one 'hit', because that left nearly forty minutes of shit that could, conceivably turn the listening audience against the pop-singer. No, to be a successful album, the whole album had to be pretty good, and that meant that the artist or band had to be pretty good. And it worked: For about ten years, from the late sixties to about the early 1980s many great albums were produced, from any type or genre of music including country, jazz and heavy metal. One-hit pop songs and artists came and went, but good albums became like good books, something to hold onto and re-visit every once in a while, like Marvin Gaye's What's Goin On, Elton John's Captain Fantastic, or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. The album showed the true power of an artist's work and some artists even dared to make double-albums if they thought they had some great ideas or a backlog of songs that were 'too long for radio'. It seemed like the artists had finally gotten the edge over the money-grubbing pop-song loving corporate types, because good albums were just too difficult for pop-stars, who usually didn't write their own songs anyway.
 Obviously you see a theme going on here. The war is between the artists and the corporate douchebags. The artists don't like the simplistic limitations of a pop song, while the corporate business-people see the simplicity of the pop-song structure as money-making marketing magic. And much like the mob, every time we get close to escaping the pop-tune theme, the money-grubbing corporate douchebags get out their giant vacuum and suck us back in, however they've usually updated the decor inside the vacuum in hopes that you don't feel like you're back in the same dark hole.

 So, what happened to the album? Well, the eighties and MTV happened. The price of albums came down relative to singles and record companies realized that they could sell the whole 40-60 minutes of music simply through advertising. Put a good looking singer or made-up band in a big budget cheezy video and guess what? Young girls and boys will rush out and buy the whole album (or cassette), even if the entire 50 minutes of music sucks donkey turds. Album cover artwork even became marketing as well, slick pictures of divas and even male singers meant more sales, and usually replaced the more artsy covers indicative of the '60s and '70s. Advertising, Videos and marketing sold albums whether they were good or bad. And though there were some really good albums in the '80s, many more of them were really terrible and about 80-90% pop.

    So, here, we get into my own generation, and although I lived it, the truth is that there aren't that many people who have written about it and researched it the way that people have for the '60s or '70s or some other, more famous, generation. (I suppose we the Gen-Xer's, having been thoroughly defamed by corporate leeches for 20-odd years, despite providing great music, are the dogs of the generations, to be kicked, not revered. Well, go f**k yourself, because I say Gen-X is the greatest generation and everything we've said was the truth and if you stupid baby-boom buggers listened to us sooner, we'd all be better off!) I'll be honest and say that I'm going to credit the re-surgence of non-pop alternative music of the late eighties and early nineties with the independant and college radio stations of the time. That's likely where it began, the first I heard of it, and the most obvious place to look. When I was listening to all this independent music in the mid to late '80s, I had no idea that any of it would actually be successful. Had you asked me back then about one of my favourite bands R.E.M. and if they would become famous, I would've said quickly: "No way. I love REM, but they are going to be an indy band forever."  As it turns out, REM did pretty well for themselves. The rise of REM, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cult, The Cure would all eventually give way to a surge of music from Seattle, but I think the ground work for Nirvana/Soundgarden/Pearl Jam and others was laid by independant and college radio stations in the late eighties.
  Personally, I hated the eighties. Badly. Getting away from Michael Jackson and Madonna's pop songs seemed like a sport of its own. The truth was that, even if you hated it, you really couldn't get entirely away from it, because pop was everywhere. That's probably why people like myself gravitated to heavy metal first, and then later to independent radio. But as the eighties came to an end, pop music seemed to lose it's grip! It's iron-clad hold on music just went away like Michael Jackson's other glove and suddenly, in the early nineties, everything was topsy turvy for a while. People, whether they thought themselves cool or not, suddenly felt the need to know about the bands that I was listening to. Tom Morello's raunchy record-scratch influenced guitar solos fuelled a new generation of pop-hating twenty-somethings, who spent more time getting their hair dirty in a mosh-pit than gelled-up for a video. The thundering drumming of the one-minute long intro to the song 'Jesus Christ Pose' seemed not strange, not superfluous to the lyrics, not an artsy-fartsy deconstruction of a rock song, but just a damn good way to start a really good tune. Alice in Chains 'Rooster' with its moody music and haunting lyrics seemed not 'out of place' or un-mainstream, but just a really good song.
Independant radio was accepted and even profitable for those that caught on to alternative early, and alternative music dominated, while actual 'mainstream' music seemed comparatively un-cool. Probably moreso than that at any time in 'pop' history, so-called 'Pop music' was briefly, for a few years, actually squeezed off some radio airways in favour of grunge acts that were selling more albums and CDs than the Pop of the time. It seemed miraculous. Was pop finally dead? I remember one day in the '90s, I was marvelling that a five and a half minute song about the end of the world called 'Black Hole Sun' was at the top of the local charts while some more 'mainstream' pop singers were suddenly pushed down the ladder. They seemed to be losing. Pop seemed to be receding into the background. And perhaps your first choice wasn't grunge? Well, then you had gangsta-rap by NWA and others. Maybe not all of this was great music, or even your favourite, but none of it was pop. Sure, if you wanted some pop back in your life, you could listen to Fresh Prince and get 'jiggy with it' but why the heck would you when you could listen to Ice-T and Body Count, or Radiohead, or Nine Inch Nails? No...in the nineties, pop really did take to the rear.
  However, it didn't last forever. As the nineties came to a close, pop enjoyed a recovery. Oh, it didn't come back all at once....it crept up like the annoying, sneaky sniveling creature that it is, then it attached itself invisibly to our brains in the middle of the night and we woke up in the summer of 2005 thinking that this was the way it had always been....that pop had never left...never left...are you kidding? Pop Music dead? Hah! Lose to a bunch of mud-covered Gen X-ers? Surely you must be joking!! You got to get up pretty early in the morning if you want to beat Pop... pop is pure evil...you can't get away.... now stop whining for your grunge and listen to some Britney Spears, Lady Gaga or Jay-Z or Snoop Dog and act like you give a f-shizzle!
  Of course, it could easily be argued that pop never went away in the nineties. Look at the obligatory year-end Billboard Hot 100 lists of the '90s and you wouldn't know that Grunge existed. Albums now considered classics like Nirvana's Nevermind(1991) Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger (1991) and Pearl Jam's Ten (1992) don't even show up on the radar, while, also according to Billboard; Michael Jackson and Madonna appear to have continued their despotic pop reign from the eighties.
  Maybe Billboard is mistaken, but maybe we did get ahead of ourselves. Perhaps myself and others of the 'Grunge' era were too blissful in our revelry. Maybe we body-surfed or jumped in one too many mosh-pits at all those outdoor festival-type concerts and forgot that more music would be needed for the next century. Maybe when we heard Smashing Pumpkins' 1995 album: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness we thought we'd won and the game was over. Hah!! Despite all our rage.... now we're still listening to those same songs of nineties angst while wondering why nothing new has come along to match it. The truth is that, since the middle nineties, the largest media conglomerates (ie: corporate douchebags) slowly bought up all those independant radio stations that we depended on and now they're using those stations and their 'reputations earned in the nineties' as a brand to sell crap music to anyone who will....ugh....it makes me tired and sad to even think about it, let alone write on and on about this.
 
Suffice it to say that the pop song has corporate-backers with deep pockets and their influence is both evil and ubiquitous. They've even managed to suck in rap/hip-hop, once notorious for talking about gangs and crime, into stupid tunes about partying and girls. All I can say is... if you're waiting for it to just die, then you should give up. The pop song won't die of old age, because the corporate money-grubbers won't let it. Marketing strategy dictates the 70 year old pop song will likely continue on for another thirty years at least, though I hope not, probably becoming sillier and more simplistic all the way. Someday it's stupidity may prove so terrible that it will literally shrink our brains, if it hasn't already.

Next week...Part 4 of the Devolution of Music: Hear No Devo, See No Devo