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What You Gonna Do When You Get Out Of Jail?

I can sometimes be a nostalgic fogey, the kind you hate to sit next to on an airplane; always going on about the good old days when the grass was greener, families were tighter and the music was definitely better. On music I am a poster child of the ’80s although late 70s probably more an accurate genesis: from the Bee Gees “Saturday Night Fever” to Michael Jackson, from the Solar sounds of Dynasty/Shalamar/Whispers to the dub groove of Sly & Robbie, from Teddy Pendergrass to Rick James to Patrice Rushen, from Midnight Star to Anita Baker. Believe me the list goes on. There are even times I wish I was a ’70s babe: gravelly soul voices from mature adults, conceptual rock albums and experimental jazz; characteristics that were already being irredeemably sweetened and toned down by the turn of the ’80s.

Then the ’90s came and with it the likes of Snap, electronica and gangstar rap. Popular artistes stopped singing and started purely posing (even my teenage idol MJ was guilty of this); yes, posing has always been part of entertaining (look at old Sinatra clips or anything from the early ’80s from Duran Duran to Culture Club and even Sade) but at least if you’re gonna pose then bring some skill and talent to the table! In the ’90s my radio was more Off than On but sometimes I would discover someone amazing (like the morning I woke up to Stephen Simmonds’ “Tears Never Dry”). However as the years went by I lost all my adolescent passion for charts, music videos and FM radio. Occasionally I still come across  a real singer (Chrisette Michele is a new find; Barbara Streisand a new discovery, wasn’t she amazing?) but this is now more “miss” than “hit”. Today my playlists are firmly in Old Favourites Land.

What do I hate about new pop music? Well, first they are loud for no good reason. Blah, blah, blah! Do Rihanna and Lady Gaga always have to yell although neither quite as bad as Beyonce. Secondly, real musicians seem to have disappeared. One joy in the old days was avidly reading liner notes to discover a master like Paulinho Da Costa or Nathan East played on it or Michael McDonald was on background vocals. Collaboration is not celebrated today; it’s all a masturbatory me-myself-and-no-one-else or it’s about the producer (e.g. Timbaland). Yet another fault of music today is the palpable lack of melody and vocal harmony. Maybe it’s just me – I can’t hear it but I do hear the screams of Justin Bieber fans. He must be doing something right.

I want to know what happened to bands with individual sounds – where are the Cameo (s), the Time (s), the Earth Wind & Fire (s)? Today, any pop song, and I really do mean “any”, could be by any pop artiste – to get face time female artistes must pop boobies and booty (Mariah Carey, Cheryl Cole or the more absurd Nicki Minaj) and the guy must prove his macho-ness by waving neurotically at the camera before driving his new wheels into the desert. There are no more Stevie Wonders or Aretha Franklins or James Browns or Marvin Gayes or Donny Hathaways etc etc. Or maybe there are but they get no face time (except they go jazz) and so their careers get stunted. We will never know and my world is the worse for it. (OK, we do have Alicia Keys and Adele so maybe all is not lost).

I blame the computer that put music making in the hands of anyone. The way I see it the rise of computer music dovetails perfectly with the dearth of quality music. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of new pop music is the banality of the lyrics for which I cannot blame a semiconductor chip. Rhymes are so cliched and unimaginative (compare with anything by Ella Fitzgerald), romantic story lines are duh (compare with Chuck Berry’s “Nadine”, Nat King Cole’s “When I Fall In Love” or Anita Baker’s “Fairy Tales”). And social and political commentary songs? Weep! Instead there is the incessant boasting of riches with Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now” being one recent egregious example “Yellow, Lamborghini; I get what you get in 10 years, in two days” – a stupid song whose only redeeming feature is Busta Rhymes’ jaw-breaking vocal athletics.

As part of my music education a few years ago I started listening to old chart hits on the Billboard site (I don’t think you can now, shame) starting with the ’60s. Boy, was I disappointed in not finding gem after gem; for week following week the songs at the top of the ’60s charts were barely distinguishable from one another and the lyrics were mostly, you guessed, utterly forgettable. The songs from that era that we know today are the best of the crop. Thank god that such will be the fate of today’s pop music.  Will we ever get back to lyrics such as this: “Let’s defrost in a romantic mist, Let’s get crossed off everybody’s list” from Chet Baker’s “Let’s Get Lost”? Hmm.

On this high and mighty and elitist note I shall leave you with a touch of irony and an old favourite of mine which starts:

“What you gonna do when you get out of jail?
I’m gonna have some fun!
What do you consider fun?
Fun, just natural fun!”

Try to beat that for banality and honesty!


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