Wednesday, March 03, 2004

A cultural observation:

We should begin this post by putting our cards on the table: We don't like hip-hop or rap. Never have, and probably never will.

That said, we were intrigued to encounter an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times, Don't Know Why Norah Jones Is Hot? Critics of Hip-Hop Do

In it, we read: (emphasis added)
Norah Jones' "Feels Like Home" is at the top of Billboard's album chart...

For the last few years, the music business has been dogged by sluggish CD sales and preoccupied with the threat of Internet file-sharing. Now the industry has found an unlikely savior: a self-effacing 24-year-old piano-playing balladeer ...

... the New York Times editorial page [offered] the interesting theory that Jones' popularity among her core audience of baby boomers reflects widespread desire for musical consolation in difficult times.

But what exactly is troubling these millions of middle-aged listeners who seek solace in the music of a woman young enough to be their daughter?

[The] answer may be found elsewhere on the pop charts. Jones' was not the only Billboard milestone last week: For only the second time in history, all of the Top 10 singles were by African American artists. More precisely: All of the songs were by hip-hop performers.

A quarter of a century after the American mainstream first encountered hip-hop's radical revision of the pop-song form - replacing sung verses and traditional instrumentation with syncopated speech and dense, machine-generated rhythms ? the genre's conquest of hit radio is complete.

... is Jones' music actually more authentic than, for instance, [R&B star] Usher's? Such thinking rests on false assumptions: that acoustic instruments are inherently more soulful than electronic ones, that whatever is on hit radio is by definition pap, that teenagers have no taste.

... today's hip-hop-dominated pop rivals the mid-1960s heyday of Motown and the Beatles.

... it is right and fitting that middle-aged fans of Jones be repelled by hip-hop. If pop history tells us anything, it is that parents and kids rarely agree about where to set the radio dial. But those tempted to cheer Jones' success as a triumph of good taste should heed another historical lesson: In matters of musical taste ? from bobby-soxers at the Paramount to Beatlemaniacs at Shea Stadium ? the kids have usually been right. When it comes to identifying the day's vital music, don't trust anyone over 30.
Some observations:
We agree that hip-hop is a radical revision of the pop-song form. And what a revision! Replacing traditional instrumentation - which is code for no melody, no harmonies, and sometimes not even a base beat.

While hip-hop is doing well in the marketplace, we are puzzled why "traditional" musical forms have left the scene. We think it's mostly due to heavy-handed marketing and corporate control which has forced music in a particular direction.

As to the claim that "today's hip-hop-dominated pop rivals the mid-1960s heyday of Motown and the Beatles" - it may rival Motown and the Beatles in terms of sales, but not in terms of universal appeal. Back in the 60's, virtually everybody liked Motown (they were on the Ed Sullivan show - a bastion of middle-American taste). The Beatles, Mommas and the Poppas, Elton John, Beach Boys, and other artists were popular with all age groups. Where can such music be found today?

The author asserts that hip-hop has been around a quarter century. That's a long time. Now ask yourself, has hip-hop been used in any significant way in advertising? Hardly. It's not been used (except in extremely diluted form) to reach a young audience. Marketing execs aren't fools. Why do you think they've given hip-hop a pass? We think it's because hip-hop is by and large, not a cheerful art form and thus not something you can use to attract consumers.

Our complaint boils down to this: What the hell happened on or about January 1, 1990?
That marked the end of the 80's New Wave (Blondie, Dire Straights, Eurhymics, Frankie Goes to Hollywood) and the beginning of grunge and rap. Since then, only occasional artists like Oasis and Coldplay - with their melodes - have made an appearance, but overall, it's been pretty miserable. One intriquing social indicator: some years back, the animated cartoons show, The Simpsons, had an episode that looked at the music scene (focusing on Smashing Pumpkins). In it, Lisa comments that the music is bleak and depressing.

In a related vein, in 1994 there was a 25 year anniversary of Woodstock, and one thing stood out at the time: it was a coarse affair. (It wasn't quite skinheads banging against each other in a muddy mosh pit, but it was close.) Why was that? We can't help but think that a cloud of trepidation descended at the time, reflecting something, but we're not sure what.


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