The Song Is Ended - analysis of pop music today
On a fine summer day the inhabitants of the Wiltshire valley where I live gathered in a neighbor's garden to celebrate the Queen's jubilee. There was beer, barbecue, flags -- and, of course, the singing of our three national anthems: Welsh, Scottish, and British. The tuneless croaks of our neighbors, as they tried for the thousandth time to squeeze their patriotic sentiments into these quaint words and courtly rhythms, reminded me of how small a part music now plays in the social life of ordinary people. Singing is strange to them, instruments unknown, and most of the music they hear is not listened to but overheard, piped into their lives by the disc jockeys who control the musical diet of mankind, and who are busy replacing the solid protein of hymns and folksongs with the sugar, starch, and glutamate of pop.
After a beer or two, The Hot Tomatoes were announced: four middle-aged men in green-and-orange T-shirts, the lead guitarist bald on top but with wisps of graying hair tied in a ponytail. They began with a yet more grotesque rendering of the national anthem, which sounded in their electric instrumentation like an amplified whisper from the grave. And then, with wobbling paunches and the wiggling of arthritic hips, The Hot Tomatoes evoked the early days of Elizabeth's reign in songs that spoke of the fun and frenzy of my youth; the songs of Bill Haley & His Comets, Little Richard, Elvis, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones sounded above the hayfields in a thin and ghostly imitation.
The Queen herself celebrated the jubilee with a public rendition of a Beatles song, and the aging Brian May played the national anthem on his electric guitar before a million loyal subjects. The Jubilee Honours List contained a knighthood for Mick Jagger. Yet, far from normalizing rock, these attempts to make it part of the establishment, and to decorate the old geezers who invented it, serve merely to emphasize its inseparable connection with the hormones of youth, and its utter absurdity when presented as the lingua franca of mature middle age.
Elvis, fortunately, had the good taste to die before growing up. As a rule, the modern rock star does not even attempt to grow up; hence the shock produced by Bruce Springsteen, awoken by 9/11 from the natural silence of the superannuated idol, revealing in his latest album that he is not a rebel but a farmer, family man, and patriot. More usually, if a pop star grows at all it is not up but sideways, like Mick Jagger or Michael Jackson, becoming waxy and encrusted as though covered by a much-repainted mask. There are exceptions, of course: Paul McCartney has, since his knighthood, devoted himself to writing tonal oratorios, while David Bowie has entered into a kind of postmodern partnership with Philip Glass. But these exceptions prove the rule. Most rock stars leave their youth only to enter a state of suspended animation, waiting to be dropped once again into the vitalizing fluid of publicity. And then they perform a thin, stiff version of those old and electrifying numbers, adding wrinkles to the music to match the wrinkles on the face.
Listening to The Hot Tomatoes perform the hits of my youth, I reflected on how little pop has developed since the days when it first entered our perceptions, and also how insulated it has become from the rest of our musical culture. The rhythms, instruments, melodic phrases, and core tonal harmonies that dominate the music of, say, Oasis were fully explored by Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones. Rhythm machines, synthesizers, and mixing have changed the sound, filling up the holes in the music and making a continuous background carpet in place of the measured stepping stones of the twelve-bar blues. But the raw materials are the same. Every now and then someone hits on a melody and finds a group of teenagers to mouth it. Subtract the work of the engineers, however, and the tune will turn out to have been done to death in several previous incarnations.
Popular music has not always been so static; nor has it been so resolutely unable to learn from those who really know. Jazz grew out of ragtime, which is downstream from the mazurkas of Chopin, and in Art Tatum you can hear echoes of Debussy, Delius, and Ravel. Gershwin and Tippett, Milhaud and Ravel, all learned from the blues, and Gershwin influenced the development of both jazz and popular song. Cole Porter and Duke Ellington were sophisticated composers, with an incalculable debt to the classical tradition; their harmonic language became the foundation of the Broadway musical. Terry Teachout's recent articles in Commentary on the American popular song testify to a wonderfully rich tradition of melodic and harmonic inspiration, which is scarcely separable from the development of modern music generally.
The dynamic interaction between serious and popular music came to an abrupt end with rock. With a few exceptions, the only input into modern pop is pop: Oasis is downstream from no one save the Beatles. The musical language has remained fixed in the moment of the Sixties, gradually losing the life and the melodic invention of those years, to become a kind of mechanical parody of its own infertile repertoire.
But although the language has remained unchanged, the way of producing and consuming it has suffered a radical upheaval. Modern pop is essentially processed music, in which the major chord is engineered into fast-food flavors and packaged behind a juvenile face. The songs are machine-made, according to a standard specification, and the best that we can hope from them, musically speaking, is a catchy tune, as in the Spice Girls' "Wannabe." The music is often inseparable from the video, or impossible to perform without the engineers who are its true creators -- as in the notorious case of Milli Vanilli, whose Grammy award of 1990 was quite unfairly rescinded when it was discovered that they did not perform the music that was recorded in their name.
Sometimes there is no music at all, but only packaging, as in rap or techno-rock. The successful pop star does not in fact need to perform his music, for he is not judged as a musician but as the center of a cult. We have witnessed a reversal of the traditional priorities of musical appreciation. Cole Porter was loved for his music, which lived on after his death, and can still be sung and played to its original effect. The modern pop star is not loved for his music: The music is loved for him. It is the background accompaniment to his incarnation on the video. The packaging has taken over from its contents, so as to address itself to the great religious deficit in the lives of the young. Modern pop offers the "real presence" of a divinity, and the fan is not so much a music lover as a member of a sect, whose identity is symbolized in the group or singer who recruits him.
At the same time, the natural rhythms of the human voice and the human performer have been driven out by a constant and unnuanced ostinato. Nor should we blame the old geezers for this. In the early days of their emancipation, rhythm was being discovered as a property of human life, a magic element that could be conjured from the inner reaches of the human body. Listen to the Elvis of "Jailhouse Rock," or to any guitar solo by Eric Clapton, and you will hear what I mean. In the music of such great performers life is externalized as rhythm. Elvis relied on the micro-rhythms within his vocal line to infect the listener, and hardly needed percussion. Clapton defined the beat through the guitar solo, which the drums must then follow, not lead.
In modern pop songs the roles are reversed. Percussion does not obey the melodic line but commands it, and the drum-kit is fashioned into iron rail-tracks by the engineer. Hence the emergence of rap, from which the arts of melody and of song itself have been finally abolished. The words of a performer like Eminem belong with his art: They are a denial of music and of the human voice that speaks through music. The rap artist is really a ventriloquist's dummy, and what speaks from his mouth is the machine.
Rap is simply the logical conclusion of pop. In almost all modern pop, rhythm is treated by the engineers as a repetitive frame, and the result is the death of rhythm. Real rhythm is a pattern rather than a frame, and patterns are significant when they are not stated but implied. In my view, this is the root cause of the sterility and vacuousness of pop. When the sap dried in the old geezers, the engineers took over, the voice became a face, and the music ossified. And now it thumps in the background of modern life, filling every silence, and reminding us that humanity has ceased to sing.