« on: February 27, 2010, 01:16:17 am »
Mrs. Mang and I slouched in our living room after dinner to enjoy fresh coffee and the warmth of the wood stove. Reflexively, we put the TV on – it’s a moment of decompression and signals the transition in our lives when the work day is over and the evening has truly begun.
I’m not proud. Last week, we happened upon some American Idol performances. Putting aside the obvious horrors and implications of the show, I had to admit that a few of the latest crop of dewy eyed warblers can sing, at least in tune if nothing else. A couple may even have pleasing vocal tones and yet, there was something uncomfortable about this scene. Something disconcerting, something that was just plain wrong.
“There’s not enough exploitation.”
“What?” replied Mrs Mang as she repositioned herself on the love seat to make room for our black Lab to annex ever more space, cushions and blanket.
“There’s not enough exploitation…or at least, not enough of the right kind. These American Idol kids are just too damn comfortable.”
Mrs Mang couldn’t see where I was going with this.
Now, what do Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Jimi Hendrix have in common aside from being iconic and influential African American artists? They were all subjected to exploitative bastards. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it was a matter of common or garden racism that caused this and, there’s undoubtedly an element of that present. But, there’s another reason beyond melanin in play here. They were exploited because simply, they were fucking great at what they did.
Louis Armstrong aka ‘Pops’ aka ‘Satchmo’ single handedly invented the idea of the jazz solo, popularized scat singing and was probably the only jazzer to influence both vocalists and instrumentalists in equal measure. He was truly unique; an innovator drawing upon past traditions and extending them into the future. Yet, his early career was controlled by mobsters – literally at the business end of a revolver when rival gangs argued over who owned his contract.*
Billie Holiday had a string of god awful managers and agents. Many of them were her boyfriends and almost all of them were vicious, abusive assholes. But, she was getting $2k a week (a week!) during her heyday. Not because she had a 4 octave range like Mariah Carey but because she could sell a song like few others. She could even give really crappy songs some gravitas and swagger. Needless to say, when she had great material she was other worldly. Check out the 1950s footage of her doing ‘Strange Fruit’ and you’ll get what I mean.
Duke Ellington’s early manager and publisher Irving Mills generously helped himself to a writing credit on many of the classic Ellington compositions. He didn’t contribute so much as a single note to what, in 1928 was dismissed as ‘jungle’ music but clearly, he knew enough about the ‘biz’ to see that the suave Mr Ellington was worth backing and bilking.
Jimi Hendrix? Here’s a guy so stupidly good at the guitar but would sign pretty much any legal document thrust in front of him. You could blame the drugs. You could blame his terrible eyesight and the fact that he refused to ever wear prescription glasses. Remember though, that this is the same dude who got stuffed on a plane bound for London with almost no possessions beyond a passport and a toothbrush because someone promised to hook him up with Eric Clapton.
It’s not just a black thing. Look at Elvis and Colonel Parker. He lit up the world of popular music with an improbable mélange of bluegrass and RnB and was given a series of execrable movies for his efforts. Race car drivers? Clam bakes? Hoola dancers!!??
These people and many others got royally screwed. Not because of color but because they were eminently bankable and that was because they were really fucking good at what they did.
If we permit ourselves to move ahead to a more recent example we find Kurt Cobain. So scared was he about being exploited, so tortured about his own authenticity that he blew his face off after bolting from a rehab center.
Kurt, if only you had stuck around for a few more years, you would’ve realized that you were scared of an era that was coming to an end. Your rehab could’ve been a TV show. Your escape from rehab would’ve been a TV show with better ratings. Don’t worry about being bloated or letting yourself go because your weight loss would be a TV show. Don’t worry about looking like a vagrant because your makeover would be a TV show. Don’t like your band anymore? Fine. Get a new one on a TV show. Don’t like your spouse? No problem, because Rock of Love was just around the corner and you could have replaced Courtney courtesy of VH1. It’s somewhat immaterial whether you lived or not because “Nevermind” was still picked up by the Classic Album documentary series. Kurt, you got so paranoid about being fucked over by The Man tm that you jumped the gun (ha!) and fucked yourself – they only wanted you because you were good at what you did.**
The hip musical cognoscenti will berate Idol for perpetuating ‘manufactured music’. Well guess what? Motown was manufactured music and deliberately so. Berry Gordy literally made the musical equivalent of an automotive plant. To ram the point home, he even let his artists film a promo ‘video’ on a car production line in Detroit.
He knew how to find talent though - The Supremes, The Jacksons, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder & Marvin Gaye. Manufactured? You bet your ass! But manufactured with A-list vocalists, hot songwriters and a house band that grooved like no other and would work hard both day & night. If a James Jamerson bass line doesn’t move your soul you probably don’t have one and you probably don’t deserve the ears on your head either.
Something strange happened. I cannot pinpoint exactly when, but there was a paradigm shift. Perhaps not a shift so much as an extension of the existing regime. Exploiting musical artists has become a forgone conclusion so now it’s time to increasingly exploit the audience. Let’s pluck fry-cooks and shop girls from obscurity, make them comfortable***. Let them bring their moms & dads too and we just love, LOVE LOVE to hear about your childhood! Look how nice we are! So generous, so considerate! And with our generosity we will give you passable vocalists, forgettable songs, predictable schlock arrangements and homogenous wall lining production. Our magnanimity is boundless – here’s a ring tone.
(When polled, 2/3rds of respondents said they’d still prefer to buy CDs but we’re so munificent and you can have sonically inferior MP3 downloads instead because it’s what the kids want and it’s so much better to listen to MORE music on NEWER equipment than it is to listen to GOOD music on just about any equipment.)
As a musician myself, it is my sincerest wish that art and artists would be accorded the respect they deserve. I’d love to see good work justly compensated for and while I am an optimist at heart, I’m also not in denial. I know that that the industry will continue to drain and suck dry whatever floats past their clutches.
So, if you’re going to be exploitative bastards, at least have some taste.
*How many Mafioso would risk taking a bullet for Jordan Sparks? Susan Boyle? Anyone???? Hello????
** Kurt, how good does it feel to know that your beloved Sonic Youth did a compilation CD for Starbucks?
*** No one made Billie Holiday comfortable. They arrested the poor schlub while she was in hospital....dying.