Thursday, August 29, 2013

Overdue Revolution 

Greetings, Audiophiles!

While everyone else is having kittens over Miley's MTV Video Music Award "performance", I was much more disturbed by the dubious overall quality of the musical guests as a whole.  Here's a list of the acts that performed live last Sunday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York:  

Miley Cyrus
Robin Thicke
2 Chainz
  Kendrick Lamar
Kanye West
Justin Timberlake
N Sync
Ryan Lewis
Mary Lambert
Jennifer Hudson
Katy Perry
And just for comparison's sake, here's the roster from back in 1992:
Black Crowes
Bobby Brown
Def Leppard
Elton John
Pearl Jam
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Michael Jackson
Bryan Adams
En Vogue
Eric Clapton
Guns N' Roses 

From this I'd like to derive a few conclusions...
  1. Although pop and R&B music was reasonable represented in 1992 by Bobby Brown, Def Leppard, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Bryan Adams and En Vogue we also had blues rock (The Black Crowes), alternative rock (U2, Pearl Jam), punk (Nirvana), rap-rock funk (Red Hot Chilli Peppers), classic rock (Eric Clapton) and metal (Guns N' Roses).  Okay, so Axel Rose warbling "November Rain" along side Elton John isn't exactly metal, but you know what I mean.  There's some variety here.   
  2. Not all of the pop music was disposable crap.  Well, except maybe for Bobby Brown.  And Def Leppard.  And Elton John.  And Bryan Adams.  Seriously, does anyone listen to shmaltz like this anymore? 
  3. Elton John was forty-five years old at the time and Eric Clapton was forty seven.  They don't exactly appeal to the optimal consumer demographic, do they?      
So, I hear you asking, how did our musical options become so hideously curtailed?  Actually the better question to ask is: how in Lemmy's name did bands like Stone Temple Pilots and Tool manage to chart back then in the first place?

The music industry may be a blatantly mercenary enterprise but they're also supposed to cater to public demand.  Right away that puts them in a very precarious position.  Although they want us to unquestionably consume the safe, polite, non-threatening, marketable gruel they manufacture for us, sometimes we turn up our collective noses and push the wooden bowl aside. 

For example, in the Seventies, the radio was chock-a-block with cornball easy listening crap, soulless disco, prog rock wankery and in-bred southern rock.  But then a coupla D.J's who still had a semblance of autonomy made the bold choice to play this:

Were the Sex Pistols the first punk band ever?  No.  Credit for that probably belongs to MC5 and / or Iggy Pop and The Stooges.  But an entire generation of disenfranchised kids who were railing against the mediocrity foisted on them by the music industry heard "Anarchy In The U.K." one time and their ears immediately perked up.  They wanted to hear it again and again.  They wanted to own (or steal) a copy of Never Mind the Bollocks.  They wanted to hear more bands like the Sex Pistols.   

Horrified by this unexpected blip of rebellion, the corporate pinheads scrambled to cater to this grassroots movement whilst and at the same time, attempting to steer public opinion back towards something that was much easier to produce, package and sell.  After all, who wants to see their investments go rogue during a press junket and end up narrowing their commercial appeal?

Aren't those interview clips gloriously awkward and sweat-inducing?  Well, guess what, kids?  That's what rock n' roll is all about.  It's about danger, passion and an outward contempt for the status quo.  It's about rebellion and horrifying your parents.  It's about giving the younger generation a chance to say "F#@k, yeah! Tell those oblivious reporters where they can cram their microphones!"      

Regardless of punk's groundswell popularity, music was safety back within its industry-approved box by the time the mid-to-late 80's rolled around.  Once again radio stations and music videos channels were awash with sappy ballads, nauseating pop pablum, shitty glam metal and aging irrelevancies.  But then, in September of 1991 a few remaining D.J.'s and V.J's who hadn't yet been neutered started playing this:

So was Nirvana the first alternative band to create a buzz around that time?  Nope.  Early innovators include R.E.M., Jane's Addiction, Violent Femmes, Fishbone, Faith No More, Hüsker Dü, The Cure, Sonic Youth, The Flaming Lips, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Bauhaus, The Tragically Hip, Guided By Voices and, by my estimation, about a hojillion other bands.  But, much to Kurt Cobain's chagrin, Nirvana was in the right place at the right time and they became the de factor spearhead for a musical coup d'état.

The best thing about this: the record industry was completely blindsided.  They didn't see this coming, at all.  A few autonomous souls had the balls to spin "Teen Spirit", kids heard it, dug it, adopted it as their generation's anthem and then demanded to hear more music like it.  The industry weasels scrambled to feed this rogue demand, signing any flannel-clad band that could simultaneously scream and produce feedback.

I'm convinced that Kurt Cobain could see the writing on the wall from day one.  Even though alternative music had been dragged kicking and screaming out into the mainstream, Kurt knew that it was only a matter of time before corporate morons got their mitts on alternative music and ruined it forever.  As influential as Nirvana and their contemporaries were, they couldn't halt the inevitable.

Terrified that he'd eventually become a part of the problem, Kurt decided to opt out in the most permanent and tragic manner possible.  Even after his death, decent music lingered in the charts for a few more years.  For example, here's what the MuchMusic Top 30 Countdown looked back in 1995.

But slowly, inexorably, things started to swing back towards homogenized, manufactured mediocrity. And thank goodness, too!  How are you supposed to market a band when they act like they have Asbergers during interviews?

By the late 90's the charts were once again choked with detritus.  And this time, the suits made sure that there wouldn't be any more nasty, unexploitable surprises.  They lobbied the government for sweeping deregulation and thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 we went from having thousands of independent sources for music to about around eight.  And as we all well know, he who controls the medium controls the message.

Thanks to bands like The White Stripes, The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand there was a whiff of garage rock rebellion back in the early 2000's but it was largely ignored by the mainstream media.  Instead, the Big Four record companies continued to jam our collective noses down into the trough of their choosing.  As such, here's what the Much Music Top 30 Countdown looks like today.

Granted, it's not all dire.  Serena Rider's "What I Wouldn't Do" exhibits genuine passion.  Tegan and Sara are great but I'm genuinely distressed by their poppy and overproduced turn.  And although I'm loathe to stroke Kanye West's already-inflated ego, he does exhibit signs of inspired brilliance from time to time.  The balance of the chart, however, is pretty fugly.  It includes Simon Cowell's latest musical swindle, Hannah Montana's desperate attempt to create an anthem and Alan Thicke's creepy, nearly forty-year old son delivering the rapiest-sounding "song of the summer" I've ever heard.

Most of all I feel sorry for kids today.  They deserve to have a legacy band that they can be proud of, not a bunch of garbage they'll want to purge from iPod as soon as they turn twenty.   

I'll leave you with a positive story, one which serves as a perfect parable for this entire post.  For years the city of Halifax suffered under a blight of terrible radio stations.  If kids turned on the radio they had two choices: either classic rock like AC/DC, the Allman Brothers and Steve Miller or pop diva droppings from Beyonce, Brittany, J-Lo, X-Tina and the like.  Naturally, if you grow up thinking that these are your only two options, you tend to pick the lesser of two evils and then grudgingly apply your selection to the soundtrack of your existence.

But a few years ago Live 105 decided to roll the dice and offer a modern rock / alternative music format.  For the first time ever, Haligonians could finally hear The Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Talent, Arcade Fire and Queens of the Stone Age on the radio.  And, go figure, they responded very positively.

So well in fact that the other dinosaur rock stations had to contend with the horrifying possibility that young people aren't particularly interested in Fleetwood Mac.  After years of playing the same tired 70's and 80's music, Kool 96.5 changed their format this past week to "honest and real" singer-songwriter type music like The Lumineers and Mumford and Sons.  Now, I know I'm probably not going to hear something like The National or Band of Horses on this station any time soon, but at least it's an incremental move in the right direction.

My point is: the music industry has to stop acting like the tail that's desperately determined to wag the dog.  Why not put a little bit of everything out there?  Why not let people choose what they like and then cater to them?  Stop trying to convince people that rock attained perfection in 1974 or that autotune is a legitimate musical instrument or that bubble gum is the only flavor of ice cream.    

Go figure, you may actually end up making some filthy lucre in the process.

EPIC DOC  Before the Music Dies is a powerful examination of the devolution and homogenization of the music industry.  Highly recommended. 

EPIC PERFORMANCE  Nirvana at the MTV MVA's back in 1992.  I love how they start by playing a few bars of the verboten "Rape Me" just freak out the sensors.  Bonus points: bassist Krist Novoselic beans himself with his own bass, drummer Dave Grohl cat-calls Axel Rose and some crazy mother-f#@kers decide to indulge in some prime-time stage diving.  Honestly, when's the last time you saw someone stage dive at the VMA's?  Bring back the danger!!!      

EPIC DEBATE  A few month ago a bunch of us got together to listen to the Billboard Hot Top Ten.  This was the inevitable result

FAILURE OF PERSPECTIVE  ♪♫ "Just don't look, just don't look..." ♪♫

FAIL-ING TOO HARD  Some people have compared Miley's VMA performance to some of Madonna's live television appearances over the years.  Now, I'm no Madonna fan but even I know the difference between making a public statement about sexual morays, religion or female empowerment and trying to stir up controversy by going your best Gene Simmons impersonation and then using a forty year old douchebag as a stripper pole.  Unlike all of you pearl-clutchers out there, her act didn't shock or scandalize me.  I won't join you in a round of self-righteous "slut shaming".  I just feel embarrassed and kinda sad for Miley.  Obviously this is the only way she thinks she can get our attention and that's as sad a comment about us as it is about her.     

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