• The state of the song: What can we do, if anything, to restore pop/rock music back to its former glory? (part III of III)
1) Have all the great songs already been written?
2) Why is today’s most popular music fundamentally less interesting than yesterday’s?
3) What can we do, if anything, to get pop/rock music back to its former quality level?
As I’ve worked on this series of posts, I’ve become more and more concerned about this last one, because I really don’t think I have any good answers. Still, I’ve made it this far, so please step aboard as I plough forward. Here’s what I think could happen to make things better.
• I’d like to see DJs who love music and have the freedom to play anything make a comeback on mainstream radio. They act as filters and filters are good, especially when there is so much music out there. I mean, how the hell do you discover stuff these days unless you are willing to surf YouTube and other sites for hours on end? And Pandora? It’s cool, but artificial intelligence has a ways to go.
• I’d like to see greater patience in artistic development (if development even exists anymore). I’m not sure, but I get the sense that the same kind of market grab that dominated the dot com era now dominates music as artists and labels seek to wring every last dollar out of an idea while it’s hot and not worry too much about the future (why should you, you’ll be rich, right?). I see this especially in Lady Gaga who burst onto the scene with a fresh sound and proceeded to repeat herself ad nauseam (have you heard the new album?). Compare her to Bowie back in the 70s or U2 and Prince in the 80s or even Nirvana in the 90s. All of these acts took Neil Young’s creed to heart: rust never sleeps, you have to keep moving. Man, writing this is making me nostalgic for the days when bands sounded different from album to album, even song to song. Who does that anymore? No one I can think of. Which brings me to...
• CREATIVITY. What happened to it? One of my favorite bands of all time is Def Leppard -- or was -- because they crafted the hell out of their songs (though, I admit, their lyrics could fall a touch short) with hooks and pre-choruses and huge full choruses and tight breakdowns and wicked intros and outros. Zeppelin, too. They were just so creative and varied with the their music, god, it was incredible. And The Beatles (Help > Rubber Soul > Revolver > Sergeant Pepper’s, Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles, Yellow Submarine > Abbey Road > Let It Be). Or The Clash going from London Calling to Sandinista. The Who releasing not one rock opera but two. Those were the days, my friend.
• Finally, I’d like to see the power of the song reassert itself over technology. So many of the songs I hear today are less songs than they are constructions of tracks. Now, there is nothing wrong with using a computer to pile up tracks, but they need to be in service of something greater. I loved Beck’s Odelay album for this very reason: it’s thoroughly modern in that it’s packed with tracks (loops) but great songs are what you hear. To do what Beck did is hard, you can’t simply rely on a gifted engineer and Pro Tools, you’ve got to have a core instinct for song, so you know when to keep going and when to stop and and when to start over. I love technology, but by by making the process of recording so easy and forgiving, I think it has lulled a lot of artists into being less prepared than they should be when they head into the studio. Sure, back in the day, bands arrived at studios with nothing but beer and drugs, but they had been touring and practicing and playing, playing, playing, not sipping Starbucks coffees and musing of their art-to-be. Before I leave this topic (for now), let me be clear: I am in no way a Luddite -- at least I try not to be -- and going backward is almost never preferable to going forward. More important, change is always hard. My hope is that right now music is in a period of flux, driven by technology, and will emerge better than ever. We can’t just keep making Creedence albums, as great as they are, and that means pushing away from I IV V, writing material that will sound awful and unmusical to my generation, breaking the rules to break through and find the new. It has to be done, and I hope it is being done with fervency somewhere. In fact, I’m sure it is. It’s just not the human way to stay satisfied forever. I think this quote gets it right:
“The reality is that it's going to take time for the marriage of music and technology to work.” - Troy Carter, Lady GaGa’s manager, in an email to Bob Lefsetz
As always, comments are much appreciated on this post (or any other!). Thanks for reading.