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Wednesday, 23 August 2006 00:00

Strange happenings in music today

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By Chris Cooper

Here are a few things about “modern” rock and pop that I’ve found interesting (in a morbid curiosity kind of way) or just plain depressing recently. Maybe I’ve too much time on my hands. Maybe some of this will actually make sense. Who knows? Read, then discuss amongst yourselves.

Chase The Genre With The Money:

On the one hand, you’ve got the concept of “artistic development,” where a musician starts branching out and embracing new and/or different sounds as a way to better express their art. Thom Yorke just tried it with, shall we say, mixed results. On the other sweaty palmed and somewhat twitchy hand, there’s the pressure put on many acts from the record labels to stay “current,” the desperate feeling some artists get because they haven’t hit the big cheese yet, and up-and-coming acts that may not even have a real musical identity yet, so they’re “developed” by a crack team of songwriters and producers into whatever is marketable. At the moment, that is.

A relevant example might be the success of country-pop darlings Sugarland, and lead vocalist Jennifer Nettles. In the mid-90s Nettles was fronting the popular jam/soul/bluesy funk outfit Soul Miner’s Daughter, working a kind of gritty Joplin-esque wail at what was the height (or quickly descending crest) of the “jam band” craze. Later, towards the end of the decade, she put out a solo-ish album, Story Of Your Bones, which had much of the edgy and rocking “wrath of the woman scorned” sound found in the work of Alanis Morrisette and Fiona Apple. OK, sure ....

But now she’s twangin’ away on CMT’s Crossroads, singing duets with Jon Bon Jovi, and delivering Sugarland’s material with a distinctly pronounced southern drawl. Authentic? I can’t necessarily make that call. Lucrative? Oh yeah. I do not doubt her talent as a musician in any way, merely calling into question the less than linear path to the limelight she’s taken as a performing artist. And lest you think it’s just her that’s doing the “stylistic sidestep to surefire success,” here’s a few more to chew on:

Nelly Furtado:

Remember when Nelly was that kind of funky, folky soulful girl with the unusual voice and the “woo woo woo woo’s?” Remember the nature girl image she was working back on that first album? When the heck did she get kidnapped and shipped off to the “cookie cutter R&B factory” and forced to put out an album like Loose? And a nameless, faceless single like “Promiscuous?” What the hell? Nelly, make like a bird and fly away from the clutches of Timbaland! Come back with an acoustic guitar, we’re begging you...

The Wreckers:

Michelle Branch, well, maybe she deserves a break because she was such a young artist when she broke out, so her true musical personality may not have been fully developed. But the Wreckers? I know the lines between country and rock are getting more indistinct with every passing second, but did anyone hear anything that even hinted at “country” in her first few teen-angst pop anthems? Should we be looking forward to an upcoming gospel album from Avril Lavigne? Maybe a little Slayer/Jessica Simpson duet?

So who gets the blame here? Obviously, it’s country and rap that have currently risen to the musical status of “cash cow,” so the genre hopping kind of makes sense. If you want the money, you have to follow it around. But does this say something about the artist, as far as their integrity and motivations? Or is it that today’s musicians feel forced to mold themselves into the currently marketable paradigm if they have any hope of making a career of their art? Maybe we’ve become such an unpredictable, fickle audience that they’re just trying to keep up with US.

Skinny and Hopeless is the new Hopeless and Skinny:

Ever read the magazine Alternative Press? Ever wondered if all the articles were about the same band? Let’s see: pasty kids with conveniently dyed shaggy do’s and strategically placed piercings just released the must-have album of the last 30 seconds — buy it now or forever be out of touch with modern music... oops, too late. In the time it took me write this paragraph, 14 emo/pop/punk/rock/80’s techno revival bands came and went, like little whiny sparklers doused in Red Bull. Bummer. Planned obsolescence is nothing new to consumer electronics, but rock and roll? Please, say it ain’t so.

Here’s what I see as the painful truth: Fallout Boy=Warrant. All American Rejects= Poison. Panic! At the Disco= Pure! And utter listening hell. It’s obviously not quite this simple, but there’s a parallel to be drawn here that makes me a little queasy. And I honestly believe that at least half the bands that make AP’s “Bands You Must Know” list wind up on the “Bands You Must Forget Lest Your Friends Think You’re Not Cool” list six months later.

It seems that now, more than ever, the genre of “rock” is so desperately choked with groups whose point of reference reach only as far back as last week’s play list for the Clear Channel radio empire that it can’t get even a gulp of fresh air. I don’t want to be hopeless about it — I’d hazard a guess that many of us are anticipating the next Nirvana-ish smackdown of the current lackluster musical landscape. And I didn’t even like Nirvana, but I liked what they did — they gave a filthy slate a much-needed wiping clean. But until we start asking and expecting something better than what we’re getting, we’re going to continue being fed the (at best) marginal variety we’ve gotten over and over again for much too long now.

The Sum Up:

What we seem to have presently is a music industry that’s chasing its tail at warp speed, spitting out marketable but wholly unfulfilling “new and improved” versions of artists that were fine as they were before, along with hordes of “fresh new sounds” that are as memorable as a cheese sandwich and have the musical lifespan of wounded fruit-flies. Maybe the mainstream will never again be the place to go fishing for a groundbreaking catch. Maybe it never was.

It’s not exactly a coincidence that the majority of the CD reviews in this section is of artists that haven’t yet been caught up in all the tail chasing and genre hopping, and for better or worse are ultimately responsible for how they sound.

Hmmm ...

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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