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.


Romantic Amadeus?

Most people who have seen Milos Forman’s classic film “Amadeus” realize the artistic licence taken with its portrayals of both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his ‘rival’ Antonio Salieri. When Peter Shaffer wrote the original play, historical accuracy was doubtless the last thing on his mind. The story was more of a retelling of the Cain and Abel story; of the resentment arising from perceived Divine favoritism (or at least undemocratic distribution of talent…).

The film is laden with blatant historical inaccuracies such as Mozart’s buffoonery and alcoholism, his apparently unmerited talent (even though a prodigy, Mozart studied the works of masters endlessly), the cause and circumstances of his death, Salieri’s second-rate compositional ability, not to mention his diabolical scheme to destroy Mozart, right down to meticulous homicidal plans. These attract all the attention because they constitute central themes and a foundation for what is probably one of the greatest cinematic studies of morbid jealousy in the character of Salieri.

What is taken for granted, however, is the anachronistic inclusion of peculiarly Romantic perceptions and concepts, which appeared at the tail end of the 18th century and only started gaining ground in the 19th. Of primary concern is the fictional Salieri’s obsessing about the importance and grandeur of music; deeply resenting the immortality guaranteed Mozart by his music.

But Mozart and his contemporaries didn’t even think of themselves as artists. The concept of writing for posterity was completely alien to them. They considered themselves skilled craftsmen supplying a commodity, nothing more. Any forward-thinking a Mozart or Salieri would have done during composition most likely revolved around their paycheck. Yet this theme of eternal glory is even more central to the plot than all the other historical inaccuracies in the film.

And this isn’t confined to “Amadeus”. The achievements of composers like Mozart are often reframed in an imaginary progressive scenario. For instance, a well-known modulating passage in the 4th movement of Mozart’s 40th symphony is often labeled as ahead of its time; a precursor of the Schoenbergian 12-tone system. But suggesting that Mozart would have, consciously or not, been striving towards 20th century atonalism is fantastic and silly. Just as perceiving creativity as some sort of endless forward march is. It seems that it is better when it is for here and now; for the purpose at hand.

But these sorts of misconceptions are hallmarks of contemporary thinking about the past. It seems to come as a surprise to many that history’s great and influential minds weren’t thinking in the same categories as us or aspiring to the same things. It was, perhaps, for the better.