Reposted by popular demand, our most controversial article ever.
In a recent issue of Maclean’s Magazine, two-hit wonder Dan Hill (“Sometimes When We Touch” and “Can’t We Try”)) made a heartfelt claim that today’s pop music is better than ever. “Forget the Beatles and Stones” screams the headline.
Dan goes on to elaborate that thanks to the likes of Macklemore, Miley, Kanye, Bruno, Adele and Beyonce, we are awash in great singles. He compares “Taylor Swift’s deliciously biting singles” to be reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, who mined her own love affairs for songs. Mitchell also did much more than write about her lovers- her swooping soprano, her open tunings, her poetic imagery, her explorations of jazz place her in the top pantheon of singer-songwriters. If anyone thinks Taylor’s work is “deliciously biting”, they don’t have much of an appetite for real fare.
Dan Hill further (what is this guy on?) states that Kanye West is the new Dylan, and that “Kanye’s best lyrics match Dylan’s prescience, highly inventive wordplay and genius for storytelling”. Seems Dan never quite got around to listening to Dylan’s” Subterranean Homesick Blues” – it’s the model for all that hip hop aspires to be, and hasn’t yet quite accomplished.
All of these statements from us and from him are arguable, of course, but perhaps Hill is at his most obtuse when he claims that black music is finally getting its due, that finally it’s front and centre. Has the guy never heard of Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Solomon Burke, The Drifters, Ruby and the Romantics and James Brown???? All of these were front and centre for quite some time, and they were worshipped by white and black music fans alike. Hill claims that Canadian radio missed out on black music in the 60s, but I grew up in Winnipeg and can tell you it wasn’t so – local stations such as CKY and CKRC played it all. Dan, you need to take your meds. Or you need to stop hanging around your grandchildren. Because there is no new golden age of pop music.
Pop music today is auto-tuned pablum, served up by those who should know better, and who, in fact, probably do know better. The record company guys I’ve been privileged to meet are remarkably astute about their product. Oops, did I say product? Of course I meant music… There are exceptions. We didn’t love Neil Diamond in the 60s and we don’t hate all the new stuff. However, we do know the difference between mediocrity and talent. And to us, Taylor is one well-produced mediocrity, even if she did rake in $39 million last year as pop’s highest-paid artist.
Which reminds us, Mozart never made much of a living from music while he was alive. History, though, has treated him well.
Here are ten great purveyors of pop music whose works are going to last decades longer while the likes of Miley and Bruno are long forgotten. It can’t happen soon enough.
1. The Everly Brothers – best pop singers ever. Every duo who ever tried close harmony singing will admit this. Ask Paul Simon or Macca or The Secret Sisters or Waddy Wachtel.
2. Sam Cooke – the ultimate soul singer, pop singer, and a great writer whose song “Change Is Gonna Come” changed everything and made pop music relevant.
3. Carole King– the longest-charting female songwriter of all time, and one of the best ever. Taylor Swift is no Joni Mitchell, and she is definitely no Carole King.
4. Felice and Boudleaux Bryant – a songwriter team supreme – you know their songs – “Bye Bye Love”, “Love Hurts” and dozens more.
5. Lennon/McCartney – the Gilbert & Sullivan of modern times. And Mr. Hill, these guys are the masters of the pop song. But you knew that, didn’t you?
6. Chuck Berry -where would the Stones be without black music? – their veneration of Chuck Berry, their imitation and exaltation of American black music was a key factor in differentiating them from the Beatles. And Chuck invented some very cool language, way beyond the limited linguistic skills of Kanye.
7. Phil Spector – he may be in jail now for dirty deeds but he was the sharpest pop producer ever. “Be My Baby” and The Righteous Brothers, and Ben E. King and Gene Pitney – Spector produced them all and more.
8. Steely Dan – the famed team of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker brought a sophistication undreamt before or since – their mid 70s album Aja is the apex of pop complexity. Yes, they brought the jazz of Horace Silver into the pop equation – and it was brilliant!
9. Talking Heads – “Once In A Lifetime”, “Take Me To The River”, “Psycho Killer” – powerful art rock, world music, and rock and roll all in one.
10. Dusty Springfield – Elton John called her the best white female singer ever. We’ll take her over Adele every time, always. “Son of A Preacher Man” and “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life” trump anything Adele will ever record.
Gosh, I haven’t yet mentioned Bob Dylan, Bryan Ferry, Elvis, or The Animals or The Yardbirds or The Kinks or Buddy Holly or Rodriguez or Tim Hardin or Roy Orbison or Del Shannon or Tom Petty or Paul Simon…. And then there’s Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone and Rickie Lee Jones and Lucinda Williams and Richard Thompson – all great pop/rock/folk artists. You see, Dan, that’s the problem I have with your article. You sound as though you’re struggling to come up with half a dozen contemporary artists you think are worthy, but my own struggle is something a little more pleasant – I’ve just mentioned thirty or more and I can readily think of another fifty to one hundred truly great pop figures. Confining myself to a Top 10 is really a stretch.
Dan, I understand, believe me, that some of this music got overplayed and that anyone under 30 wants his or her own new icons. Music is a coded language and each generation has a genuine need to define itself without reference to the past. However, there’s nothing wrong with upholding standards. And standards, when it comes to pop music, include the use of image, metaphor, poetic allusion and irony – all curiously missing in the one-note writing prevalent today.
Just because Rod McKuen got popular as a poet doesn’t mean he produced anything that approached the work of Lorca or Rilke. Just because Jackie Collins sold more books than Mavis Gallant doesn’t mean the Collins books weren’t trash. And by the way, your argument that each generation despises the music of the next doesn’t hold water. In the ’60s and ’70s, ardent music fans listened to everything – from Jimmy Smith to Maria Callas to Frank Sinatra to Leadbelly to Muddy Waters and more.
These days, though, there’s an unbelievable stratification going on – people have confined themselves to a narrow band on the music scale. This started, I believe, with the rise of rap and hip hop and continues in full strength today. It’s a mistake, one that perhaps will take another generation or two to erase. And aren’t you boxing yourself into a corner in a pathetic attempt to seem relevant?
Brian Miller is the Publisher and co-Editor of Vivascene. A former record store owner and business writer, his interests range from vinyl records and high performance audio to design, photography, and succinct writing. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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