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 âwhat the kids like these days.â 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, Iâve brought a few nuggets of truth back with my scars.
Revelation number one: Genres donât exist anymore. And I donât mean this in a cool, post-judgmental way (âI just like music, man!â). 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 youâre 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 donât think it would raise any eyebrows. The music industry has learned to make music Taco Bell styleâfind 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 hereâno 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 ânice-enough-I-supposeâ frontman for Coldplay, itself the epitome of the ânice-enough-I-supposeâ band. There are exceptions, of course, but if youâre not in the mood to throw creatine-powered punches or stare wistfully at sunsets, chances are thereâs not much room on rock radio for you.
You donât have to wander far off the beaten path to find the weirdness that is so notably absent from the Modern Rockâ¢ 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 youâre 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 Jeepâs 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 didnât happen, of course. While thereâs been more and more intersection between indie and mainstream, the stuff that Online Casino
truly crosses over is the stuff that probably didnât belong in the underground to begin with (Iâm 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 âWTF!â in glowing letters. All the weirdness missing from the pristine world of Modern Rockâ¢ has turned up happily embedded in Urbanâ¢ 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 Wayneâs 2008 smash, âA Milli:â
âA 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.â
I repeat: these are the first lyrics to an international super-hit, and they are gross, unexpected, hilarious, and totally strange. Letâs compare that to Snow Patrolâs single âTake Back the Cityâ from the same year.
âTake back the city for yourself tonight
I’ll take back the city for me
Take back the city for yourself tonight
Yawn. While itâs not entirely fair to base a judgment about genres on snippets from two singles, itâs 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 havenât heard a radio single with a vocal that bad since Billy Corganâs nasal reign in the nineties, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.
Thereâs 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 havenât listening to radio in a long while: surprise. The torch of weirdness that burned for just a second in rock radio in the nineties hasnât 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 itâs 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, youâre gonna end up with something strange and compelling. Since then itâs 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 donât need radio anymore. Weâve 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 Iâm fine with that, but thereâs something special about the musical crossroads that radio represents. Itâs 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 itâs hip-hop, but who knows where it will be ten years from now. Hereâs hoping that the superstars of tomorrow have their ears to the ground, ready to shoplift our sounds and mix them into something new.