Thursday, November 3, 2011

Pop Music Part 1

Casey Kasem, counting down...

It's weird. I don't really consider myself a pop music person at all. However, I do remember spending Sunday afternoons in the 80's with my sister listening to Casey Kasem count down the Top 40 on the radio. I didn't buy too many of those pop albums, but my sister had some of them. I was more into jazz and classical music; however, if you are a high school student in any era, it's hard to avoid the "music of your generation".  Now, like anybody who hears music from their youth, I get nostalgic when I hear Michael Jackson, or Duran Duran, or Prince, or Tears for Fears, or any of the one hit wonders from that era. But, even though I actually liked some of these songs at the time, I was still a bit of a snob. Though now, some of the 80's pop music could be considered high art compared to today's songs.(I mean 80's songs had INTROS, instrumental INTROS, for crying out loud. And sometimes, they even had cheesy tenor saxophone solos. Do any songs on the radio now have instrumental SOLOS? I'd like to know...)

Makes any music sound GREAT!
Furthermore, as a working adult, it's now actually easy to avoid that stuff. (See my anecdote about my Dad who had never heard of Cyndi Lauper, under "Blue Skies"...) I thought I was somewhat out of the loop, but not completely. Again, much of what I hear these days on the radio is really not listenable to me. I will give anything a chance, but my patience wears thin. I guess if you are high on ecstasy and/or absinthe, gyrating around one of those boom sic boom sic clubs at 3 in the morning, then songs don't have much need to be listenable. I have no problem with music that is only dance oriented. But can we also have music that is popular, danceable, and listenable? Is that too much to ask of the music industry?

Last week, my father-in-law was in Portland for a visit. He had rented a car, so we were driving to Toys-R-Us to get some toys and such for my son Liam. Mr. Politzer had set the Sirius station to Pop, and most of the music, which came to us via satellite, was horrendous.  And then this song called "Someone Like You" came on, and I said, "Who is THAT?" I had never heard the song. And Mr. Politzer, who I don't think of as a musician at all, said,"that's Adele, she's the hottest thing in the music industry right now." And then it sort of rang a bell; another recent hit of hers (that melodically almost sounds like "Crazy" by Cee-Lo) called "Rolling In the Deep" I had heard before. But this song, "Someone Like You" was extremely refreshing in it's only-vocals-and-piano acoustic purity, something you rarely hear nowadays. Not only is Adele's contralto voice really rich and distinctive (also something you don't hear much on the radio, what with everything auto-tuned and robotic sounding), but the message of the song really struck me. If you've ever loved and lost (which I assume is a universal, unless you married your high school sweetheart and lived happily ever after, or you are a robot...), then you can feel Adele's pain.

Soon to Be Released in Canada.....
Those of you who DON'T live in the ivory tower of snobby musical academia are probably saying, "Ugh, we heard that song when it came out, liked it, and now we are sick of it. Get with the program." OK, don't be a jerk about it! In my defense, when the song came out in January of this year, I was living in Winnipeg, in Canada! They JUST got Michael Jackson's "Thiller" up there. I think next year, they are FINALLY getting Phil Collins "No Jacket Required".....Public Enemy's "Fear of A Black Planet" is probably still 10 years away from being released. ( I joke with my friends in the North, but they have a lot of rules concerning a certain amount of Canadian Content in their broadcasting, which is apparently why you cannot watch HULU in Canada. It's a quota system; supposedly no Canadians listened to Canadian music before 1971, when the Canadian Content system that, yes, they call MAPL(like the maple leaf, groan....), went into effect. They should have waited a few years, when the band RUSH became popular; then they would have something Canadian to listen to.....)

Indeed, anything very popular in the world nowadays has a pretty short shelf life, due to the constant media saturation of youtube and the internet. I read this about "Someone Like You" on Wikipedia:

"The song was banned from being played in the Opus ii store in Dublin because the workers were tired of customers trying to play the song on their keyboards.The workers put a sign on the store which stated "Strictly NO Adele". A shop assistant said "It's become the piano equivalent of 'Stairway To Heaven'. Everyone thinks they can play it. The sign was a bit of a joke, but the song can drive you mad." Joanna Corscadden, an assistant manager at the shop said: "It is a very popular song, and it gets played over and over again. You get sick of songs when you hear them so often. So after hearing the same song played about four to five times in about half an hour, one staff member put up a sign stating 'strictly no Adele'. We will remove it if people are genuinely offended by it but people are still entitled to play, and they are continuing to do so. They [customers] called us piano shop fascists but did not get the correct name of our shop."

The competition for people's attention is astounding, and because entertainment is so instantaneous, it's a wonder that any song can capture anyone's attention for more than 5 minutes before some video of a Indonesian orangutan doing bong hits and dancing to  becomes the talk of the global village. However, Adele's song is still a popular song (hence  the "Strictly No Adele" policy in the Dublin music shop, ha ha). What struck me was that I'm supposed to be a music teacher, and I was completely unaware of one of the most popular songs of the year. How did this happen? Why is there such a disconnect between music teachers and popular music?

There is a book I read a long time ago called "Highbrow/Lowbrow:The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America" by Lawrence Levine, which talks about how between the 19th century and the later 20th century, the lines we re drawn between art for the masses and art for the elites. I think the effects of these lines are more prevalent than ever. Unfortunately, the definition of "elite" has changed. There was a time when the monied class was expected to have high cultural standards-expected to read certain books, to go to the symphony, to see certain plays. I think that idea has been dead for a long time. I question whether the Wall Street elites support the symphony, or go to museums, or read anything besides "The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People". I'm not convinced that they listen to jazz; if so, jazz clubs would be booming and all the jazz musicians I know would be working 6 nights a week!

I think you could make a case that the elite culture and the mass culture have almost reversed, in a sense. When we think of intellectuals, we think of starving artists, or music students, or college professors, jazz musicians. Most in that group are not out clubbing with Paris Hilton. People like Hilton, with more money that God, are out spending their inherited cash, listening to the lowest of the lowbrow music there is. (I have not done the research, this is just a conclusion I have arrived at off the top of my head. Maybe I'll do my Doctoral Thesis on The Reversal Of The Cultural Elite in America. Yeah, that sounds scholarly....)

I'm constantly questioning the importance and relevance of my art and my teaching. I don't want to stay in the ivory tower all the time. I want to know what goes on in the real world, for better or for worse. We have known for a long time that the majority of music students don't make it in music. Why not? Is it because of the industry? Or is it because we as music teachers have our heads in the sand? I and most other music teachers teach what they know. Much of what I know comes from when I came on the jazz scene in the late 1980's and moved to New York in the mid 90's. The music scene, industry, whatever you want to call it, is in comparison almost unrecognizable now. So why should I continue to teach as if nothing has changed? How much of a dinosaur do I want to be?

"Yeah, my teacher is making me play this Lady Gaga song on my recital...."
Now, I do believe that students have to know the basics. I believe that if a music student can learn jazz,learn to read music, and develop their ears and technique on their instrument, that  they theoretically can play anything. However, I want students to have an awareness of any and every avenue for success. Does this mean that we have to start teaching Adele songs, or God help me, Lady Gaga songs? I can't say for sure. In any case, I want to somehow bridge the gap between the study of music and the real music world. I think that is important, if music schools are going to continue to exist.


  1. Adele has also been working with this guy - -- great post-jazz drummer in england...

  2. WTF is 'post-jazz'?

  3. I think one way to bridge the gap between the study of music and the "real" world (if corporate marketing of pop icons is "real") is to do what previous generations did with pop music and turn pop tunes into standards of sorts. Herbie Hancock has been trying to do that for a while with various albums starting with The New Standard and continuing today (as has Brad Meldau and others). I also think the guys in Dirty Loops have a cool thing going on. I never thought I'd like modern day pop tunes till I heard what they do with them. For example, check out the keyboard solo at around 2:10 in this Britney Spears cover.

  4. Dear Anonymous,

    Post-jazz is a general term for the rock-influenced jazz we are hearing in the 21st century. It sounds more palatable than saying "jazz-rock-fusion"; that term brings back bad memories of 70s and 80s fusion with too much 'devil's dandruff'.

    In regards to the drummer Seb Rochford, check out the band Polar Bear for his take on post-jazz.


  5. The kids are always going to have access to popular culture. Without an academic environment, however, it's becoming less and less likely for a youngster to ever hear Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Evans, et al. What you're doing is critical. Let the pop music inform the kids' music in a natural, osmotic way.

  6. BTW---here's a thought that casts an even wider net: Even within the confines of an existing genre (jazz, for example), how do we collectively and individually determine what's relevant/significant? That one has always baffled me.

  7. Hey George, I had to share this story, I hope you at least get a chuckle out of it... I read the above post last Friday, and the next night I had a Saturday night solo piano gig at a restaurant. During one of my sets the woman bartender comes up to me and says the other bartender, a guy, wants to know if I can play "Adele". I kind of looked at her blankly, and she said, "You don't even know who that is, right?". Well, had I not read your blog the day before I would never have heard of Adele at all, I mean not even in passing. The funniest part to me was later when I was talking with the guy bartender, he was incredulous that I could haven't heard her or heard the song. He said something to the effect that "they play it everywhere!". He could not imagine that I avoided enough mainstream outlets to let a hit pop song slip by me like that. Anyway, it's probably to your point that such a thing could happen to a Jazz musician so easily... But the timing of the whole thing was really amusing to me. I told the bartender that he'd be surprised how easy it is for me to avoid that sort of music...
    I did enjoy the main points of this post as well, I know what I touched on was just a portion of it. Thanks, and as always, the blog is a great read.

  8. I know I'm coming late to this party... but I'm also a jazz oriented person who had never heard of Adele until the 2012 Grammy's last night, and was pleased to see that the latest big one-name-only singer is someone who can actually sing for once. I did notice that the chorus of her song strongly resembles the Gnarls Barkley tune (even the same key, I think) and was wondering if this was widely noted (I'm guessing it's a case of unintentional plagiarism by a young song writer). I was marveling at the usual mix of swine and pearls getting equal praise on the Grammy's, where standards of musical quality are set aside in favor of...well, I'm still trying to figure out in favor of what.

    But then *whammo!* you cite "Highbrow/Lowbrow." My uncle wrote that book. Which raises the age old question: WTF? Sometimes we search for answers but in the end it's the questions, the coincidences, and the anecdotal parentheses that are the most meaningful.

  9. Such a nice post, I enjoyed it a lot! I like your sense of style! Wonderful photos!


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