The Death Of Talent In American Music

“…the music they’re making will leave you with a feeling of indifference. ‘How was the band?’ ‘They were okay. Not great, but pretty good. They played the songs I knew they would.’ Some old, some new. The same formula stays true. You can concur, its mediocre…”- NOFX, Medio-Core 

Now if you’re anything like me, though for your sake I hope you’re not, you’ve probably had a conversation or two like the one in the aforementioned lyrics. And it’s hard to argue that most mainstream, and or popular music isn’t getting worse. At least from an artistic perspective. The creativity, symbolism, technicality, and metaphors in lyrics are virtually nonexistent. It seems like you can’t find true expression outside a seedy bar, or festival, maybe some nameless garage band. In 1965 at years end, Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was at number 41 on the pop charts. A rather controversial song at the time, it seems to focus more on resentment than love, the prevalent theme of the era. Fast forward fifty years, and ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ by Rihanna comes in at number 40. If you haven’t heard it you didn’t miss much, and can pretty well take it at face value. There’s no symbolism, no metaphor, and unless you owe her money, no need to listen to this song. It’s meaningless filler, with no substance. And it goes to show what’s really on the mind of most contemporary mainstream artists. The all powerful dollar.  Now Dylan is a pretty terrible singer by most standards. But he’s an extremely gifted songwriter, and to me at least, it’s worth far more than a pretty voice and some electronic music. But what happened? Fifty years is a pretty long time for a human being. But not for a culture, or a country, or an abstract and intangible concept such as music. It really comes down to American culture over the last fifty years, for sure. It might go as far back as the peace and prosperity after WWII, but that’s much to broad for this article. We’re going to focus on the music industry in particular, the entertainment industry in general, the artists themselves, and even us, the fans.

“Money beats Soul, everytime.”- Jim Morrison, Roadhouse Blues

So it probably won’t come as a surprise that most of it all boils down to somebody making a buck. Everybody in the music business wants to find the next Beatles. That has unfortunately led to a lot of bands and artists getting signed who really didn’t deserve it. For every Jimi Hendrix, there’s a hundred Chad Kroeger’s. But the gold rush to find the next big thing has spawned a terrible attitude for an industry that should center on creativity and innovation. “This guy sounds just like that guy! We’re gonna be rich!” It’s sad to see where that attitude has led us. 

The artists themselves are often as bad, if not worse. There’s an obsession with fame and fortune, and far less concern with making decent music. Which is exactly what happens when you mix art with business. Most sell their integrity early, to the highest bidder, like high class whores. This lazy, money-driven attitude effects everything about the music. Now this won’t necessarily be to popular, but it created all of the mainstream 80’s hairbands, which in my opinion are a fucking joke. Rebellion isn’t about life’s hedonistic pleasures. Sex, drugs, and debauchery are all great (I’m not a role model) but if you don’t have a real message to back it up what’s the point? They sell out to the Great God of currency, often losing their identity and roots, ideals and personalities that made people wanna listen in the first place. Blondie is a pretty good example of this. Starting in dive-bars and the like, most notably CBGB, she had an edgier, punk rock vibe. Bigwigs suggested she look, sing, and act more ‘poppy’ for lack of a better term. And granted, it worked out pretty well for her, but only reinforces the money-grubbing image they’ve built up in the business. Or the shitty deal, which Prince is a perfect example of. This happens to many a good artist though. It’s a real talent killer as well. 

It’s time for a few honorable mentions, if for no other reason than to kinda show you what I mean about integrity and all that jazz. Twisted Sister, while not necessarily a big favorite of mine, was the living embodiment of perseverance, and the hard work and dedication it takes to make it in the America I learned about growing up. Over 2000 shows before ever getting signed, they did countless seedy bars and nightclubs before catching their big break. A bunch of guys in drag singing about life’s hedonistic pleasures isn’t my cup of tea, it’s hard not to respect their drive. Tom Petty has more integrity than most, and is a good example of someone who wouldn’t bow down to a record label. This man has more singles than some artists have songs. He fought against the inflation of records, and for quite a while left them reasonably priced. If more future artists had his integrity, they still wouldn’t be that high. But alas…In the 80’s, when all their was were hair bands on the radio, a more underground culture really took off though most didn’t know or care. But for those who were sick of commercialisation of mainstream, that’s where they’d be: At a punk show. While getting little to no airplay, making extremely little money, promoting and producing their own music, sleeping in fans living rooms, with a mutual hatred of all things normal, they helped get the music scene back on track, if only for a little while. The forerunners of most alternative music, they inspired rebellion in a new generation. Hard, fast, anti establishment lyrics were the norm. They didn’t care much about the money, and were extremely hard-working, organizing shows all across the US virtually by themselves. That dedication and commitment is lacking these days.

Why should they care that much though? We pick our next rockstar on a gameshow. And if you think American Idol or America’s Got Talent are anything but, you’re sadly mistaken. That lazy complacency doesn’t show much hope for the future of music, or art in general. It used to take years of hard work and commitment, but now you can earn your fame in a box of crackerjacks. And social media, the YouTube stars. What the fuck is that? It might as well be a box of crackerjacks. They need to earn it. That’s why they don’t appreciate where they are and what they have. Do it for the fans, not the wallet. But are we that much better?

No. Everyone wants to be rich and famous so bad, we obsess over those who are, only serving to swell their heads and pockets. It’s nothing to hear about someone spending exorbitant amounts of money to see a band perform live, and half the time it isn’t even worth hearing. But we do it anyways, saying and doing nothing to stop it, proving to the ones making the money we’re just as dumb as they thought. 

“…they say jump and you say how high? You brain-dead? You gotta’ fuckin’ bullet in ya’ head?”- Rage Against The Machine, Bullet In The Head 

It’s probably just me, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s all a conspiracy to keep us dumb, and under their thumb. And by the I mean the government of course. It’s no secret they value control above all. Look at the events since 9/11, and you’ll have your proof. They’re into everything these days. And with the death of spiritualism ever increasing, a new opium for the masses was introduced: pop music. Upbeat music with upbeat lyrics that make you wanna dance and party. Not to think about anything real. Just have fun, and go with the flow. Live your life and don’t worry about the world. Which is exactly what they want, and the exact opposite of what we’re all doing. 

While all might seem hopeless, with the Bieber’s, One Direction’s, and Nickelback’s dominating the mainstream, don’t throw your toaster in the bath just yet. Rally behind the real artists out there. Still a few, afterall. While Bieber might need to cancel shows because of a cold, when anyone with half a fucking brain can tell the little prick is lip-synching, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters broke his leg during a performance. Instead of disappointing his fans and going to the emergency room, like most sane people would, he continued the show while getting a cast put on. That’s a fucking rockstar. That’s integrity. And don’t forget to check out your local bands. The underground needs your help, and some of them actually have a message worth hearing. 

“You have to do stuff that average people don’t understand because those are the only good things.”- Andy Warhol

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