Wednesday, February 3, 2010

GADFLY: Today's 'Cool Sounds?' Bah, Humbug!

Posted By on Wed, Feb 3, 2010 at 4:41 PM

For people of my generation, the memory of our parents' disapproval of our music idols is still somewhat fresh in our minds. I can still remember how my parents reacted to seeing Elvis for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show, and their Yiddishe name for him, “Elvis mit de pelvis.” Don't even ask what they thought of the Beatles (the words “get a haircut” coming from my dad sound familiar). They were, needless to say, dismissive of Elvis' and the Beatles' music, which, they thought, compared quite unfavorably with the music of, say, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra or the Dorsey brothers.

Of course, horrified as we were by our parents' stuffiness and judgementalism, we all aspired not ever to be as uptight as they were about music, and so it was with a great deal of dismay that I recall my revulsion to rap and hip-hop as being an epiphany that, at least in that way, I had become my parents. I guess it's the same feeling we have when we realize that, in spite of our best efforts, we've adopted some of the less attractive aspects of our parents' methods of child rearing.

Of course, they were wrong about Elvis and the Beatles. As I watched the Grammy Awards the other night (mostly for the visual rather than the auditory experience), I was, once again, struck by how vastly superior my generation's music was to what passes for music these days. I asked myself whether Beyonce, Kanye West or The Black Eyed Peas are likely to have their music played thirty or more years from now, the way The Rolling Stones', Bob Dylan's or Paul Simon's still is. Will we remember, fondly, U2, the way we remember the Supremes or the Temptations? Will there be rap retrospectives as fund-raising vehicles on public TV decades from now the way doo-wop is? Will there be pilgrimages to hear Green Day the way there have been for the Grateful Dead? Forgive my skepticism in asking those essentially rhetorical questions, but what passes for music today is, as I saw one commenter on the Grammy say, frozen TV dinners trying to pass as real food.

So, is it fair to judge a musical genre by its ability to stand the test of time, or should we just accept whatever the latest thing in music is as a barometer of current taste? Whatever happened to New Wave and Punk Rock, anyway? Where are the Talking Heads and Devo, now that we need them (not)? Or, for that matter, disco? Were they just a tribute to our musical fickleness? I believe longevity is an absolutely appropriate criterion for quality. If that weren't so, symphonic music audiences, regardless of their sophistication, would prefer hearing Phillip Glass or Charles Ives to Beethoven or Mozart, which they overwhelmingly don't.

I'm no musicologist, but what is it about music that gives it a lasting quality? Take a look, or better yet, listen, to the music of the 50's and 60's and what you'll find is that the common thread is tonality. Harmony and ensemble were still important in that era—-not so much, anymore. Many of the singers of my day had something called a voice. The players also had something called musicianship. The singers understood nuance and modulation. Sure, we had some screamers even back then (e.g., Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis), but fewer of them saw the need to compensate for a lack of voice talent by cranking up the volume, as seems to be so prevalent today.

So, are rap and hip-hop the new rock 'n roll? I doubt it. Music must be, above all, musical, and it takes more than decibel levels, pulsating rhythms and rhyming verse to make music. Yeah, I know; our parents thought (hoped, really) that rock 'n roll was a passing fancy, just the way some of us feel about today's music. But, they were wrong, and we're right.

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