Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Thinking Literally

There is a reason “Do you like music?” is often considered the lamest pick-up line on the planet. Of course people like music. Imagine how bitter and twisted one would have to be in order to honestly answer that question “No.” And the reason for this, of course, is because of how diverse and varied music is. The amount of genres, sounds, artists, etc. is so infinite, that two people can be total opposites with completely different personal tastes and opinions, and it won’t matter. The appeal is collective. It’s like oxygen and cable TV – everyone is a fan.

The distinctions between artists and musical styles are what lend to different followings among different crowds. Music has become one of the initial and most basic ways in which we define and classify people. Whether someone prefers Lil Wayne, Mastadon, Beyonce, The Byrds, My Morning Jacket, or Bullet for My Valentine (or some combination of all of those), it gives a quick glance into their personality. I’m not saying a person’s musical affinities will tell you everything you need to know about them, but it certainly tells you something. It is for all of these reasons why I am never surprised by anyone that comes to fame through music, be it Rebecca Black, Justin Beiber, or LMFAO. There is something for everyone. It’s why I’m also not surprised that Bruno Mars has become so prominent in recent months.

It’s obvious when listening to Bruno Mars that he has talent for both singing and song structure, even if you aren’t a big fan of his music overall (which I’m really not). But what I find interesting about Mars is how he has become famous by writing and performing songs that are completely straightforward, obvious, simple and literal. His words are shrouded in absolutely zero mystery. Initially, this might strike you as a bad thing, a knock against his credibility as an artist. I admittedly felt that way too.

Mars, along with the other members of his R&B writing/production trio (The Smeezingtons) have assisted artists in the music-making process since 2008. Mars gained personal notoriety over the next couple years for writing some major pop singles, and even appearing on a few notable songs. This led to his first (and currently lone) full-length album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, dropping in October of 2010. It
has featured three top-5 singles to this point (two at #1), all of which can be accurately summed up by their title: “Just the Way You Are” is about a girl being perfect just the way she is; “Grenade” is about a guy who would literally do anything for this girl, including literally catching a literal grenade for her; “The Lazy Song” is about a guy being lazy, and all the mundane day-to-day things he doesn’t want to do. Even the hits that Mars has simply been featured on (B.o.B’s “Nothin’ on You”, Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire”, Bad Meets Evil’s “Lighters”) are all pretty simplistic and basic from a narrative songwriting point of view.

So what does this mean? Does it truly matter how proficient a songwriter Mars is? Should we look at him differently because his music is straightforward and one-dimensional? Should it all count against him?

Songwriting is given quite a bit of respect in the field of music. A guy like Connor Oberst will forever and always receive more critical and artistic respect than someone like Jack Johnson, if only because Oberst is perceived as the superior songwriter. When you mention people like Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, or Neil Young, their penning prowess is generally the first merit mentioned about them. Naturally, people like Bruno Mars, whose songwriting is basic and somewhat elementary, will often be given less critical or artist respect for the same reasons. But how important is this? I most certainly agree that those who excel in that area should be given due admiration and deference, but should others be penalized for the contrary?

It seems to be the case that one will be chided for songwriting only if it is suspect, as opposed to being absent or abetted. Elton John doesn’t really take heat for the fact that he collaborates with Bernie Taupin when writing songs. Same goes for Eric Clapton, who hasn’t written a sizeable portion of his songbook. Instead, these guys are lauded (and rightfully so) for their other musical talents. The same would undoubtedly be the case for Mars (albeit on a lesser scale) if he didn’t write his music. But he does, which in some ways has to change how he is received…right?

Bruno Mars has reached a level of fame and stardom that most in the music industry can only dream of. He presumably has enough money to last him multiple lifetimes, and is publicly adored for his talents in the entertainment industry. Do you think he really cares how his songwriting is perceived? Do his listeners and fans care? Country is arguably the healthiest genre of music right now, in terms of how the artists do in relation to radio stations/play, album sales, and concert revenue. Country fans are loyal, passionate, and willing to pay money for the music and musicians they like, which can’t be said of all areas of the art. Nevertheless, country singers/bands are often tagged with the same obvious-simple-literal songwriting tag placed on Bruno Mars, and yet it hasn’t managed to diminish their status either. Sure, maybe it has in a critical sense.  But is hipster respect that much more important than popular success? Honestly? Wouldn’t The Joy Formidable much rather move the amount of albums Tim McGraw does?

I in no way intend to diminish or degrade lyrical songwriting and the regard with which it is held in musical society. I just wonder if we (myself included) place too much importance on it – or perhaps more accurately – look down too harshly on those who may be below average. In an ideal world, inspired songwriting would be praised among those who exceed, not bemoaned among those who falter. I feel the same way about how women view men with big muscles.

Bob Dylan wrote songs that could mean many different things to many different people. The Doors wrote songs that were tough to understand (cognitively). Pearl Jam sang songs that no one could understand (phonetically). The Beatles, early in their career, wrote very simple and basic songs (at least from a lyrical standpoint), before moving on to a collection of other things. And in the end, each of these artists has achieved impressive levels of respect and popularity. Someday, Bruno Mars will fall in line somewhere behind all of them (ok, waaayyy behind all of them), singing his way to stardom in a clear and literal manner nonetheless. Maybe it will ultimately impact his respect and legacy, but it doesn’t appear to be negatively impacting his popularity.

And if that proves to be the case, I’m sure there must be a deeper, more profound reasoning behind the whole “songwriting debate,” and where its importance should truly rank. I just wish the answer was a little more obvious.

Thanks for reading

Saturday, August 13, 2011

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy

One of the things I find most interesting and intriguing about pop culture is how important and necessary it is on a societal level, and yet how overblown and mis-prioritized it is on an individual level.

Popular culture is certainly significant in a broad sense, by the manner in which it serves as a representation of life over distinct periods of time.  For example, one can gain a pretty descriptive and accurate understanding of American existence simply by looking at which things comprised and defined pop culture (or whatever it may have been called in the 19th century) at various moments in history. It serves as the constant pulse of a population, ranging from the hippest trends to matters of genuine importance. Barack Obama is just as much a part of pop culture as he is any other societal classification, even though it puts him in the company of Twilight movies and planking. All told, popular culture has true legitimacy within civilization.

Nevertheless, pop culture’s magnitude on an individual, person-to-person basis is terribly excessive, with people placing ridiculous amounts of attention on things that are ultimately trivial or inevitably ephemeral. I happen to be a perfect example of this. I commit pretty much every functioning brain cell I have to stuff like sports, music, and Seinfeld re-runs, when I could instead focus my time and energy on things of actual value and essentiality (assuming those things are out there, because how would I know?). The juxtaposition is weird: on a macro level, pop culture is indispensable and vital, while on a micro level, it’s over-hyped and somewhat immature. I’m sure there is a “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” saying that could have described all of that more succinctly, but I probably would have screwed up the wording.

In any event, I’ve told you all of this in order to evaluate one Paul McCartney, and how my own personal interaction with him is simultaneously overstated yet fundamentally momentous. Just reading or hearing the name Paul McCartney surely brings a basic understanding to everyone’s mind, no doubt relating to the Beatles or rock ‘n’ roll music. But it also brings with it an immediate and almost instinctive reaction, in which people collectively and justifiably assign greater influence and importance to Paul (or the Beatles) than we would to someone like, I don’t know, Peter Gabriel. Paul was a freakin’ Beatle! He’s a rock icon, but he’s also a cultural icon. His name means something, and we all know that, even if we can’t exactly put into words what that something is.

August 4, 2011 will forever be the day that I saw McCartney in concert at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, in what will presumably prove to be his last performance ever in the Queen City. I attended the event with nearly 42,000 other fans, including my parents and my girlfriend (who from now on, I shall refer to as the JudgEmentress, at least until she dumps me). The age demographic ranged from grade school kids to crypt keepers, who all deemed it necessary to catch Sir Paul in action. I was definitely of the same mindset. And the reason why it was important for me to see McCartney in concert (which could be argued as slightly overblown) is completely correlated to why McCartney himself is important from a cultural and historical standpoint (which can’t be questioned by anyone with half a brain), in a way validating (on a macro level) and discrediting (on a micro level) my feelings about the overall experience.

Let’s begin with why Paul McCartney, the person, is important. The Beatles changed music, in America and across the globe. Their influence on the art is still quite evident today. They made rock music popular to the masses (pop music), and opened the door for the infinite genre variations that rock ‘n’ roll would come to encompass (from soft rock to gangsta rap and everything between). True, guys like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, and others before the Beatles were actually responsible for launching rock ‘n’ roll, but the Beatles gave it clout. We could get all “inside baseball” and discuss why the Fab Four’s production, sound, rhythm, and style made them so influential and momentous, but is that really necessary? At this point in our planet’s existence, do we really need evidence or explanation as to what makes the Beatles who they are? I don’t think so. It’s unarguable at this point. The band’s influence can be seen in every marginally significant rock/pop artist thereafter, whether it’s Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Kanye West, or Lady Gaga. In fact, the Beatles being labeled the greatest band/musical artists of all time is one of the most widely accepted “objective truths” ever, so much so that it is essentially an unopposed scientific fact in today’s world.

And what made the Beatles intrinsically great, by and large, was the beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime fusion of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. I certainly don’t want to demean or devalue what George Harrison or Ringo Starr contributed, but it was Lennon and McCartney’s genius that came to define the group. This in turn makes McCartney an essential piece of the greatest and most influential musical ensemble in the history of mankind. So, in case you were unsure, that’s why he’s important.

On the other hand, the reasons why it was important – to me as an individual – to see McCartney in concert, are probably a tad ridiculous and inflated. I wanted to see Paul because I love music and I love the Beatles. I wanted to see Paul because he is 69 years old, and probably doesn’t have too many performances left in him.  I wanted to see Paul because the chances of him coming through Cincinnati again (or any major, multi-city US tour altogether) are slim to none. I wanted to see Paul because I could go with my father, the man who introduced me to the Beatles. I wanted to see Paul because, like most people, I place far too much importance on things like sports, music, and pop culture. Ostensibly, the concert wouldn’t have changed my life in any profound way, whether I was able to attend or not. And yet, I would have paid or done just about anything to attend, because I somehow felt it was imperative.

Even now, after everything I’ve written and the mis-prioritization I’ve acknowledged, I don’t think my original inclinations were wrong or ridiculous. I have been fortunate enough to see quite a few concerts in my life, ranging from acts like Bob Dylan or Eric Clapton all the way to Chester French or Animal Liberation Orchestra. None of them lived up to McCartney (which is really saying something, as big a fan as I am of Dylan). I’m not sure any came that close. Admittedly, some of that is because the McCartney show was just a great concert. He played for 3 hours straight, on a huge stage at a great outdoor venue. He has an enormous songbook and a ton of hits, many of which he performed, and all of which sounded brilliant. But it was more than that. He could have stumbled onstage, droned through “Silly Love Songs” and then stumbled off, and I still would have held the performance in high regard. I wouldn’t have been too happy, but the event and the moment would still hold a special place for me. When you combine those aspects together, topping that particular concert will be a tall feat in my opinion.

Common sense would ask, “So what?” Plenty of other performers have and will play to crowds of bigger than 42,000 people. Plenty of performers in plenty of different genres will put on amazing shows, the theatrics and details of which will rival McCartney’s in Cincinnati. I mean, I was probably a good 500 feet from the man while he was on stage; it’s not like he came and did a personal show at my house, and then hung out and talked with me for a few hours afterward. I am one person out of the billions that have seen him live, at one show out of the thousands he has done over his career. All of those things paint the importance I placed on the concert in a pretty ridiculous and exaggerated light. This, I realize.

But some day, years in the future, this will happen: I’ll be talking with a peer or colleague, or maybe someone from a younger generation, like my kid or grandkid or the neighborhood boy from down the street. And it will somehow come up in a conversation that I saw Paul McCartney in concert, the once-and-always Beatle live and in the flesh. And the look on the face of the person I’m speaking with – the mixture of amazement and interest and jealousy over a moment and event I experienced – will be evidence enough to validate my feelings.

That is why the concert was important. And that is what makes the name “Paul McCartney” mean something, even if we can’t exactly put into words what that something is.

Thanks for reading