Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Contrarian: My apologies, Razor, if I got to sounding high & mighty about it. But it certainly is true that pre-emptive defensiveness is one of the habits our generation has bequeathed to music appreciation: e.g., "I know it's cheesy, but I really like the new Go-Go's tune." It's first cousin to the habit of trying to co-opt supposedly cheesy (but really f*cking great) songs by feigning an ironic appreciation. It's obviously a pose; everybody knows you're really listening to K.C.'s "Sound Your Funky Horn" or "Boogie Shoes" because the band could lay down a serious dance riff, not because it's a winking put-down of disco. After all, nobody tries to co-opt anachronistic music that sucks. Note that Burger King isn't using Roger Williams's version of "Windmills of Your Mind" in its commercials. (I love Rog, and his music doesn't suck, but you get my point. It's not ear candy.)

If I had a complaint about the music industry today, it wouldn't be the prevalence of manufactured boy bands, teen divas, or other mass-produced disposability; it would be that the greater share of the mass production goes into image, not music.

The mass production is certainly not new. It's what Motown was all about, after all, and Phil Spector. Songwriting teams like Goffin & King, Holland/Dozier/Holland, and Mann & Weil turned out song after song, and producers like Spector or major label A&R men found the right voices for them. And it wasn't just for drecky, flavor-of-the-moment bands. Barely an artist drifted through the 50s or 60s without performing a song by Lieber & Stoller, from kandy-koated spins like "Poison Ivy" or "Love Potion No. 9" (which influenced Spector) to wittily introspective or cynical ballads like "Is That All There Is?" (an obvious influence on Randy Newman). In a bit of turnabout, the singer/image didn't matter much before. Goffin & King were certain enough that "Locomotion" was a hit record that they gave it to their teenaged babysitter, billed as "Little Eva," to take onto the charts. (Similarly, Paul McCartney wrote and then recorded a demo of "Come and Get It" for Badfinger. "Record it just like the demo," he told them, "and you'll get a #1 hit." They did, and they did.) Certainly Phil Spector and Berry Gordy had no qualms about cutting free a singer who got too big for them, since they knew they could make hits with the next voice. (Marvin Gaye was perhaps an exception, but he still had to browbeat Gordy into What's Goin' On.)

I've wandered afield, I know. Sorry. I just think that if you have to make excuses for liking certain songs, you need to grow a backbone. And while it's nice to listen to serious music, the latest rage (White Stripes, Strokes, Wilco are three recently) isn't really any closer to it than the Spice Girls. I mean, it's not Shostakovich.

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