The music scene has had a rather emotionally tumultuous week. That ever benevolent approver of musical greatness, the Grammy Awards, was rocked – forgive the pun – by the sudden death of Whitney Houston along with the epic ascent of Adele. Thus, while we lost one divinely installed queen, the all powerful Grammys corrected the universal imbalance by bestowing Adele with six heavenly golden horns, weighty enough to equalise the musical scales. She is now obviously expected to melt all of that gold to fashion herself a Grammy crown worthy of her new status as queen of sound.
Adele is undoubtedly a good vocalist, and compared to her peers and fellow nominees, such as Lady Gaga and Rihanna, I can’t complain about her sweeping victories at the Grammys. The alternative would’ve been a big joke, literally; Gaga must be aware of her persona as a living gag, for not since Gaddafi has anyone managed so successfully to pull off that eclectic mix of bad taste, twisted expression, and irreverent vocalisations. Gaddafi and Gaga are ever similar because for both, the appearance and persona were more important than the talent they claimed to have. Indeed, Adele is hailed for succeeding on her voice alone, as opposed to Rihanna and Gaga, who resort to endless flesh-dresses and sex props.
This brings us back to our newly crowned queen. While I don’t doubt the beauty of Adele’s voice, her music, though pleasant, is not necessarily outstanding. It is just the best of what has become a tired, repetitive, and ultimately boring form of entertainment. This is not to say that all music produced in our day and age is bad, but it is no secret that popular music today revolves more around a cult of personality. Certain groups or singers produce “catchy”, repetitive beats (the Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling was probably composed of about three musical notes) with hollow, meaningless lyrics, and this is then termed ‘music’. In this environment anyone like Adele will inevitably seem like the saviour of music.
Following in Adele’s wake of “deep” brooding singers are people like Lana Del Rey, whose song, Videogames, has become an unexpected internet hit. With old superimposed home movie footage cut to produce a very vintage feeling video, it is perhaps the dreariest music I know, despite Lana’s more than decent voice. This is what we are now left with; there is so much crap around that even the mundane becomes a feat of musical genius. The power-ballad has been replaced by the moody-depressed, and we can only speculate as to what’s waiting for us next.
As a result, this has increasingly given much credit to the “alternative” scene, to the extent that whenever we discover a song by an underground band which is probably just okay, we tend to think we’ve uncovered the most glorious hidden treasure. The xx, for example, is great but still awfully simple stuff considering there is much more yet to explore.
Compare any recent, popular pieces of music with what was popular some decades ago, like Santana’s guitar solos, jazz records, or the Beatles, and this downward spiral becomes apparent. Even the lyrics were more meaningful than this post-modern mess we’re in, where art has become so subjective that the vaguest and simplest of lyrics becomes “so personal and emotional” and “all about me”. I sung Adele’s lyrics, “we could’ve had it all”, in my head, not when remembering some profound heart-breaking relationship, but when realising that my brother had finished the last slice of Waitrose vanilla cheesecake. To me, Rolling in the Deep reveals more about my relationship with food than the inner workings of my soul and its attachment to another soul.
In my opinion, music is inseparable from the society which produces it, and our society is run by industries who want to sell art with mass appeal. Therefore it is inoffensive and bland, catchy to everyone, but means nothing. This is not just in the lyrics, but in the music as well. Few genres (such as rock and jazz) today have maintained a degree of spontaneity and imagination in musical composition – genres which have been sidelined by the bland tastes of our consumer oriented society.
Century old music, such as Claude Debussy’s Impressionist pieces, does not follow a linear progression, but moves in phases. Still, a certain musical pattern will echo in a number of ways until eventually returning to the pattern found in the initial phase for a sense of consolidation and reconciliation. Eventually, the musical threads converge in harmony to produce a climactic moment of closure. Here, the music means something in itself without even having to resort to words.
Music, like any other art form, can reveal to us beauties which give us brief moments of freedom, allowing us to be absorbed into an ecstatic invisible world. Thus, the ancient and medieval treatises on music from Greek philosophers, to Christian and Jewish mystics, and the Sufis of Baghdad, have emphasised music as a means of experiencing the divine and revealing the hidden meanings of life. Hence, chanting the Torah and Qur’an in certain scales and patterns became hugely important for medieval peoples to accentuate the beauties of scripture. There is no obvious difference between the actual notes heard during chanting and the notes heard in a song; it is only the use of those notes which differs and the patterns and meanings they create.
Tchaikovsky once said, “Music is no illusion, but rather a revelation. Its triumphant power lies in the fact that it reveals to us beauties we find in no other sphere; and the apprehension of them is not transitory, but a perpetual reconcilement to life”.
Losing Whitney does not mean we have lost the capacity for this approach towards music, and gaining Adele does not mean we will grasp it. The Grammys won’t remind us of the importance of music. It simply reaffirms our depressing musical state in a cyclical fashion; the industry creates stars and reaffirms their importance by awarding their mediocrity. I would have loved to see Mumford and Sons win their nomination for The Cave which depicted and explained Plato’s cave vividly and strikingly, but I guess philosophy and banjos was a bit of an intimidating innovation for those dear Grammy gods.
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