When I decided to write a weekly column for Stabroek News, some preconceptions were involved. For one, I felt that I would be drawn to a range of subjects instead of one particular area, and that has proven to be the case. Also, I was hoping the columns would trigger discussion, even opposing views, and that has come to pass, too. In there, as well, was the hope that I might be able to shed some light in certain areas where I have gained some experience over the years; that some information, or insight I might bring, would help to clarify matters or even attitudes. Judging by the responses, that latter one has worked in some cases but often not – a noticeable one, ironically, being in the area of music where readers’ positions have been interesting,
In a recent column on dancehall music, for instance, where I tried to show the strong value of the art form, several readers missed my point entirely and veered off into comparing the lack of vocal ability in today’s music as opposed to the music of 40 years ago. There were nostalgic outbursts back in time to the talents of the likes of Sam Cooke, Matt Monroe, Marvin Gaye, etc, and the often expressed wish for their return along with the dismissive “these people can’t sing” label pasted on the current pop artistes.
Unfortunately, the folks making those comments, valid as they may be in that earlier context, are missing a couple of current fundamental concepts. The first (I have said this before but information does not always translate into persuasion) is that the styles of popular music change constantly, sometimes radically, as with hip hop. The music of the ’70s and ’80s, where singers like Sam Cooke and Matt Monroe excelled, was a music based largely on melodic emphasis. Beautifully crafted ballads, with intricate and sensitive lyrics, was the order of the day, and lush arrangements with orchestra and even violins was a given in popular music at one time.
Modern music, beginning with the rock-and-roll era, has undergone a monumental shift in a radically different direction. In modern popular music the emphasis is largely on “beat”, and it doesn’t matter where you look; it is so. The reasons behind the change is another column for another time, but the reality is that “beat” rules. In hip hop, rap, soca, reggae, dancehall, zouk, Latin music – “beat” rules. Melody is inconsequential. On a pop music scale of 1 to 10, melody, once rating at the top, now is probably no higher than 2. See this as retrograde, if you will, or an erosion to be repaired, but see it as the reality it is. Listen to the radio; watch television; borrow your children’s iPhone; go to a stadium concert.
Secondly, the emphasis on “beat” has changed not only the nature of popular songs but their presentation, as well. In earlier times, with melody and lyrics ruling, the drums and bass in a recording were not central so they were mixed into the background on most recordings and presented that way in live performances. Today it is totally different. In the interest of “beat”, drums and bass dominate, so that in the recordings today they are brought to the front of the music, and in live performances the bass and drums are bolstered by sound-reinforcement equipment that augments those lower frequencies. The stacks of speakers you see in stadium shows today, and even in smaller venues like the Princess Hotel, are not there for the singers; they are there to provide the greater amplification power needed by the lower frequencies – drums and bass.
Those two factors – the popularity of “beat” and the enhanced lower frequency sound that overshadows melody – means that in the popular music of today there is no need for the pure singer with the melodious voice – the Sarah Vaughan, the Ella Fitzgerald. The need, really, is for a voice that is born from and for rhythmic pulse; one that can push the song to the point where everything is “beat” – that’s the pinnacle.
Critics of today’s music who decry the lack of pure vocalists must begin to understand this essential point: the vocalists now are there to augment the beat, and to therefore sing in short, intense rhythmic patterns, rather than in delivering intricate melodies. They are operating as rhythm instruments and the song writers and recording artistes are showing that emphasis. Listen to Shabbaranks or Tupac or Shaggy or Machel or Movado – they are delivering pure rhythm. In four words, song now is “beat”. If I can persuade you to begin to see that, you’ll begin to see current popular music differently and to see that in those heightened beat-driven words there are still incisive and sensitive lyrics – that was the point of my presentation of Stitchie’s “Fast and Pray”.
If you’re hungering for that older emphasis on intricate melody and pure voices with significant range and tone, all is not lost. Even in the midst of today’s beat/dance/shake music, there are a handful of performers – Adele is a classic current example – writing and working the songs in the way you like to hear them. You will have to search them out. Unlike Adele, many of them are obviously not on the pop charts – they are going against the tide – but they exist, and you can find them. Fortunately, too, the technological revolution that has helped to propel pop music to unbelievable heights is also available to you to find the recordings of the very performers from that earlier era that you continue to yearn for.
It will take some of us a while to see it and accept it, but like all of life around us, music has changed. The beat used to be in the background and the melody in front; now it’s the other way around.