Pop: The Neverending Story – Part 1

There’s an on-going debate among amateur rock afficionados that pits Elvis Presley against the Beatles. It is a battle to determine which had the greater influence in the world of popular music. One thing the Fab Four camp can’t deny here is that the King predated and directly influenced the Beatles. John Lennon once said: “Before Elvis, there was nothing”… Anyway, the legacy debate can hardly be decided objectively because both Elvis and the mop tops left an unprecedented and unquantifiable legacy.

On the other hand, it’s not a case of de gustibus non est disputandum either. It’s more of a philosophical stance. When singing the Beatles’ praises, most point to their innovation; how ‘artistically important’ they were in initiating concepts such as bands writing their own material and releasing full albums of songs instead of ‘just’ churning out a steady stream of singles.

But writing one’s own music is not always necessarily a good thing, but this has at any rate become ubiquitous. Incidentally, after music publishing laws changed (around the time of the Beatles’ emergence on the scene) in 1963, the quality of songwriting dropped considerably. And long-playing albums still consist of songs which float or sink – whether artistically or on Billboard – on their own merit.

Anyway, the Beatles, it is said, basically invented psychedelic rock, ‘deep folk pop’, world music, and orchestral arrangements of rock numbers (not to mention time-honored rock traditions such as excessive drug use and hermitic career interludes in exotic countries such as India). And pointing to all of these distinctions betrays a worldview, which places great importance on art and even more on its progress… Some people do not share this philosophy and so end up favoring artists simply for excellence in doing their job.

Artists like Elvis. From the beginning, Elvis maintained that he wanted to be a ballad singer. Everything else that he became, including rock ‘n’ roll protoplast, happened unwittingly. The thing is that the King’s appeal is in his unique voice and stage persona, not in innovation. Throughout his long career, Elvis was simply a consummate professional who sold songs to the world (he did not write music), without taking himself too seriously.

An unexpected side-effect is that an artist or performer like this will often become original (and therefore ‘important’). That’s what some people want to see in their favorite artists (like me), while for others it is precisely the opposite. For some, aspiring merely to be a ballad singer as opposed to auteur of transcendental concept albums is embarrassingly unsophisitcated and uncouth; a veritable faux pas.

But this is the way it was for ages prior to the cultural upheavals of the 60s. Actually, this kind of artistic self-importance did have a precedent in the Romantic movement of the 19th century, but now it entered the realm of popular songcraft, which by definition should remain simple (which makes it popular). Whereas a lot of 60s and 70s bands seemed to go on a trip never to return to earth along with their fans, a large portion of artists held on to ‘hackneyed’ old-time conventions; namely playing agreeable tunes and selling them as a commodity first and foremost.

The numbers come in handy here (even though they don’t constitute my alpha and omega). Elvis’ chart success and sales far surpass those of the Beatles and other classic bands such as The Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd. What’s more, Elvis, in turn, is himself completely eclipsed by an even greater giant of pop music: Bing Crosby. Crosby’s heyday was the first half of the 20th century so he is often forgotten, but the numbers have survived; his chart popularity surpasses Elvis’ almost four-fold. I’d say that this speaks, at the very least, to the popularity of good old fashioned songcraft and crooning.

TO BE CONTINUED…

The 80s – Back to the Future

Towards the end of the 70s, there was a change in the air. For a decade now, rock music was becoming ever more progressive and experimental. The social emancipation and rise of recreational drug use as expressed in The Summer of Love had infiltrated music and mainstream culture in general.

In the latter half of the 60s, musicians had become dissatisfied with apparently stifling pop-song conventions, such as under-3-minute running time or the verse-bridge-chorus form. An interesting parallel took place in cinema – many film directors were also feeling their artistic expression was being hindered by moral censorship as expressed in the Motion Picture Production Code, and they eventually led to its demise.

So the 70s were full of progressive or psychedelic rock bands, concept albums, 20-minute guitar solos as well as pretentious subject matter. The silver screen reflected this zeitgeist of self-indulgence and artsy-fartsyness, with directors beginning to rival film stars in celebrity status. Back in the world of music, certain subcultures such as disco continued music production along more traditional lines unabated.

Not that this explosion of expressionism was all for the worse; the 70s produced a lot of great music and art, often because of – and not despite – their solipsism. The most important thing to consider, though, is that this period of excess had to happen before a synthesis of new and old ways could emerge. This synthesis was the 1980s New Wave. Having gone through the looking glass and reached aesthetic bankruptcy, the popular music world was looking for a way back home like a prodigal son…

Even though the synthesizer was gaining prominence at this time, the synthpop that emerged with its help has been called ”perhaps the single most significant event in melodic music since Mersey-beat”. So while reaching for a cutting edge, futuristic instrument, musicians were increasingly looking back to traditional, time-honored songwriting and melodies as if in counter-revolt to the iconoclastic bohemianism before them. This Hegelian perspective effectively makes the term “synthpop” a double entendre.

Of course, not all of the 80s was about synth pads and electro beats (although synthesizer and drum machines are no doubt iconic symbols of the decade). The prevailing feeling was of fun and flamboyance instead of the serious introspection and self-conscious intellectualism that had become so commonplace. Suddenly it was ok again to make 3-minute pop songs about love or dancing… with admittedly novel quirks such as sci-fi motifs and anaemic (almost robotic) performance styles. At the same time, the new wave often betrayed the geopolitical tension of the times; the spectre of nuclear war permeating a lot of professional creative activity.

So the return to good old, formulaic, crowd-pleasing songs and melodies after the cultural rebellion of the 60s and 70s was inevitable. It reinvigorated music and introduced the world to the sound of the future.