Every time that I’ve browsed music reviews online, its all too common to find a handful of commentary to the effect that “that was when music was actually good” and “they don’t make songs like that anymore” in reference to Motown, the Beatles and even contributions by those creating in once controversial music’s such as new wave and disco. True some of this is based purely in generational nostalgia. But when I first watched Ken Burns Jazz on PBS a comment was made that helped me understand how some people view music. It said that the music that people listen to when they are high school age: 15-18 years of age not only stays with him for life but strongly influences how they judge music for the rest of their lives. That helped me to understand that a lot of people’s feelings about music might in fact be linked to their appreciation of a certain musical genre.
Referring to a particular style of music, genres probably define how music is sold to us-both my direct marketing or human word of mouth, than we know. That factor also has a lot to do with cognitive learning. Since humans are one of the species on Earth born with few innate skills, we more easily come under the influence of those around us in terms of our tastes. I’ll explain it in terms of my own life. Growing up around me, aside from hit radio, the music that made the most cultural influence in my neck of the woods (often literally) was country-western music. That has a lot to do with the music’s lyrical expression of low level hopes and loneliness common in rural area dependent on a small level of industry for it’s economy. In my own home, however it was usually some variety of jazz, funk, easy rock and disco. There was also the peer element too, especially later on in my youth. Still at that time I didn’t really know what a musical genre was. As a matter of fact I referred to Michael Jackson as a rock artist nearly into my adolescence mainly because that was the popular perception of him. Fact his, little of his music could be referred to as rock ‘n roll.
Whether it be through word of mouth or not, the marketing of music has always been key to it’s public perception. The same publicity that can make a given musical genre the hottest “new sound” can also turn against it in a moments noticed. A perfect example is how racism,sexism and homophobia have continued to be a factor in pop culture’s alienation of any disco-dance based music; whether this alienation occurs in 1979 or 1992. At the same time there is also the issue of artists prerogative . If a singer/songwriter/musician doesn’t get caught up in the world of publicity that can make or break their own music, it can often be hard for them to progress stylistically as they wish to without being criticized by the music press for not going with the accepted musical flow. I firmly believe this is why music from an era that openly celebrated innovation in popular music genres is often touted as the standard for pop music greatness. So I am going to explain several examples-including artists, their respective chosen musical genres and their experiences of different approaches to musical progression.
The first such approach would be what I’ll call the Sticktoitive method. From my experience this is especially common among acoustic jazz and folk-singer/writer styled artists. Wynton Marsalis has again and again made himself clear that he views acoustic jazz only as the form which he chose to embrace. And while Van Morrison defines himself as an artist who does not follow commercial considerations in his music, he actually does very little to alter his actual sound over the years. He enjoys particular types of piano playing and horn charts on most of his records, even certain chord changes, that are almost always present. While he is absolutely amazing in his chosen musical ethic, the projection of his art is primarily based in a certain degree of predictability. While the Motown sound had vastly different musical flavors for each of it’s artists, it’s actually a prime example of the Sticktoitive method-as Berry Gordy’s assembly line approach to recording led to instrumentals recorded by his house band The Funk Brothers often featuring a revolving door policy of vocalists on any given song. If a song wasn’t successful with one artist, it was often tried on another with greater creative and commercial success.
Another approach would be the eclectic method. This tends to be a very flexible concept as it is found easily within every popular music genre, and it often speaks more personally about the artists intent than popular tastes. This was as especially true in the 1960’s, when the psychedelic music of the time was an example of an entire sub-genre affected by the eclectic method. Some artists, such as David Bowie utilize their own visual persona to affect changes within their music-and do so with great frequency. In the early 1980’s Prince put an entire American city on the pop music map with his outlook on the eclectic approach with his Minneapolis sound fusing funk, new wave synth-pop with elements of psychedelic electronica and rock ‘n roll as well. Frank Zappa is another example of this-fusing together everything from psychedelia, fusion jazz and his own type of avant garde carnival music approach into elaborate songs that also reflected his very left of center social and political consciousness. Eclectic artists are often some of the most praised in the music world for their perceived fearlessness and challenge of musical pre-conceptions.
Somewhat complimentary to this would be the progressive method. This can be as frightening as it is exciting to many people. Artists of this particular bent are by nature transformative. And the key word is evolution. They usually start out catering to a popular taste but either suddenly or gradually begin to create something totally different later on. The Beatles are probably the best examples of this. Being trend setters in the beginning mostly because they wrote their own material, their sound at first was generally geared towards an almost entirely adolescent audience. Yet by the end of their career they had written songs such as “Michelle”,”Hey Jude”,”Something” and “Let It Be” which were embraced even by artists such as Frank Sinatra. Sometimes age is a factor in a progressive type of artist as well. Michael Jackson is another example. It was a very long musical journey from his 12 year old self dancing and singing about his “ABC’s” in 1970 to showboating his red jacket to Eddie Van Halen’s rock guitar trains in the “Beat It” video all over MTV thirteen years later.
One of the most elusive of these would probably be the innovative method. Most musical era’s seldom receive more then one of these types of artists. Because their contributions to music are too vast to spell out here, I’ll elect to name them one after the other. Ray Charles, Laura Nyro, Todd Rundgren, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Charlie Parker, Stevie Wonder and of course the Godfather himself James Brown are some of the best known figures in this area that come to mind. Not only did they alter or even help create entire musical genres with their immense talent and daring, but often they created whole new ways of reproducing sound both in their recordings and stage performances. While many of these artists can have long careers their actual periods of innovative pioneering are often comparatively short. And often times it’s this relatively brief period of their careers that is the ironic twist that defines them forever, but forces creative expectations on them to be a bit higher than they probably should be as a result. Many of these figures have been expected at different times to “save music” from a perceived slack period, for example.
Probably the saddest legacy of these different concepts would be the neglected method. These will be artists who, for a number of different reasons, seem to exist for the sole purpose of failing even if they don’t deserve it. The mid to late 1950’s and 1990’s was a common time for such artists to exist. This is especially common for one hit wonders. Artists such as Len Barry, The American Breed (who would evolve into Rufus & Chaka Khan in the 70’s) as well as Steam were creatively interesting artists with a lot to say musically but are each known only for one song a piece. The Spice Girls were another excellent example. While their tight vocal harmonies and catchy soul/funk/disco songs were extremely popular, the era they were involved in simply viewed them as figures of fun mostly due to their (at the time) very un-trendy colorful visual image. The amazingly talented funk/soul/new wave hybrid of Culture Club suffered a similar fate a decade earlier, as the androgynous image of Boy George caught far more attention than then the amazingly influential and high quality music they made.
Last but not least I come to what I call the dogged method. This particular musical ethic has tended to be the preferred approach of the past couple of decades. And often the reason why so many believe that music is “not as good as it used to be” to coin the saying. This method is usually driven by economy, in particular one that is run more by marketers and promoters who are not thinking of music as being an artful primarily. Contemporary commercial hip-hop is, in many ways the poster child for the dogged method. Pop artists in this area are usually very producer driven, especially one very popular at the moment. They will tend to use only the most up to the moment technology on their records, the choruses of these songs will tend to simplistic to the point of almost being sing-a-long children’s songs and these singers will tend to sing in one (usually high) pitch and never move from this. Teen pop artists such as Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and more recently Justin Bieber are excellent examples of this particular approach to music as they strongly emphasize it’s key element: visual image over creative substance at any cost.
There are some rare cases of an artist, such as with Miles Davis, whose stylistic approach and personality are of such breadth, variety and progression that they actually embody a unique creative ethic composed of elements found within all of these methods.While I realize a lot of artists, even ones that I love personally were left off this particular list the entire point was to emphasize the differences between the creations of an artist, the public perception of them and what the public are instructed to perceived in them by outside forces such as peers in the media can have either an integrating or a disintegrating effect on the music people choose to listen to. Musical taste is a very individual thing. Personally I feel that its most appropriate the the music one loves most impacts on them in a way that they cannot easily explain-because that means the artist (and no one else) has spoken direction to them through their playing, singing and songwriting. I find that those people who go with popular musical tastes that are almost always thrust upon them, always always without their knowledge, are the same sorts of people who will vote for a political candidate mainly because they like their tie or haircut; the sorts who stand for little and will believe a lot of what they’re told. Even if the record your listening has a groove but isn’t necessarily in the groove, it’s vitally important to have the up-most respect for the artist who are doing you the greatest favor they ever could be changing up their grooves.