OK, so we’re all doing it Gangnam Style this week.
There was an expression amongst jazzers years ago, ‘All the good notes are taken’ to explain why older tunes were more memorable. I was told that Duke coined it. Even if that isn’t true, it’s something he could have said so I’ll go with it. The melancholy in that sentence is something I feel keenly. Duke was a guy who went from nothing to great success to being forgotten and then reborn to fame and then finally recognised as a national treasure. I always admired the man even more than his music because he just kept going out every night with a quiet dignity regardless of the latest fashion. He wasn’t truly appreciated until his passing, but those who knew him always realised that he was the coolest man in any room.
There have been a number of articles and books out lately about some basic changes in music since the ’70’s. Tonally, music has gone from major to minor (Every time we say goodbye…) It’s louder, and even thought it feels more ‘deep’ it’s actually tinnier because most people now listen routinely to MP3s on pretty dreadful transducers. Beats are more electronic. Electronic music is taking over from ‘Classical’ film scoring because it’s been decided that driving rhythms trump epic melodies as a backdrop for a big budget movie. But most fundamentally, Jaron Lanier’s famous theory about nothing being new in music has been borne out. There have been no real stylistic developments in music for many years now. It seems different only because the delivery systems have changed, which alter fidelity and how songs are combined (playlists). You can’t really peg any song these days as being ‘2012’. We may not be at the end of history, but we’re almost certainly at the end of ‘the song’ as we’ve come to know it.
The bottom line is this: when you watch a movie or TV show and they want to express a positive emotion? They pull out a song from the 80’s or earlier. When they want to sound ‘serious’, they use the most current hip hop because that expresses the angst of a fraught world. (Don’t believe it? Go to any sporting event. Notice how all the happy songs to get the crowd going are still from Bon Jovi or Queen. And notice that these have become universal tropes: shared by young and old alike.)
And people seem to like it this way. Notice that there are no longer and ‘oldies’ radio stations? There are stations that appeal to certain generations, but each station plays a melange of hits from two or even three decades no problem. Psy gets over because we live in that post-stylistic world. It’s sort of like Blade Runner gone camp.
My point is that, at some point, the world went ‘playlist’. DJ’s are now among the highest paid entertainers in the world; valued for their ability to re-purpose songs in the most booty-shaking way possible on any given night. Compare that with a time when a pre-requisite for doing a great show was creating your own material and you can see why songwriting craft is no longer quite so hot.
I saw Robert Plant on TV the other day with some sort of ‘country’ band reminiscent of Led Zeppelin III and it made me sad. Not just that his voice is gone, or that he still dances exactly like he did at 25 and it makes a 65 year old man look like an eejit. What troubled me was that he really thought he was doing something ‘fresh’. He didn’t realise that he was DJing himself.
Wanna know how you can tell when an artist is gettin’ old? When he starts talking about doing projects just for fun. It’s the artistic equivalent of going out in pajamas (with the singular exception of one guy I rather enjoy. 😉 ).
The really great thing about Duke (and Miles, Glenn Gould, etc.) is that they stayed young; constantly re-inventing themselves (o even dropping out if necessary) when they were in danger of becoming dull.