I was prompted to consider the 50th anniversary of the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show this weekend. I was told of how it seemed to coalesce youth culture all in one moment and how it seemed like the perfect meeting of ability, ambition, and consumer interest all at once. Ability, because even though the band was at heart a boy-band, a pop band, and a a teenage girl magnet, they seemed to have a much larger conception of music than other beat bands. Even then, in their most basic songs, they were pulling from musical history to make something that was, if not totally new, then a lot newer than what had come before. A lot of that had to do with the sheer Britishness of it. Rock and roll up to that point was largely r&b and revved-up country. This felt foreign, but not in a hostile way.
With ambition, one sensed that the members of the group, at least at that time, were all-in as far as conquest was concerned and they were going to do it through the work. Later reports would find Paul McCartney to be a bit of a task master who cracked the whip a bit harder than the rest, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the group didn’t have drive. Finally, the consumer interest was more than there, as is easily evidenced fifty years on. I suppose the evidence still exists if the re-re-rerelease of the U.S. editions of Beatles albums and the 50th anniversary special are indicators.
I won’t dwell on the topic of the loss of shared cultural moments too long. Popdose Editor-In-Chief Jeff Giles summarized it much better than I could. Needless to remind us that we are in short supply of these events now, and it is growing shorter. You had the Sullivan Show, perhaps the Elvis Comeback Special, Motown 25’s introduction of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, the “pep rally from hell” music video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Little comes to mind after that point, although I may be willfully neglectful so I don’t blow the premise of this piece. Feel free to remind me of some of the high points if I have.
What passes as big moments prove to not have the stamina to linger. We might be able to look to some Super Bowl halftime shows for examples, but those fall apart under scrutiny. A lot of people were impressed by Bruno Mars’ showing at this year’s Super Bowl, and cheered him on as a very talented entertainer, giving him high praise on Facebook and Twitter during the presentation, and debating it in the Court Of Public Opinion on Monday morning.But much like the Doritos and onion dip on Tuesday, it all seemed to recede into so much gas and constipation. We look farther back and find few acts calling attention to themselves. Many will say that Prince’s halftime show was something of a revelation, and I’ll agree, with the footnote that the only people still raising that as a major cultural moment are the Prince fans who naturally have a bias.
We still talk about the “wardrobe malfunction” which has nothing to do with the music and everything to do with America’s still-potent obsession with breasts. In fact, on Super Bowl weekend in my region, the conversation and reportage of the 2014 edition to the “nip slip” incident was 2-1, whereas talk about 2014 to any and every other halftime past was 100% to 0. Any thoughts to Tom Petty, The Black Eyed Peas or The Rolling Stones, reactionary though those choices largely were? Nope. The tenth anniversary of Janet Jackson’s mammary gland coming-out party and that’s it. And again, it has nothing to do with the music, and those who watched the game were there primarily for the game. That’s a fundamental difference between the group moments of the past. Youth audiences who may have had zero desire to watch Ed Sullivan went to the show for The Beatles. People tuned in for Elvis because he was Elvis.
I recognize this casts me in that light once again of saying “older was better,” but I assure you that I have a point to this beyond just the usual nostalgia flogging.
That triad of ability, ambition, and consumer interest itself is becoming an artifact. I can speculate that if you can exist for an unspecified length of time in the digital cloud, be it your song, your music video, or your Super Bowl performance, the need to bring it in a career-defining or career-igniting performance is a lot less imperative. It is more important to “nail the performance” for the playback and not for the moment of its initial expression, which absolutely demands the use of backing tracks and lipsynch. Don’t act shocked when you see the lipsynching either, as that was a common practice even during the time of the Sullivan Show. I don’t mean to say they did that — just that if you watch American Bandstand from the era, or Hullabaloo, or any number of music shows, there were a lot of embarrassing/hilarious examples where the singer with the disco orchestra was singing without a cello in sight.
That means that there is so much at stake for every movement and every note, that the moment of spontaneity is calculated out purposefully. What if someone screws it up? “The evidence will be out there forever. It will kill (insert name)’s career.”
There is also the ever-present reality that we have been enthralled by the same batch of writer/producer teams for years, interchangeably swapping singers and songs, and recycling with great efficiency. There’s a whole generation that have grown up listening to nothing but Max Martin, Pharrell Williams, Dr. Luke, etc. and never knew that their vast collection of MP3s were roughly down to five people. It’s hard to get too angry about “all new music sounding the same” when so much of it is made on this assembly line run by so few individuals. At the same time, it is hard to get excited about the individuals who buy into their services because there’s nothing all that unique about them. Now, I recognize that I have to tread lightly here, as so much of the late ’50s and early ’60s were coordinated by Brill Building/Phil Spector songwriting “factories.” My counter to that is that is those songs were played by many other individuals though. Stax had Booker T and the MGs and The Bar-Kays and the Mar-Keys. Motown had the Funk Brothers, the Corporation, and Holland-Dozier-Holland. But you had individuals interacting. With so many of today’s production setups, the song is written, the backing beat is written, and both are done by one guy. This is why modern pop tends to sound like the tonal equivalent to inbreeding: the same daddies all down the line.
So when you think of it that way, where is the individual to stand out if not through their sex appeal? When Rihanna and/or Shakira feel their public is deserting them, isn’t it obvious to have them grind on each other in the video. It is likely the only act of individuality that they will bring to the project in full. That brings us to what I feel is an under-reported tidbit in pop music ignominy of recent times. Singer Kesha went into rehab for an eating disorder, allegedly demanded upon by writer/producer/Svengali Dr. Luke. Purportedly, he kept at her to get thinner and thinner, at all costs. The only reason one could guess is because of that equation that Kesha herself isn’t bringing much to the partnership other than her body and the raw material of her voice, to be digitally transmogrified by Dr. Luke later.
There’s not much more that could be said of that other than the producer himself sees his stars as replaceable containers for whatever they have to sell at any given time. We have the ability, but whose? We have the ambition, but is it misplaced? And we have the consumer interest, but that’s either for the floor show, independent of the music, or the trainwreck of a career that invariably goes off the rails later. I can’t say that I am a fan of Kesha’s music in any way, but I do sympathize that she has been put in this position. People go into music to be stars, but I have to believe they still have interest in the music portion. To be told by your professional partner, essentially, that is the least important thing you bring to your music career has to be dispiriting.
There’s also the odd case of Lady Gaga who impressed audiences with like, unplugged renderings of songs that would appear on Artpop, only to have those songs glopped up by the usual production gestalt, rendering them impersonal and indistinct. And because sex is the primary element the performer brings now, the album cover ended up a technicolor burp with a Jeff Koons sculpture of a naked Gaga straddling a blue orb. By this time, Gaga arrived after years of way too much of her out there, overexposed and yet…one believes Stephanie Germanotta is banging on the walls of the mirrorball asylum saying, “Stop stifling me,” and the Gaga Monster won’t let her be free. Overexposed and yet completely hidden. She has the ability, but is apparently terrified of giving that aspect unburdened to the public. The ambition is of the chart, but that is what is causing public interest to curdle.
I suppose that’s why there can’t be a moment like Beatles on Sullivan again. We can’t get those three aspects to converge properly. I don’t suppose it is impossible we’ll see an act again with the instinct to get ability, ambition, and public interest in line. I hope that it will happen in time enough that I can appreciate it when it is going on, but if this fragmentation persists, the odds become greater that we’ll be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Beatles on Sullivan, or the 50th anniversary of Janet’s Silver Nipples, before we have anything else to reminisce about en masse.