Every now and then I return to my musical
pet peeves especially when I am witness to some horrendous episode of the Voice
or the Grammys. I am comforted to
know that this disdain of contemporary music is balanced with a smug
understanding that the beloved golden age of Rock ‘n Roll (somewhere between 1966-76)
was utterly amazing. Unfortunately, it’s over. The music is dated, over-played
and lauded ad nauseum. The “best of” lists suck! Listening to the end of year
countdown of greatest songs ever (on Philly’s WXPN where they are “vinyl at
heart”) I am struck by the futility of quantifying two thousand and twenty (2020,
get it?) tunes. Philadelphia’s “boomer” station is best described as “wet,” the
British term perfect for bespoking a sentimental, unchallenged middlebrow
taste. The top song ended up as “Thunder Road.” Fair enough, this is Philly and
the Boss reigns.
At the holidays I wonder where the
new additions to the holiday canon are, ones that don’t sound like cringe-making
show-tunes for instagram and grate. I
have attempted to fill the gap with one of my own because I noticed there was
no song called “Secret Santa” written in Yuletide’s past. I wrote mine on an
Android! Oddly enough the tune has not been claimed yet by any big star or song
writing team. Gwen Stefani doesn’t count. She recorded a Secret Santa song recently
that included bells and throw away ice cream chords aka 1959. The last big
selling popular Christmas hit came out in 1994, Mariah Carey’s, “All I Want For
Christmas Is You.” John Legend and Kelly Clarkson just can’t reach it. Carey’s
song became a staple of the season and still spawns overblown TV Specials. This
“middlebrow” taste thing comes up again. The song is sort of mindlessly hummable
like all 90’s pop but does it stand up to “Run Rudolph, Run?” or James Brown’s
“Christmas in the Ghetto?” Come to
think of it there were loads of great Christmas tunes (whole albums) by the
Beach Boys. Good tunes not merely holiday songs.
My definition of a standard is
something where we all know the words to the first verse aka “Jingle Bells.”
This holds true for normal hits too. I even tried pinpoint where Pop last held
sway singularly or had an edge. This created a big ball of wax, no pun. Prince
comes to mind. I think of “Raspberry Beret.” His words are witty and there are
hooks. White people like it! You may be on to the fact that I’m leaving any
mention of Hamilton out of this
argument. Well almost. Daveed Digs (half-Jewish) has penned a silly holiday song
this year: “Puppy for Hannukah!” You can play it on your phone to your friends!
My parochial view is that the day
of Rap (like Rock) itself has faded historically. Don’t be fooled by the
meta-narratives. This certainly hasn’t stopped the trope being injected into
every type of pop from Country down. Remember the fascinating, hypnotic samples
and hilarious rhymes of early Hip-Hop. It was Post Modern, man! This was before
it metastasized and was co-opted by sneaker companies, children and activists.
When I worked in retail for a
couple years, I learned that each new pop hit had to include an eight bar
bridge with a guest singer rapping. The formula was widespread promulgated by
committees. Just before Thanksgiving the piped music switched over to Christmas
and we were transported back to when holiday music evoked a sentiment long
gone. The small town Christmas myth of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the box
store, the forms were jazz, pop and rock and they sat beside each other well. Elvis
next to Bing Crosby next to Springsteen. I guess you could stick Run DMC (Christmas
in Hollis) in there. But no Snoop Dogg. He is too obscene for kids and geriatrics
like me! Come on Snoop, clean it up!
Ever since Simon Callow showed up
with American Idol there is less
distinction between TV personality-type singing and substance. I blame Reality
TV, period. Winners and losers go on to share their over-dressed banal taste
and vocal chords with the world. The
Voice and America’s Got Talent continues
this rein of mediocrity and melisma. Thank you, Whitney Houston! How easily we’ve
adopted this booming as quality singing. I think of it as tune murdering. It’s
as if everyone is soloing! Listen to anything sung by Gladys Knight for real
singing. I was busy researching the holiday when a Carpenter’s Christmas song
played on the car radio. I was caught off guard and there was snow on the
ground! Never has so much sentiment and emotion been evoked by so few notes!
James Rosenthal is an artist, critic and teacher who resides in Philadelphia. He holds degrees in Painting from RISD and Syracuse University and has been writing art reviews and essays since 1999. Also in the works is a comic novel (Work Shy) about an artist who alienates himself from the artworld. Stay Tuned!
Recent exhibitions in include:
Ernest Rubenstein Gallery, NY, NY,
Rebekah Templeton, Selections 6 at Moore College of Art and Design and SubTerrane at the Center for Emerging Artists, Phila, PA. Artist Flat Files at Perogi 2000 in Williamsburg, NY.
Both his art and writing can be found at InLiquid.com if you look really hard!