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Love and Theft and Theft

Love and Theft and Theft

Where have all the bad voices gone?

This is the question that is rattling around my brain while I suffer through the wasteland of modern rock radio, trying valiantly to convince myself not to run my Sentra into a ditch to end the pain forever. I am in the middle of my semiannual attempt to understand “what the kids like these days.” This generally involves a road trip sans CDs or iPod, a self-imposed radio binge meant to temporarily evict me from my garage-rock basement and push me out into the agora, where I can commune with my fellow citizens and bathe in the warm waves of our corporate media overlords. I usually start these trips with a grand Whitmanesque vision of a unified America and end them with disappointment, fatigue, and a stomach ache from the Filet-O-Fish I bought for lunch. However, with the pain comes wisdom. Like the religious ecstatics who flog themselves for revelation, I’ve brought a few nuggets of truth back with my scars.

Revelation number one: Genres don’t exist anymore. And I don’t mean this in a cool, post-judgmental way (“I just like music, man!”). Rather, every song is so alike that a few cosmetic changes could ready it for an entirely different audience. Take a Taylor Swift song and add distorted guitars: boom, rock song. Take a Nickelback song and add pedal steel: twang, country song. If you’re feeling gluttonous, like the people who will add a fried egg to anything, go ahead and take a Rihanna hook and paste it into either of the above. I honestly don’t think it would raise any eyebrows. The music industry has learned to make music Taco Bell style—find a way to manufacture a hundred different products from the same seven ingredients.

Revelation number two: The male rock vocal has been entirely neutered. Whether this is from the aforementioned vanilla milkshaking of contemporary radio or a decade of American Idol turning us all into amateur voice coaches, the current climate has distilled rock singers down to two marketable archetypes: the wounded post-grunge growler and the milquetoast earnest weeper (and make no mistake, this is all-dude territory here—no room for the demographic confusion a lady rocker might cause). The origins of the growler can be traced back to the hyper-masculine baritone croon of Eddie Vedder, and it survives today in the one-word bands that tend to be favored by guys who like trucks, MMA, and Monster energy beverages (see: Nickelback, Seether, Godsmack, Staind, and Chevelle). On the other end of the spectrum is the weeper, generally a frail-looking fellow who sings in unfailingly pleasant tones and is notable for the utter sincerity he brings to every note. The patron saint and chief practitioner of this style is Chris Martin, the “nice-enough-I-suppose” frontman for Coldplay, itself the epitome of the “nice-enough-I-suppose” band. There are exceptions, of course, but if you’re not in the mood to throw creatine-powered punches or stare wistfully at sunsets, chances are there’s not much room on rock radio for you.

You don’t have to wander far off the beaten path to find the weirdness that is so notably absent from the Modern Rock™ format. A quick look in the indie wilderness will reveal all sorts of trolls and troglodytes in the mist, ready to bring their braying, guffawing, squealing, screaming, and crooning vocal stylings straight to your iTunes. But so what? The strange stuff has always lurked on the fringes. If you turn over enough stones you’re bound to find some weird looking bugs eventually. The promise of the nineties alternative revolution was the melding of these two worlds, a breakthrough of bizarre into the mainstream. In this kind of world a suburban kid could have his mind blown by some krautrock-psychedelic-punk jam pumping through his Jeep’s speakers without having to dig through blogs and fanzines for hours. In this kind of world you could wander through a mall without having to hear Sheryl Crow, ever. This didn’t happen, of course. While there’s been more and more intersection between indie and mainstream, the stuff that Online Casino

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truly crosses over is the stuff that probably didn’t belong in the underground to begin with (I’m looking at you, Death Cab).

So what is a cranky music snob to do? Somehow in the throes of my despair I mustered up enough energy to hit the scan button on my radio, migrating to the local hip hop/R&B station. An hour passed. The clouds in my head parted and were replaced by a giant flashing marquee reading “WTF!” in glowing letters. All the weirdness missing from the pristine world of Modern Rock™ has turned up happily embedded in Urban™ radio. Where the rock radio landscape is typified by hermetically-sealed songs that have been sanded down to both offend and interest absolutely no one, the current hip hop heavyweights seem to revel in their own imperfections.

Consider the erratic, inspired flow of the waning king of hip hop, Lil Wayne. Here are the first four lines from Wayne’s 2008 smash, “A Milli:”

“A millionaire, I’m a young money millionaire Tougher than Nigerian hair My criteria compared to your career this isn’t fair I’m a venereal disease like a menstrual bleed.”

I repeat: these are the first lyrics to an international super-hit, and they are gross, unexpected, hilarious, and totally strange. Let’s compare that to Snow Patrol’s single “Take Back the City” from the same year.

“Take back the city for yourself tonight
I’ll take back the city for me
Take back the city for yourself tonight
Whoa whoa.”

Yawn. While it’s not entirely fair to base a judgment about genres on snippets from two singles, it’s easy to see why rock radio is dying a slow death, while hip hop radio is actually making money. Wayne may be a few years past his prime, but the current stable of hip hop superstars (Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Drake, and of course, Kanye) all share a kind of fearlessness that bleeds through into their songs. And my God, the voices! The first time I heard Kanye sing a hook my jaw dropped. He was so terrible, and it made me so happy. I haven’t heard a radio single with a vocal that bad since Billy Corgan’s nasal reign in the nineties, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.

There’s plenty of cookie-cutter tracks on urban radio (see: any of the hundreds of money-rap wannabes with Lex Luger Lite production), but I experienced something listening to this station that I haven’t listening to radio in a long while: surprise. The torch of weirdness that burned for just a second in rock radio in the nineties hasn’t been extinguished, just handed off in an unexpected direction. In this way, I think Kanye has more in common with Dinosaur Jr. than Jay-Z. The spirit of indie rock has been pick-pocketed by rap superstars, and it’s about damn time.

Of course, the legacy of the bad voice goes back further than Nirvana, the Pixies or the Sex Pistols. Trace contemporary music back to its first, unmarketable roots and you end up where you always do, with the blues. Of course when you take a marginalized people making marginalized music, you’re gonna end up with something strange and compelling. Since then it’s all just a game of theft, stealing the good stuff and remaking it. And when the money machine catches up with you, you toss it away and start stealing again.

We don’t need radio anymore. We’ve got a million Tumblrs and blogs and personally crafted musical universes. I live there most of the time, in a sphere of my own making. For the most part I’m fine with that, but there’s something special about the musical crossroads that radio represents. It’s the very public forum where we can step over social and cultural boundaries and look for common ground. Then, of course, steal from it. Right now it’s hip-hop, but who knows where it will be ten years from now. Here’s hoping that the superstars of tomorrow have their ears to the ground, ready to shoplift our sounds and mix them into something new.

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2 Responses to Love and Theft and Theft

  1. SB says:

    Hey, can you please trademark WTF? Seriously though, great article. Unfortunately it has left “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” rattling around in my head. Keep up the music crit!

  2. David Eagle says:

    Great piece! I agree, on all points. Except, and this is mostly nostalgia, for my knee jerk desire to defend Coldplay as innovative in crafting soundspaces. I know. It’s not 2002, and 10 years on they haven’t really delivered on the promise of their first album. Except maybe with their first album.

    Anyway, I love the visual language used to describe your aural adventure, and your obvious passion for words. Poetry and innovation.

    For a blog post, I’m about to describe music I like in this way, and I wonder if you agree: a good song often feels, on first listen, like something I’d been waiting to hear without realizing I was.

    I see a lot of similarity in the watered down mass appeal of new music and the watered down mass appeal of new films. I wonder if corporatizing artists must, by the nature of the process, create a series of progressively blander products trying to trade on the most popular pieces from the last crop of breakout hits. A sort of Franksteins Monster of twists and tricks that become grossly uninteresting the longer, and more formulaic it becomes.

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