Popular music used to be a river or a stream or even a tiny brook tinkling out some fragile notes; now it’s a waterfall, a thundering sound, actually a force, carrying us along; it reflects the time; but it has always been so. What we’re seeing now is the current immediacy, the urgency, the shortage of time, and all of that results in beat, no buildup to anything, get right to the point quickly, you have only three minutes. Also, and this too is not new, because of the popularity of it, the new music is present in the popular music of the day, infiltrating everywhere, so that it shows up in marketing, in commercial spots, in advertising, even in government notices or topical documentaries on television. The current sound dominates, and that is a perfectly natural development. Mind you, one can sympathize with adult consumers of music over the takeover we’re experiencing; the spread of it is daunting. I recently saw a short TV documentary-type video, and while I don’t recall the background for the piece it was titled ‘The Making of a Song’. The footage showed a young artistic type, gathering notepaper and a pen, and sitting down at a work desk, apparently about to compose a song. He began by putting on head-phones and hitting the play button on a drum-track machine, and then inputting rhythm patterns using a keyboard. As the video went on, as you listen to what was being produced, you gradually became aware that the young man, supposedly creating a song, was actually manufacturing beat. Every key he hit and everything he created was with only one purpose in mind – to generate a drum pattern that would prove danceable standing on its own with the barest minimum of melodic or lyric input. Indeed, when the lyric came, it was noticeable that he was selecting words, or combinations of words, that carried percussive, or what the Jamaicans call “riddim” impact. To be fair to him, the young man in the video was doing what the market required of him. The piece should have been more appropriately titled, ‘The Making of a Beat’, and some of the most financially successful music writers these days are precisely the ones adept at manufacturing these attractive beats that form the foundation of many current hits.
For those who are averse to today’s popular music content, however, there is no need for despair. The same technological devices that drive some of us crazy are also available at the touch of a Google to bring us the very music we regret so much losing. It’s still there, if you search it out, and technology again now allows us to easily copy the material and play it repeatedly at our heart’s delight, so all is not lost. The very well-known iPod device, a modern musical miracle, is available at a moderate price to hold thousands of songs, playing them back with excellent sound quality (all you need is pair of good quality headphones) and even repeating your favourites automatically for you; no more the annoying hiss of ageing audio-cassettes or the even more irritating crackle and pop of vinyl recordings as they wear over time.
Additionally, it is not often pointed out that the change is not one of a blanket disappearance of that earlier music. Even in the midst of the beat explosion today, there are still some artistes producing work with striking melodic form. Adele and John Legend are only two in that category, but there are many more like that and if your interest is strong enough – and particularly if you have the names of those ‘oldies but goodies’ – it’s a snap to find them on the internet; a little probing search is all it takes. Indeed, it is truly astonishing how much good music, and the amazing variety of it, is now within reach. It’s also worth noting that while it may sometimes be a case of ‘nowhere else to turn’ in some of these changes in the arts (new movies, for one), in the case of music you have this incredibly vast alternative, readily available for free, so quit grousing (you’re not going to reverse the popular tide anyway) and indulge it.
I’m confident that anyone who has read this far will have certain artistes or titles from the days of melody or song variation in mind, but let me make bold to suggest some pieces to listen to. One that comes to mind immediately is a recording of the Gospel music classic ‘I Shall be Released’, by the late Nina Simone. Playing the piano and singing in a live concert, she stops the band early in the piano introduction, because the tempo isn’t just right. “You’re pushing it,” she says to the musicians. “Don’t push it. Let it flow.” Beginning again, at a somewhat slower tempo, she brings the song to life on stage in an almost shimmering performance. The whole thing, including Simone’s gentle correction to the musicians, is on the recording; a brilliant musical experience, made long before beat came to the forefront. Google it. In addition, for those yearning for the days of melody and intricate lyrics, take another listen to the George Harrison song, ‘Something’, described by Frank Sinatra as the best love song ever written, and who would argue with that name?
One particular gem I must suggest to you is a live version, at a jazz festival, of Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman No Cry’, recorded by the Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander with four musicians plus a Jamaican vocalist; their names I do not know. Starting with an intro showing his classical roots, Monty gives this unique song a gentle teasing jazz touch, all the colours of the music pouring out. It won’t make the pop charts today because the format is not domination by beat, but it is easily the best version of the song I’ve heard. Go to YouTube and type in “Monty Alexander’s No Woman No Cry” and judge for yourself.
Ultimately, technological changes will transform everything. We are now in a world where, as I heard an expert say on TV say last week, the cellphone you got 2 years ago is old, outdated, time for the new model with the newest wrinkles…people are lining up through the night to be among the first to get one.
Where will all the changes, artistic and technological, take us next? We can’t predict the specifics, they will emerge from the culture and sociology of the time, but all the evidence is that they will stay on the same path, giving us impressions or reflections of the way we currently live, just as they do now. One thing for sure: the older folks will be complaining about the shift then and decrying it as “not music” just as the senior ones among us are doing now about the music today.