Thursday, December 24, 2020


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!


Tom said...

Love Karen Carpenter. Darkest and most pain-ridden voice in pop. Good idea: less booming in the vocals. American Idol has created a standard such that if singers can't be heard over a 757 taking off, then they're just not giving it 101%. Bring back Peggy Lee!

Tom said...

Love Karen Carpenter. Darkest and most pain-ridden voice in pop. Good idea: less booming in the vocals. American Idol has created a standard such that if singers can't be heard over a 757 taking off, then they're just not giving it 101%. Bring back Peggy Lee!


These notions have been brewing for years! Nice to get it down finally.

Drew Zimmerman said...

Loved your curmudgeonly spleen about the death of decent Pop tunes and--let's face it--the end of Rock and Roll. Not much into Karen Carpenter, myself, who had the most disaffected voice since 2001's Hal. Perry Como, even. Her whole attraction was great tunes by Bacharach and the OTHER Hal, but as for her delivery, perfect tone, with alas no meat on them bones.

I hate all five songs they play on 'MMR and 'IOQ, stations that were once the birthplace of new sounds. You could hear Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart on commercial air! Now they're the stations that made The Who's "Long Live Rock" and "Don't Get Fooled Again" unlistenable.

We tuned into 'XPN's 2020 countdown, too, a list that had to be if not "wet" then at least damp, considering. My wife even predicted "Thunder Road" would take the top spot. Her prescience says less to me about the lapse of discriminating taste among the Boomers than the fact that it's taken us about 50 years to sort through the catalog and reduce Rock to its essentials.

So, liked reading your screed. In closing, allow me to quote a truly execrable piece of Xmas pandering by the Royal Guardsman that nevertheless I'm hoping to hear on B101 every year, starting sometime after November 1: "Merry Christmas Mein Friend!"


Thanks Drew! Appreciate the comments. Congrats to your wife! I was in Covid IKEA recently. Lots of plexiglass! Creepy. Don't miss the music!!!!

hht said...

You can draw the time interval differently but I also feel, both that the tunes from pop's golden era were better, and that they are so overplayed that another rotation of 'Thunder Road' often feels deadening (although I find that does depend a bit on mood).It seems to me that this is for societal reasons: music is no longer the main conduit for pop/youth culture and has been downgraded to become just one of the entertainment options available on a surprise then that it lacks urgency.... blah blah blah. But my curmudgeonly self finds expression in a different way, by looking at the ways that current music itself is intrinsically inferior. The easiest, most demonstrable difference between any number of tunes by the Beatles -and let's take a band respected in recent years, as least by some critics, such as the National - is in rhythm. It is often said that you can tap out the rhythm of a Beatles hit and a listener will be able to identify it. Most indie rock is arhythmic. A drummer hammering away, four to the floor, isn't rhythm, it's marking time. This isn't a question of taste. It seems to me that all the great acts in any genre from Hank Williams to James Brown had a strong groove.

I think it is also interesting to look at how a song like 'Thunder Road' is put together and compare is to what the boss is putting out right now. We might be sick of the TR, but it is far more inventive than anything on 'Western Stars'. It seems that this is the trajectory in the music of even the really good rock songwriters: they write more and more within their comfort zone and because there isn't a push from a competing band mate, or, additionally in the case of the Beatles, their producer, inertia creeps in.

For me, it is as if pop music itself has lapsed into what we are all familiar with. Compare the musical innovation between 1960 and 1970 and between 1970 and 2020. During that decade there were several bands that made music provoking a 'what the hell is that???' kind of reaction. Has anyone in the last 50 years made anything as surprising as Jimi Hendrix heard for the first time or remotely as interesting as 'I am Walrus'? Even the new music that I like, which I hear on my friend Peter Milburn's show, 'Something Wicked This Way Comes', feels like recapitulation. An artist like Julia Jacklin whose record Pete picked as the best of 2019. I listen to the newest one, 'Crushing' and think 'that's good', but there is nothing remotely challenging about it. Nothing new in terms of melody, harmony - and certainly not rhythm. And that's the top of the pile. How can any discerning listener not pick 'Revolver' over that?


We are surely on the same rhythm track! Revolver is the one! I enjoy listening to WPRB in Princeton because those student DJs seem to have a similar mind set and enjoy contrasting various periods. How do they pick up on the post-punk narrative without having been there? I listened to Jon Solomon's 26 hour Christmas Special and love the puncturing of XMAS sentiment and ice-cream chords. I messaged him that I'd have a new holiday tune for him next year. He replied, "Do it!"