January 10, 2004

Kepple's Applied Theory of Popular Music

WE WERE LISTENING to our CD collection today -- it is mostly older popular music, with techno, instrumental and some of "today's hits" included to round out the mix -- and we got to thinking about how the quality of popular music Back in the Day compares to popular music now.

Clearly, when it comes to American music, there's some sort of weird inverse relationship between economic and social stability and popular music's quality. Now, we should say we don't think this is a new idea -- we've had so many conversations with our friends and others about this, that we can't believe someone else hasn't noticed this trend. Still, even if it's only for our own benefit, we'd like to "throw it out on the stoop" and "see if the cat licks it up."

Now, earlier in the day, we were out doing some errands; and, as such, were scanning through the radio channels trying to find a decent song. After a long slog through some truly awful rap songs (1) and overproduced popular crapola, we finally found some great music. In about thirty seconds, we transformed from our normal stolid, sober analyst-type persona to -- well, let's just say Gene Wilder in Silver Streak (2) had nothing on us.

That great piece of music was 1967's "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" -- sung by none other than Frankie -frickin'- Valli, folks.

What is wrong with this picture?

Consider: we are not yet thirty years old; we do enjoy a wide variety of music, particularly music which has a "phat beat" to which we can dance; we are not loathe to accept new artists or new musical styles. Yet the popular music of our growing up -- the music of the late Eighties, the Nineties and today -- can't hold a bloody candle to this Frankie Valli song.

Some might say we are being a bit too harsh. After all, tastes and styles differ over the years; few of our peers or the younger kids have even heard of Frankie Valli, much less this song in particular; and we are a bit eccentric. We can accept all these points of contention, except we would note one thing:

It's not just Frankie Valli who, on a popular music basis, still kicks the collective ass of the younger generation. The Beatles certainly do; so do The Rolling Stones; so do Crosby, Stills & Nash and variants; so do -- hell, let's really throw down the gauntlet. When it comes to popular music, Jefferson Airplane kicks the ass of the younger generation.

It's not merely on a group basis, either. No young popular artist today even comes close to Paul McCartney or John Lennon or George Harrison or Jimi Hendrix. Cass Elliot was a far superior vocalist compared to, say, Christina Aguilera; and Michelle Phillips (3) was too.

"But Bennnnnnnnnn," some younger readers may say. "What about N'Sync? What about The Backstreet Boys? What about O-Town? They've been popular bands!"

Well, the Dave Clark Five was popular too, weren't they?

The Dave Clark Five. You know. The British band with no British fans. Ah! Now you remember! Faintly.

Anyway, here's one VERY IMPORTANT caveat before we continue. We're NOT saying that all music from modern times stinks, all right? Let's be clear on that. The aforementioned pop artists do have some catchy tunes, and in general, there's a lot of fantastic music being performed today.

Sarah McLachlan, for instance, is a fabulous singer and musician; there have been some great bands over the years: Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, etc. But even though they have done/did do very well, and achieved some airtime, there hasn't been that level of popular success that one might have expected, given the success of the Sixties' great bands and performers.

But why is this, we wondered? Well, here's our thinking on the matter.

One can't entirely explain the changes by saying, "Oh, the recording industry's just different today." We are not convinced that it really is. In the Sixties, for instance, the music had as much to do with sex and narcotics and rebellion as it does today. Indeed, as many Baby Boomers enjoy telling us, their children try to rebel -- but they can't hold a damn candle to how the Baby Boomers rebelled back in the day. So here's our theory:

The quality of the most popular music in American society is inversely proportional to the amount of societal and economic stability in the U.S. at any given time. Or, in formulaic terms, MQ = (1/(S+E)).

Let's examine how things have gone throughout various time periods in American history:

ROARING TWENTIES: Despite this decade's economic prosperity, there was clearly a great level of social instability present. After all, drink was outlawed, people were buying everything on margin or credit, and syndicate men were running the cities. Result: great jazz music popular.

GREAT DEPRESSION: Everybody out of work. Runs on the banks. Germany and Japan causing trouble. Result: great swing music popular.

MID-SIXTIES TO EARLY SEVENTIES: Massive societal instability soon combines with major economic recession. Rampant free love and narcotics use encouraged. Participation in protests and things called "be-ins" frequent among people called "yippies." Angry students and faculty take over universities. Massive crime increase. Marked rise of materialism, as opposed to religious belief, as a way of life. Erosion of the family unit. The Vietnam War divides society on one front, while on a second front, backward people still oppose civil rights for all in society. Wage and price controls. The American Motors Corp. introduces the 1967 Rebel Rambler Regional Stationwagon. End result: rock music, folk music, blues music, jazz music -- everything -- is all of top-notch quality during this turbulent period.

MID-TO-LATE SEVENTIES: Society stabilizes due to acceptance (and resignation) regarding socialist policies and economic malaise. Result: the most popular music, disco, generally bites the wax tadpole something fierce. Things do begin to improve, however, when instability rears its head at the 1979 Disco Sucks riot at Comiskey Park in Chicago.

THE EIGHTIES: Economic upswing causes disenchantment among some, as the Eighties' expansion is not as broadly-oriented as that which took place during the Fifties. However, with most of society happy and content, the most popular music is generally grim: sappy songs abound. (Two words: REO Speedwagon).

THE NINETIES: Brief recession makes grunge music all the rage -- and some was quite good -- but long prosperity leads to slate of forgettable and mediocre bands being most popular (Spin Doctors, Hootie and the Blowfish, etc.)

And finally, of course, we have today. America has certainly been through a hell of a lot over the past few years, but we feel pretty confident in saying that as of today, our society remains both socially and economically stable -- perhaps even as much as it was in the late Nineties. We feel it could explain a lot about the present state of music today.

Could, of course. That's the operative word. We haven't, for instance, figured out how Eminem plays into the whole equation ("he's just an outlier!" said our statistician). And as the financial types always say, past performance isn't indicative of future results!

For our generation's sake, we certainly hope not.


(1) We do not intend this as a blanket criticism of rap music; far from it. We just can't understand why 50 Cent gets all the air time, to say nothing of this latest song about the "milkshake." Gad.

(2) To quote Mr Wilder in his role as George Caldwell, editor of gardening manuals: "GET DOWN! I'M A MACARONI! BWA-DOO-BOP-BOP, BAH-DAH-BOP-BOP-BOP ... oh. Oh, no. It's not what you think ..."

(3) We would suggest that Mrs Phillips -- the other female vocalist in The Mamas and The Papas -- could well be considered the Britney Spears of her day, at least according to the photos of her which we have seen. Gad, we tell ya, we were born too late. (For more on Mrs Phillips and her band, see Matthew Greenwald's "Creeque Alley: The Oral History of The Mamas and The Papas," Cooper Square Press. Mr Greenwald, for his part, says Mrs Phillips would top any female pop performer -- past or present -- in the looks department).

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at January 10, 2004 02:07 AM | TrackBack

Mr. Kepple! Your rant about popular American music has many holes. But I shant fill them all or my back would give out like the overworked clasp on a whore's brassiere. I shall concentrate only on your ignorant dismissal of 1980s music.

First, REO Speedwagon recorded its first album in 1971. They were a 70s band that had some big hits in the '80s.

Second, if one excludes European pop and rock -- U2, The Police, Genesis, The Clash, The English Beat, The Cure, The Smiths, Madness, Falco, etc. -- then '80s music does lose the bulk of its heft. But there remains a strong American contingent. R.E.M., the best American band of the '80s, surely produced better work in that decade than anything anyone has produced in the following decade.

Other white '80s bands that produced quality work during the Reagan years include The Talking Heads, The Beastie Boys, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Van Halen, Joan Jett, The Stray Cats, and, yes, Huey Lewis and The News.

But the most permanent music of the 1980s was recorded by black Americans. Prince, Michael Jackson, L.L. Cool J., Run-D.M.C., Sade, Robert Cray, Tracy Chapman, Living Colour, Kool and the Gang, and Earth Wind and Fire all produced classic songs, many that remain radio staples today. Michael Jackson in his prime destroys anything produced in the '90s. And the Beastie Boys' first album remains one of the top rock/pop albums ever.

One can't blame you for missing out on the excellence that was produced in the 1980s. After all, you were probably a wee toddler sucking on Zwiebacks and listening to Chipmunks records when the decade began, and therefore you would not remember "Ged Down On It" or "You Dropped The Bomb On Me" or "Darling Nikki", which by the way has been rerecorded by The Foo Fighters and is becoming something of a hit.

So you see, Mr. Kepple, dismissing the 1980s with a throw-away comment about REO Speedwagon is unfair, unjust, and downright ungentlemanly. May you find repentance by mysteriously discovering a copy of Purple Rain in your chair when you arrive at work tomorrow morning.

Posted by: Reb Elyell at January 12, 2004 08:55 PM