Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Fisking Dumb Music Writing

Hello Obama, goodbye meaningful music
Young, Democrat presidents usually inspire lame pop trends

This is such an incredibly wrong-headed piece. Wouldn't really be that bad as a post on some guy's blog, but when something like this takes up space in an actual news organization's website, it makes me cringe. Where to begin?

During the past few years, countless artists have vehemently despised George Bush, while voicing support for Obama. In the U.K., the Guardian noted “You could construct a decent box-set of anti-Bush songs… covering ground from Bright Eyes to Eminem, Pink to Public Enemy, Jay-Z to Elbow.”

All of which begs the question: what’s next? If history is any indicator, expect dance music. Lots of it. Lady Gaga seems to have lobbed the first volley in what might be the biggest dance music blitz since the disco era.

I guess we could start with the obvious canard that "dance music" is the opposite of "good music" or "meaningful music." But that's fish in a barrell. Instead, let's examine the premise about music during the Bush administration. You probably could fill a couple albums with anti-Bush songs (strange that he cites Public Enemy, who peaked midway through the Clinton years, instead of Green Day), but does anyone really feel like the last 8 years have been any kind of golden age for music, especially in the broadly-defined mainstream? That's a bit nutty.

Dance music can be lots of fun, but the periods when it dominated the pop charts have historically been dreadful. With the economic crisis growing grimmer daily, these times cry out for thoughtful music. Pop music is usually at its best when artists challenge the status quo and another period of non-stop dance songs will definitely make the music industry even more irrelevant.

Anyone have any idea what this paragraph means? The country is in deep shit, and anytime the country is in deep shit, we get good music, so it's a shame that we're going to be getting lousy music for the next (hopefully) 8 years?

The pop charts of the past 50 years bear this out (and we’re talking about music known by zillions here, not under-the-radar hipster stuff). Early rock ’n’ roll made a political statement because it represented a rebellion against the repressive Eisenhower era. Few of us are old enough to remember John F. Kennedy, but the optimism brought about by his election is thought to have inspired the Twist craze. You don’t remember the Twist? OK, neither do I. But Chubby Checker’s cover version of Hank Ballard’s song got to No. 1. Twice.

Soon other artists began to twist the night away, like Sam Cooke, Joey Dee and even Bobby Darin (a Kennedy supporter). More dance crazes followed. It doesn’t take a musical scholar to deduct all of this wasn’t as “artistically significant” as what came after.

The big problem here is that 50's rock n roll--Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Big Joe Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, the whole shebang--is dance music. Go watch Hairspray (the John Waters original, not the awful Broadway adaptation), listen to the music on that soundtrack, and tell me rock n roll was dead during those years. Or tell me that that music was less "culturally relevent" than Chuck Berry and Little Richard.

When the country soured on Lyndon Johnson’s policies and social unrest was everywhere, artists like Bob Dylan stepped up with protest songs that defined an era.

And LBJ, the man who signed the voting rights act and created Medicare, becomes a Republican in the service of this hack writer's thesis. I suppose that's fair--to the youth at the time, LBJ was pretty much defined by Vietnam--but I can't resist pointing out that Dylan had given up "protest songs" well before the Johnson Administration began their escalation in Vietnam.

You can guess where he goes next, linking the rise of disco to Jimmy Carter, which more or less makes sense (remember, "we’re talking about music known by zillions here, not under-the-radar hipster stuff"). But then we get this:

That’s what happened a few years later when Ronald Reagan got elected. Bruce Springsteen responded with “Nebraska” and “Born in the U.S.A.,” two albums that chronicled the plight of people who weren’t helped by Reaganomics. Punk rock also became more of a force, especially the Los Angeles hardcore scene, which often seemed driven by anti-Reagan vitriol. The same could be said about rap.

OK, putting aside the point that Born in the USA is a piece of shit (I like Nebraska, though), punk rock actually became LESS popular in the 80's. In the late 70's, you couldn't hear much punk on the radio, but people had at least heard of The Sex Pistols and The Clash. Early 80's hardcore went almost entirely unnoticed by the mainstream, pretty much defining "under-the-radar hipster stuff." And hip hop was largely ignored until pretty late in the Reagan administration. But wait, it gets better.

Although people remember the 1980s for escapist MTV videos, there was more going on than new wave, hair metal and Madonna. Springsteen, of course, was arguably the biggest rock star of the decade, but the political climate also pushed John Mellencamp and Don Henley into becoming socially conscious artists. As for new artists, there were Bruce Hornsby and Tracy Chapman, who topped the charts with politically driven singles, and Suzanne Vega and 10,000 Maniacs who also scored substantial topical hits.

You're not exactly winning me over, pal. I don't think anyone's gonna mourn the loss of another era of Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby. Which brings us to the biggest problem: the second term of Reagan into Bush 41 was probably the worst period of mainstream music in recent memory, and people like Henley, Hornsby and Springsteen (along with Steve Winwood, Phil Collins, Richard Marx, John Waite and Sting) were the main reason.

Grunge and alternative music hit its heyday during the early years of Bill Clinton’s administration, but it broke commercially before he was ever elected. In other words, all that youthful angst and dissatisfaction came out of the first Bush presidency (like father, like son).

And this is where the whole thing falls apart, because, in spite of this guy's backbending rationalization, that brief period when the radio was actually listenable started right around 1993 (enough time for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to get some company on the playlists) and ended right around 1999 with the rise of the three-headed monster of bad taste that was Korn/Limp Bizkit/Kid Rock. And it was right about then, if anyone cares, that the former Mouseketeers took over the pop charts. At the dawn of the age of Bush. So this is bullshit:

When Clinton got elected, we once again got a giddy dance pop explosion, which this time took a few years but started around 1995 (remember La Bouche?) and culminated with lots of former Mousketeers becoming pop sensations. It all fit the mood of the times, but few people would call this music brilliant, much less innovative.

What we need now are mainstream artists brave enough to be as outspoken as they were during the previous administration’s reign. Who’ll sing about “the countless confused, accused and misused,” like Dylan did in 1964? “Just Dance” doesn’t speak to the nation’s malaise. But something like Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” might. Or Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.”

And for the record, no, I don't remember La Bouche. And I've never heard Lady Gaga. But I'm pretty sure I would like either of them better than whomever the next Don Henley turns out to be.


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6/22/2009 4:58 AM  

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