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Modern Top 40: The Anti-Folk?

Modern Top 40: The Anti-Folk?

Before any pop fans out there get angry and refuse to even read this article, let me assure you that I in no way am planning on condemning all pop music from all time periods. On the contrary, I enjoy quite a bit of pop music. I definitely crank it up when my local “oldies” station puts on something from Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” or “Thriller” albums. I often put on a Buddy Holly record while I make my dinner. Heck, I even have Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” on my iPod. But, I must say there is a distinct difference between the clever, well produced and well written popular song, performed by legitimately gifted performers and the thrown together, over-marketed, auto-tuned, gimmick-laden schemes that so inundate the pop world these days. As I am sure you have guessed from the title (and perhaps from my last article), I am a complete and self-professed folk fanatic. I have been in love with traditional song since my adolescence and it’s a love that has never wavered or dwindled. Naturally, I am always going to be a bit biased toward folk music but I am far from a narrow appreciator of song. I listen to some form of just about every genre of music (with perhaps the exception of metal and its various offshoots) and I am of the opinion that every genre can be done well. I am sure as a reader of music articles, you are probably somewhat weary of hipsters droning on about how dull and horrible music on the radio is these days, but that’s not entirely what I’m going to be getting at either. One night I was having a conversation with my good friend, Phil. He and I were talking about how we feel that all the best pop music out there has some sort of element or remnant of the folk tradition, whether it be melody, construction, sincere subject matter, chord progression, etc. Suddenly, I had an epiphany. Terrible, poorly constructed, soul-less pop music is the complete antithesis of the folk song.

The first thing question that hit me was this: what is it that makes an Appalachian song from the 1800’s hit me in the heart, despite being so removed from its original author? The answer, for me, is that folk music is about the human condition and the nature of humanity never changes. So, when I hear a song like “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens” or “Silver Dagger,” I think about all the times a man has lied to me, broken my heart, or chosen another lover over me. Even though I am not a tender maiden, living with my parents while my mother sleeps by my side with a silver dagger, the heart and soul of these songs is not lost on me because I can relate and put my own situations into them. More than that, I think any woman (or man) anywhere, regardless of race, class, religion, etc, who has been betrayed or disappointed somehow by a lover can listen to these songs (and so many others) and relate. In stark contrast, when I hear a lyric like “Won’t you meet me at the bar/respect big pimpin’/tell me how you feel/mama tell me what you sippin’/a certified dime piece/deserve Louis 1-3/150 a shot/3 for you 3 for me” I simply think to myself, “What. The. $%&*!?” It’s not because the person speaking is using slang that I don’t understand, and not because the person is at a bar picking up a random lady (well, ok partly that), but because WHO CAN AFFORD SIX SHOTS AT $150 PER SHOT? They are making no attempt to relate to any kind of common person on any real level. It seems to me modern day performers are a lot less concerned with connecting with their audience and a lot more concerned with convincing everyone how rich and awesome they are, or at least talking a lot about how rich and awesome they are (Pink’s “So What,” anyone?).

Modern pop songs don’t always give that connection that I so yearn for in music, but I will admit, there are exceptions to this. Adele is the first to come to mind. At the heart of “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You” are the very same things at the heart of the above mentioned folk tunes. Let’s be honest: at the end of the day, most songs are about love. Loss of love, desire s808d electronic cigarette for love, how awesome it is to be in love. People will always care about love, but subject matter alone is not enough to make a song good. Arguably, Justin Bieber’s “Baby” is about love, but I don’t think they’re handing out any awards for the construction of

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that chorus.

Which brings me to my next point: authenticity. It’s a thing. Record labels throw successful writers into a room and have them write a bunch of songs in a short period of time that they can pitch to artists, and it shows. Sure, they can be fun. They can be catchy, they can talk about love and all its trappings, but it is NEVER going to amount to the authenticity present in a song written by a talented writer, in the midst of the greatest heartbreak they’ve ever felt. Many of the songs on the radio are empty because they are so forced and cliche. Oh really? You would climb the highest mountain, swim the deepest ocean, walk across fire to be with your love? I’ve never heard that! Tell me more! I think some of this can also go hand in hand with the aforementioned self-puffery present in the songwriting. Such things often extend into a persona that’s so grandiose and absurd it’s like you’re not even watching/listening to a real human being anymore. I get it. It’s performance; it sells records. I don’t care. Lady Gaga can say she was born this way all she wants, but anyone with access to YouTube and the ability to type “Stefani Germanotta” into the search bar knows that’s a total lie. And please don’t compare it to Alice Cooper or Ziggy Stardust or I really will have to kill you. Yes, I know that in his Greenwich Village days Dylan told all sorts of lies about being in the circus and jumping on train cars and all that business, but even that’s a pretty far cry from claiming you live in an egg or have weird bones in your face that come out when you’re inspired. Then, of course there’s the whole “I’m the face/champion/messiah of the gay rights movement, but I am offering my new album exclusively at a retail store that is widely boycotted by the gay community, because of their tremendous donations to anti-gay politicians” thing. I digress. People may enjoy a good show or a catchy tune, but ultimately they know when someone is phony baloney. It’s fun for now, but it gets old and gets tossed to the side.

Speaking of old, how old is the song “Clementine?” How old is “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad?” Old. Really old. Guess what: you all know those songs, and you don’t know them because they were sleekly packaged, placed in various advertisements and shoved down your throat again and again on the radio thanks to payola. You know them because your mom sung them to you, your grandma sung them to you, you sang them at preschool and you probably sing them to your kids now or will sing them to your future children. Will you sing “I Kissed a Girl” to your kids? Probably not. You know why? Other than the obvious non-appropriate factor, admit it, you don’t care about it. You don’t care if the next generation knows that song or not. The folk songs we remember today have gone through the crucible of time. They were handed down because they meant something to people and people made the effort to preserve them. They are good and they are worth saving and cherishing. The thing about pop music is when you make something expressly to be a product for profit to be purchased and consumed, it gets consumed, digested and flushed down the toilet.

Yes, some pop songs endure. They endure because they are good, they have heart and people don’t stop loving them, but sadly, a lot of what’s out there today doesn’t pass that test. Somewhere in Scotland or England or something five or six hundred years ago, someone penned the earliest version of “Barbara Allen”, and then five or six hundred years later, someone wrote the play “Dark of the Moon.” It certainly wasn’t because the tune just makes you want to get up and dance or because the person who first performed it wore a cool costume. It’s beautiful, it’s tragic and it’s truth. After all truth and beauty are things we desperately want to cling to. Or at least we should.

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One Response to Modern Top 40: The Anti-Folk?

  1. jack says:

    Really great post. Its true about most pop songs, pop is almost a completely different definition of music, although its often nice when a current band you enjoy break into it a little, or someone does it with a little integrity still. I think what also clouds most music debates is just general sentimentalism of old tunes – ‘nothing will be as good as…’, i.e. its the end of the debate. Really nice article Kelley

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