Saturday 12 February 2011

Decline of the West - pop music


A few days ago I was in a replica 1950s American diner, eating breakfast and listening to a string of 1950s pop and middle-of-the road songs.

Some of them I had heard before, some not - but I was absolutely stunned by the high quality.

Singer after singer was so much better than anybody alive today.

The tunes were usually great.


And - not so obvious, but more extreme - the backing musicians - in particular the rhythm section (rhythm guitar, bass, drums - maybe piano or organ, maybe brass or strings chorus) were... just... wonderful.

Really good rhythm playing has an elusive quality which apparently cannot be faked: just listen to the backing on a Motown or Stax single and compare it with any later cover version.


This quality of musicianship had disappeared, I would say, by 1970.

Many singers that we consider good now are good, but quite frankly our standard of good means little more than a pleasant voal tone and the ability to sing in tune. That extra quality is always lacking - yet it was so common in the 1950s that scores, maybe hundreds, of unamed singers had it.

And our ideas of a good band - well, they are even further from real quality.



Obviously natural ability is the most important factor, so either this has declined or else the best natural talents no longer go in for professional music or, if they do, no longer succeed in it.

Top notch ensenble playing requires practice together, long periods of concentrated practice among musicians who have a musical understanding, and who thereby deepen and enrich this understanding.

And, of course, a focus on the music: the sounds not the image, the visuals, the stage-presentation etc. etc. 


dearieme said...

Tastes differ. I find pop music between the end of the Swing bands and the emergence of the Beatles horrible. I find pop music since the demise of the Beatles horrible too. I conclude that pop music and I are compatible only in short bursts. That Scott Joplin chap and his peers produced another such burst.

a Finn said...

I can't listen pop music without sarcastic dry detachment. No matter how serious and full of genuine or artificial emotion the artist is, I always empty the original meaning in my mind, and give it a new and traditional conservative, maybe religious meaning. The more this is contrary to the original meaning, and the more this destroys the original, often liberal content, the better. If it happens to be childish, it is just a reflection and reproduction of the original in different form.

Unfortunately many listeners take these pop songs seriously. It is not hard to find comments in them that say: "This song is the only thing in my life that gives me hope", "She is a genius (sic), and so sweet and beautiful. I love her. Marry me <3", "Christina Aguilera is thousand times more talented and pretty than the copycat Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga should be shot to the sun in a spaceship that looks like rubber duck (the hundreth angry answer in a useless, empty debate)", etcetera. It turns out that many of these seemingly teenager comments are written by full grown adults, which shouldn't surprise traditional conservatives.

The following is the most liberal song that I have found, full of liberal significance. The singer is of mixed race; has more or less ambivalent sex and sexual orientation, hinting homosexuality; often wears womens clothes and boots; is sensitive, weak and emotional; and his voice and looks are feminine. He has cloud clothes, representing the imaginery dream world of the liberal entertainment business. During the song he becomes transparent, representing his empty ideology. The first minute's discord and it's transformation to the main song represents the liberal idea of progress. The main song has a catchy, simple and memorable tune directed to the mass consumption. The diverse audience (and band members) have nothing in common, but the soft totalitarian power of the idol worship coordinates and harmonizes them, like the liberal state "harmonizes" the hated white masses with The Others. The song is about living for the moment and about giving in to your immediate pleasures. The work this liberal diversity does is, like the song says "something close to nothing, but different than the day before". The Scottish mr McKey (?) expects that diversity actually do some work in a workplace, so he is the modern racist slaveholder in liberal narrative. The song video starts with "Deceive, inveigle, obfuscate", which is just the secret slogan of the liberal elites.

But what's that, in the cartoon movie there is a white couple! Don't worry, they are just the young adult children of global elites, they live in racially pure areas, their marriages are racially pure and their inner circles of trust are racially pure. They financed and produced this song. Their double morality protects them from the consequences of their work and externalizes the problems to the hated masses. Sorry, it was just a Freudian slip that they accidentally ended up in this cartoon movie. Thank Materialism that they were just cartoon figures. It is easier to deny everything.

Bruce Charlton said...

deareime - I was talking about 'musicianship' rather than the music - I prefer 60s music, but the musicianship is inferior.

A Finn - great stuff!

I don't recall most of the songs I heard the other day but this was one of them:

just fluffy, clever kitsch really, a mildly-pagan celebration of vitality - but the singing is absolutely first rate (tone, intonation, bel canto line - i.e. singing *through* the words and joining them - yet with perfect diction, phrasing, character); quite beyond anyone now...

- and Dean Martin wasn't even regarded as a real singer in those days.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree, partly, with dearieme…

I think the period between the end of swing and the arrival of The Beatles was easily the most fallow - far worse than the present time. 99% of songs from this era either have the 12-bar blues progression or the I - VI - IV - V progression. Only Lieber and Stoller wrote lyrics of merit.

This was a fantastic period for jazz, with Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck and many others producing really interesting music. But a lot of pop was really basic and uninteresting at this time.

Many classical musicians realised something interesting was happening with The Beatles, Hans Keller and Deryck Cooke in particular. I recommend you read Cooke's essay on The Beatles in his book, "Vindications". Cooke notes that The Beatles were the first pop writers to compose melodies which often broke out of pre-formed, regular 2-,4-, or 8-bar patterns. Sadly, this period of experimentation largely died with disco.

Regarding singers, my favourites are Bjork, Liz Fraser, Jeff Buckley, Billy Mackenzie; all with superb technique, but also truly original choices of notes.

Bruce Charlton said...

georgesdelatour - my posting was about musicianship - not lyrics and music.

I agree that pop can be roughly divided into that based on the tonic sub-dominant (rock and blues) and that based on the tonic dominant (pop) - the Rolling Stones versus the Beatles, if you like.

But originality is precisely a part of the problem! Originality ought not to be prized for its own sake - or, at least, it is a hazardous situation for the arts when this prevails.

The greats were not the most original (on the whole) - but consummate examples of established forms: Mozart versus JC Bach.

Ugh said...

While I'll agree that the talent level has fallen off in "pop" music I find songs of merit in every era (with the exception perhaps of the 1980's). I loved the Beatles and the whole British invasion period. By the early 70's the quality and sophistication of recording equipment allowed for some really great musicians to shine. By the 90's when machine produced urban music started to dominate the very scenario Bruce described was a reality. Pop musicians simply don't put in the time to play together, to hone their chops and learn to be a great rhythm section. Lately the really great musicians have navigated toward country-pop. Just spend some time in Nashville and you'll see what I mean.