“Birth” by Ryan Zweng.
THE DEATH OF POP
by Ryan Zweng
The world is ending, or at least the Old World is. Let’s assume that history will paint this epoch as a crucial moment in social formation; a time when all things political and artistic were challenged, and the archaic power structures that used to favor Old Money finally sank — Titanic style — into a sea of cold and fading privilege.
News flash: Record Labels, and their methods of controlling the Music Industry are on the top of this list of dying dinosaurs. So why is it that bands like Nightmare and The Cat still manage to make the top every music blog out there, get signed almost immediately, and despite being derivative, will probably continue to live a long life filled with the privilege of recording their music with the best producers in the world? Its because the band is fronted by the sons of one of the 80’s more successful Pop Musicians — Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics — and as much as the recession has sucked the life blood out of every facet of “middle class” American existence, one fact remains: if your Blood is Blue, you will survive the impending vampire weekend, or month, or century for that matter, with out the slightest trace of a struggle; not a fang mark in sight on your silver spoon-fed neck.
So where does that leave the future of true “art”? — I mean the stuff forged by struggles and hardships, the stuff that made the music of men like George Harrison so compelling, and the sounds his son Dhani makes so, well, forgettable? Take one look at Martin Scorcese’s recent documentary on Harrison, Living In the Material World, and you may find some answers. In the 2-part HBO feature George takes us around the world, continually challenging his spiritual existence for a higher truth. His son on the other hand remains content inside the soundproofed walls of his lavish home studio. One is the reason we make documentaries, the other isn’t. You do the math.
One would think that now, after the majority of the Major Label Monsters have been reduced, that only true, struggling or brilliant artists would take the lime light, and the system that used to make millionaires out of mediocre pretty boys would be demolished before they could produce heirs. News Flash Number Two: It just isn’t so.
At least not completely. As we continue to develop new models for civil improvement, we are going to find more and more aspects of our lives dying. This is a good thing; a sign that humanity really is ridding itself of our historically flawed social designs, or at least becoming more “Flat”, as Thomas Freidman first noted in 2005. But while phenomenons like massive studio budgets, glutinous album sales, and big advances have started filling our metaphysical graveyards, there remains remnants of an outdated system that we still need to question, and duel to the death.
So whats missing from this emerging musical equation? Stories, for one. While its now possible through entities like CD Baby, Garage Band and iTunes to cheaply write, record, master, and distribute an album without leaving one’s room, it still isn’t guaranteed that such ease of production will in fact produce anything worth retaining. The easier it becomes to make art, the easier it will be to dispose of it.
This may be one major reason why Keith Richards’ 2010 autobiography Life topped the New York Times non-fiction list within its first week of publication. The Stones, despite the comfortable confines their work now affords them, started out in a post-apocalyptic London wasteland, enslaved themselves with a monastic study of Mississippi Blues music, struggled to find initial success, and then after they had all the money in the world, still managed to remain on the brink of utter disaster at all times. That’s a story, that’s why their songs have such a shelf life, and that’s still the formula for creating meaningful art, despite Technology’s attempts to make you believe something different.
Oh no, I said it, Technology! While it may be what gets us out of this “Recession Era”, it is also very much at the eye of the social tornado that has our nation ravaged- at least culturally. While the immense distribution capabilities of modern innovation provide us with something great on one hand, they are robbing us of something greater on the other. Returning to the Stones; the chance meeting between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards that lead to their forming the band occurred because one had a collection of extremely rare American blues records, and the two forged their musical muscle through a savage hunt for this elusive and controversial inspiration. Today that would never happen. Keith could have YouTubed what he was in search of without leaving his home, sent Mick a text on his iPhone, they could have enjoyed a few seconds of the song in separate places, at separate times, and moved on to the next momentary sensation in solitude.
Luckily for us though, Mr. Jagger and Richards do in fact come from a different time, and the symptoms of their upbringing continue to shine a light- no pun intended- on new artistic formulas to this day. In fact, the only thing I wanted to talk about when I recently met Sam Stewart- guitarist for the aforementioned Nightmare and The Cat- was the project his father has spearheaded with Mick Jagger, Joss Stone and another of music’s most hallowed heirs, Mr. Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley.
Superheavy, which is this new supergroup’s name, may not be the most tortured or inherently humbled collection of artists at work in the music world at present, but they are doing one thing that other Blue Bloods and Pop Royalty aren’t: taking risks. Maybe that’s why Maroon 5’s latest Pop smash claims that they have “moves like Jagger”; because if they were actually willing to challenge the Pop paradigm they are kings of, our society might be able to advance a bit culturally and they could claim to have their own “moves.”
Reviews for Coldplay’s latest album Mylo Xyoto paints the band in much the same light; a Pop superpower that is content with not evolving. Is Radiohead really the last collection of true artist who will be able to succeed in such a commercial world? I hope not, and as much as hope is beginning to remove itself from my cultural horizons, there are a still a few musicians out there who seam to offer redemption. Final News Flash: Believe it or not, they are Blue Bloods.
I’m talking about the Strokes to some extent, and Damian Marley again to a much greater one. What Damian is doing now with Superheavy is just one aspect of a career marked by unorthodox collaborations and inventive musical explorations. His work with Nas on last year’s Distant Relatives is another example of how he has tried to push the musical envelope with his clout, instead of simply remaining content as the son of maybe the most internationally revered artists of all time.
Mr. Marley is a rare case of a Blue Blood who uses his strategic position in society to either inform his audience from a normally unobtainable position in life, or to advance the arts through access to resources that normal mortals don’t have. I mention the Strokes as members of this species as well, because despite being descendants of legendary producers and international fashion moguls, the band’s members have managed to take their glamorous roots and either reject them with appropriate style or channel them intelligently. They didn’t record their groundbreaking first album in an East Village basement because they couldn’t afford a studio; they did it because it was cooler that way.
No matter what the color of your Blood is, the changes that our world is going through are going to have an affect on everyone to some degree. The wealthy may be the last to feel it, even if they are technically musicians, so — to quote Bowie — “look out you rock n’ rollers.” Not because you are getting older, but because attention spans are getting shorter, the rich still have power, and like it or not your jobs as artists in society have gotten harder.
Don’t be fooled, there is a major revolution going on right now, but its not the type that forged the musical renaissance of the 1960’s. Our revolution is developing every second, every day, and in multiple countries simultaneously. It may be a lot quieter, and less dramatic than the chaos of the 1960’s, but what we are doing as a global society today is monumental.
What we need next is an artistic advancement as powerful as our technological advancements. And while some may feel that the two entities are working together to forge something new, I tend to consider them at war. Maybe this battle is the cultural coup d’etat that society has always needed, but one thing is for sure, the Royals shouldn’t get to lead the troops into battle any more.
A version of this essay appeared in PopMatters on March 14, 2012.
Ryan Zweng’s blog is artzweng.blogspot.com