Sunday, December 20, 2009

Time to rage against the corporate pop machine

(Previously published by Blogcritics)

Every now and then, Daily Mirror columnist Brian Reade has something valuable to say, and his most recent column is one such example.
First, a little history. Here in Britain, a massive campaign is underway to declare Rage Against The Machine's "Killing in the Name" the No. 1 Christmas single. Currently, that little ditty is neck-and-neck with X-Factor winner Joe McElderry's current single "The Climb."
Like every other thing that X-Factor (and Britain's Got Talent / America's Got Talent) has produced, the music is syrupy and has got a bigger corporate stamp on it than Microsoft, another meaningless mass-produced bit of balladry for the masses.
And that's my problem with it.
Like Reade, I have absolutely nothing personal against Mr. McElderry. He's handsome, can obviously play the vocals (my little term for singing), and seems like an all-around great fellow. Plus, it's always refreshing to see a man of 5-foot-4 being idolized and adored. He earned his fame and deserves the resultant limelight.
But it's the way he earned his fame that bothers me. He went through the corporate music world's machine to achieve it, with the unctuous Simon Cowell as Chief Executive Officer, monitoring the young man's every move and coaxing every note. It's no wonder that a band called Rage Against The Machine is being brought out of their hiatus to offer some no-holds-barred competition.
It's this sort of corporate mush—with all the sappy violin backgrounds and boring piano playing and gooey, pointless warbling—that rendered one of my own favorite bands ineffectual. So I have a reason to be particularly outraged.
I speak of Chicago, a band that used to have killer rock chops, but cannot produce this kind of creative honesty anymore thanks to their record company overlords who can't understand it. Nothing disturbed me more than their last effort, recorded in Nashville (shades of Miley Cyrus here) with Jay DeMarcus of the Rascal Flats as producer. Their entire 30th album consisted of the sort of bland, countryfied American pop so prevalent on the radio these days. That's when I knew this band that I love so much had officially lost it. British radio is no different—it just doesn't have the cheesy C&W influence.
A guy like Harry Nilsson paid his dues, honing his skills as a recording assistant, a songwriter for others and a television commercial crooner. But it was only through applying himself through his own vision and individuality that he became the legend he was. Same for Randy Newman, Billy Joel, Steely Dan, anybody from the '60s and '70s. Talent was about more than how many sticky love songs you could sing. You had to have individuality and strike out with new sounds.
Getting a new sound these days is like getting blood from a stone, if you'll excuse the cliché. But, when it comes to "music," clichés of sound are all we're getting.
My father once took great pains to convince me of what I missed by not having been around during the 1950s. (My retort was that the '20s were one hell of a decade too, but we both missed them.) And it's true that Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and, of course, Elvis Presley made the decade notable. But when I think of '50s music, I yawn. It was, in a very real sense, no different to today's music scene, with young people being groomed by their masters and told exactly what to sing and how to sing it. Reade agrees:
"X Factor is ... brilliant television but its ultimate aim is to drag us back to the 1950s when cynical Svengalis created cardboard cut-outs such as Adam Faith and Eden Kane to swell their bulging pockets."
Hey, Dad? Still missing the 1950s? Look around you—they've returned. With a vengeance.
This is why no-one will ever convince me that the years 1964-1984 weren't the best that pop music had to offer. It was original. It was inventive. It had soul. You actually looked forward to hearing what was in the Billboard Top 40.
How many bands who actually had a sound worth hearing during those brilliant two decades would we have missed if today's music industry rules had applied? No Rolling Stones, no Police, no Duran Duran. The Beatles probably wouldn't have gotten a second look. Yes, they were groomed a bit too in the beginning, but Revolver is when they broke away from that, and kudos to them for it.
If Seymour Stein had been some corporate jack-ass, looking for clean-cut guys that your grandparents could comfortably listen to, he'd never have been sitting in New York City's CBGB club, listening to the no-nonsense firepower that The Ramones delivered and wanting to put it on vinyl. Why did Stein hang around there? He was looking for genuine artists, bands with something to say and a unique, exciting, inticing way of saying it. The Talking Heads and Blondie were also alumni of CBGB's and Stein didn't waste a moment in getting them into the recording studio either.
Recording company bosses like Stein cared about music, and the money they made resulted from the quality product they delivered. These days, the recording companies, and radio stations with their mangled fingers to the pulse, care only about money.
Enter Mssr. Reade again:
"Those kids who form groups in bedrooms, write songs about issues relevant to their age and develop an original sound: If we carry on buying into Cowell’s cynical manipulation of the music industry, we may get the next generation of cruise-ship cabaret artistes, but where’s the next Lennon, Strummer or Gallagher?
How many angry, edgy geniuses will be written off for being too risky, become disillusioned and end up in accountancy school?
British music desperately needs another punk moment, when pre-packaged pap was blown away by kids with attitude, desperate to reclaim their youth culture from bloated old farts."
I have issues with Rage Against The Machine. They will embrace any far-Left ideology, to the extent that you must think it's simply for notoriety's sake. They once burned an American flag onstage, and that was during the Clinton era.
But I see it this way: Anyone who supports this band for the Christmas No. 1 spot will investigate them further and if they disagree with the ideology, then their vote will simply have been in protest. And that is the sole point here. This is not a campaign to validate RATM's warped world viewpoint; it is simply a way to stick two fingers up at the bloated, bland music industry.
That having been said, I, like Mssr. Reade, support Rage Against The Machine's "Killing in the Name" for tops of the pops this Christmas time. If we don't make some kind of stand now, good music may continue to come at a high premium.

1 comment:

dennis hodgson said...

"when cynical Svengalis created cardboard cut-outs such as Adam Faith and Eden Kane..."

Spot on. But Chuck Berry certainly doesn't fit that stereotype. The Coasters might have been merely a vehicle for Lieber-Stoller songs, but these songs remain classics (many were covered in the 1963 onwards beat boom in the UK).

And Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues should be in anyone's all-time top 100 (it's in my top 10).