Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I don't even know where to begin.

Let me preface this by saying I'm hardly a connoisseur of music journalism. I'm not a connoisseur of music journalism for the simple fact that it peaked somewhere in the early 90's, which can also be earmarked as the true dying days of Rolling Stone being somewhat credible. Since then I regularly read Blender, but admittedly for the funny commentary and not any genuine insight into the state of music, or the industry, or anything that actually matters to me as a music fan.

That said, I recently stumbled across an article by Boston Globe writer Joan Anderman, and have not felt so genuinely compelled to respond to an article in more than a decade. Let's take a look, shall we?

Does that sound familiar? Blame it on John Mayer.

In August I dutifully arrived at the Rod Stewart show at the Comcast Center in time to catch the opening act, Josh Kelley. Kelley, known to gossip hounds as Mr. Katherine Heigl, is a singer-songwriter. He writes pop-rock tunes, plays the guitar and the piano, and sings well. He's attractive and personable. His songs are sturdy and pretty. And he makes me feel . . . nothing.

Nothing is worse than feeling nothing at a concert. If you hate a band, at least you can whine about it to your friend in the next seat, and if you're me, you can register a public complaint in the newspaper. And odds are good I'll receive plenty of mail from readers who love the band just as much as I don't love the band, which confirms my view that music that makes somebody feel something is worth listening to.

Listening to Kelley, I just felt empty, and I found myself marveling once again that he and his ilk have become the mainstream standard-bearers for the genre.

"Garden-variety" is the term I used to describe Kelley in my review of the show - i.e. common, ordinary, of no special quality or type, according to the dictionary. And he's not alone.

So up until here I have no complaints. I've never found Josh Kelley overly burdened with talent, and have been genuinely more entertained by other artists telling stories of him stumbling around the Rock Boat completely tanked than I have been by his cds. A quick search of Joan Anderman's other articles for The Globe reveal that as many times as she finds reason to reference Josh in articles that have little to do with him, she trots out the "Mr. Katherine Heigl" moniker as if he's showing up in the pages of the Enquirer with nothing but that to carry him. I read my tabloids, girlie, can't remember the last time I even saw an article on Katherine, much less on Josh and trust me I'm no fan of hers either, so I'm on the lookout.

Another quick search gets much deeper to the root of what we're dealing with here. The review of the Rod Stewart show in question was largely positive, and very indicative of someone who has clearly had a lot of years to get familiar with his catalog. My knowledge of Stewart largely consists of people singing "Maggie May" to me on a regular basis, a Tom Waits cover that was better off left alone, and a daughter that looks like a cocker spaniel.

The description suits a whole slew of singer-songwriters making the rounds of theaters, airwaves, and soundtracks with their inoffensive, unremarkable, soul-numbing songs.

Matt Nathanson, a Lexington native who lives in San Francisco, performs a sold-out show at Berklee Performance Center tonight, the same night Howie Day plays at Northeastern University's Blackman Auditorium. Jason Mraz comes through town Oct. 17 for a show at the Orpheum, also sold out. Matt Wertz has been on the road opening for Gavin DeGraw, Mat Kearney is making a new record, and Josh Hoge just put an album out. Ari Hest, exhibiting a flash of ingenuity, has been writing and releasing a song a week this year.

All of these artists are competent. None of them has a sound.

Okay wait...what?

Hold the phone.

This is the point where I put down my glass of water and almost laughed and ended my own life by choking.I mean...seriously? Maybe someone spent too much time in her late 20's in the 80's listening to arena rock and hair bands and therefore has some damaged ear drums that led to making such a sweeping generalization on such a wide range of artists. I'm friends with a lot of musicians, or very involved music fans. I myself am someone as versed in the discography of everyone from the likes of Britney Spears, Jay-Z and Fiona Apple as I am with those of Matt Nathanson, Death Cab for Cutie, and Hit the Lights. I'm hardly a musical elitist, I just can't seem to consume enough of it. Granted, some of it is completely lost on me - the majority of country music, screaming rock anthems, and the Dave Matthews Band for a general cross section, but I know enough to know who is who when I'm stuck in traffic and hit the scan button and it settles on a station that I never listen to.

We all know that I could go on for days about the mere passing mention of Matt Nathanson, but let me just sum it up by saying that someone who can't seem to find a unique sound would never be able to sustain a career that's now spanning 15 years and was built solely on crisscrossing the country and selling out rooms wherever he goes. Howie Day may have hit the mainstream with the generally generic "Collide" but his first album showcased his unique abilities as a writer and singer in songs such as "Sorry So Sorry" and "Kristina". Hearing him pound out "Sorry So Sorry" live could put anyone's doubts to rest.

Jason Mraz has hit his stride with his new record and the reworked version of "I'm Yours" but is another artist who, with his own blend of wordplay and quick beats over his guitar playing has carved out his own niche that makes him another sure sell out road act each and every summer. Mraz has a quick tongue and churns out gems on his albums that range from quiet love songs to stumble over your own tongue rhymes and slick and sexy ballads. I don't remember anyone ever confusing a Mraz tune for a Mayer tune, even in the "Remedy" days.

I'm hardly a huge Gavin Degraw lover (I leave that for Nikki of course), but there's no denying that he's probably got the strongest voice out of his entire genre of young singer songwriters. He can literally sing the hell out of anything, from the defiant and slightly cocky "I Don't Want to Be", to a cover of "A Change Is Gonna Come" that Sam Cooke himself would approve of.

The point of this is that the genre itself is deep and unique. Insisting that this crop of artists have no unique sound is about as ridiculous as getting a Jay-Z song confused with a Soulja Boy song, just because they happen to file into the same genre when you're browsing through the iTunes store.

They seem for all the world to be using a template to write their songs. Sit down to listen to a batch of them at the same time, and you'll notice that the same pattern crops up again and again, usually in the chorus. It's made of four chords that repeat in a cycle, sometimes tenderly and sometimes forcefully but always winsomely, suggesting lost love or found love or the bad love that inspired him - no, impelled him - to write this song.

As wrong and this woman is, this argument can be applied to any genre of music. During the reign of pop it was largely argued that every pop hit was composed of the same few chords and key changes. With some slick production and a catchy hook, anyone could have a number one song. During the reign of rap it was the era of a sample. Grab a beat, obtain a sample, enjoy the millions rolling in. This is not new information, sweetie.

Love songs will always be the ones that get people talking, because those are the songs that everyone can relate to. If Jason Mraz wrote "Remedy" (a song about a close friend fighting cancer) 14 times over and released it as an album, he would have never had the chance to make a second record. If John Mayer had released a handful of albums consisting of different versions of "Your Body Is A Wonderland", he'd still be playing at coffee shops in Atlanta on nightly basis. Being cute and holding a guitar may work as a novelty for a little while, but is hardly enough to grant you the ability to tour the country and live comfortably when not doing so, especially not in this day and age. Let's face it, they all can't have the ability to churn out such obscenely creative jams as "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?", but they do what they can to entertain those that somehow manage to find meaning in their meaningless and talentless songs, you know?

I don't buy it. This musician has studied hard. His introspective lyrics read like a composite of sensitive-guy clich├ęs. He doesn't so much sing from the gut as use his voice, expertly, in the service of a sentiment. It cracks just so to evoke his broken heart and grows bold when it's time to be strong. He's a little soulful, a little wounded, totally ready to be saved, and with the help of a skilled producer he pushes people's buttons - especially those belonging to young women, a demographic that's especially susceptible to a cute boy's connect-the-dots charms.

And who can blame them? These guys get the job done. It's like the recipe for McDonald's Secret Sauce; you can count on it. It tastes the same every time. Nobody clamors for new ingredients every time they order a Big Mac, because reliability is a good thing when it comes to fast food. But sameness is depressing when it defines an art form where emotional veracity has always been the most compelling piece.

Singer songwriters are not the new bubble gum pop stars. The guitar boy equivalent of Lou Pearlman is not sitting behind a desk holding auditions at theme parks for the next group of boys he can clean up, give a Fender and an MTV reality show to, send to Max Martin, and then swim in the millions he makes off of them like it's the beginning of Ducktales and he's Scrooge McDuck. This would be valid if I walked into a store and was faced with seeing Jason Mraz and Gavin DeGraw lip gloss, or John Mayer and Matt Nathanson lollipops that I could buy to enjoy while watching Josh Kelley's feature film about traveling the country with some of his friends to find his long lost mother.

This is not 1999 and Howie Day will never sell 2.1 million records in a week. There is no longer endless money to be made for getting air headed teenage girls to stand outside of the MTV studios for you. To put it into reference the writer may understand better, this is not the same thing as anxiously awaiting Davy Jones' appearance on the Brady Bunch because he's OMG SO DREAMY!

I blame John Mayer. He paved the way for this wave of well-groomed troubadours with the unlikely success of his 2001 album, "Room For Squares." Mayer is a better musician than the lot of them, but the mass appeal of his sweet strummed pop tunes triggered a record-label spending spree on cookie-cutter tunesmiths. And it's working, because in this era of branding and multi-platform careerism, originality isn't the goal. Quite the opposite: The business needs innocuous, multipurpose songs that can service radio formats, dorm rooms, television dramas, film credits, and iPod ads.

The original pop troubadours carved their niche (and set the bar high) with distinctive visions spanning the literate commentary of Jackson Browne, James Taylor's graceful meditations, and fiery soul-searching from Cat Stevens. And there are formidable talents working today, among them Conor Oberst, Damien Rice, Tom McRae, Joseph Arthur, and Rufus Wainwright. Which makes it even harder to listen to the assembly-line sentiments and achingly familiar refrains of the Mayer descendants

Ugh. I'll give you Damien Rice and Joseph Arthur. Those two have moments of pure transcendence on their albums. But Conor Oberst? Really? That almost negates the rest of the list for me. I do enjoy a couple of Bright Eyes songs, but holy Christ, pulling that name for a list of formidable talents making the rounds today is almost like putting Hanson on a pedestal or loving the Terrence Howard record...oh wait, Anderman already did that in previous articles. I guess somehow those two artists managed to avoid the trappings of the terrible pre packaged singer songwriters that you can't help but be overrun with these days.

There's enough wallpaper in the world; we don't need uniformity from the very people who are meant to be scouring their hearts and baring their souls in song. But that venerable task has been co-opted, at least in part, by music supervisors looking for a faux-emotional tune to underscore the season's faux-emotional teen drama, and nervous music execs hoping to reach the most people with the least distinguished palette of sounds.

It's bad math for music lovers, but it adds up in the short term, and these days that seems to be the main frame of reference.

To sum this all up somehow, I'll say this: if this writer wanted to bash an entire genre of music based on it's depth and genuine contribution to music a whole, she was way off base to pick this one. Go to a Matt Nathanson show, watch him play upwards of 30 songs that he himself wrote from the ground up, and then tell me that he's in it for the money and not for the genuine love for music and his gift for sharing it. Listen to a live Mraz record from top to bottom and tell me that he isn't a great lyricist and and amazing vocalist. Sure John Mayer has become commercialized and trite, but he wasn't always that way and with any hope the other greats in his genre will never see that side of themselves.

Being that Anderman still finds Motley Crue culturally relevant none of that is likely. Writing a badly researched and completely off base article damning an entire genre of music isn't exactly a reflection of a well rounded music fan, much less one that should be writing for a major newspaper.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some cds to listen to.

1 comment:

Nikki said...

Wow, Maggie. Wow. That was phenomenal. As I was talking to you when you were writing it, I can totally see the anxiousness you were feeling when you wrote it to make sure you got all your thoughts out and I think you totally did. As I was reading the portions that the woman wrote and thinking of my reactions to what she said, then later going down to see what you wrote, you nailed it. Everything I was thinking of mentioning, you hit on the head. This needs to be published...dude, send it to her editor.