Mourning the Death of Original Music

Growing up, I had a very cool Mom who watched MTV with me, and we had the same taste in music, from the 60s to the 80s. I would listen to my Grandmother fuss about all the modern music (from The Beatles up through to INXS), and how it was all terrible and sounded alike. Of course, I thought she was old and crazy, and I vowed never to be that closed-minded when I got to be her age. Now, I’ve just turned 41 and, against all of my good intentions, I find myself griping and moaning about all of the music on the radio today. Granted, there are a number of bands that I really like currently, but I find myself more and more turning back to just about any decade pre-2000 when I’m buying or listening to music.

As I’m currently reading Rob Sheffield’s Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, the lackluster offering of music today has once again moved to the forefront of my mind. The book isn’t great, but the memories it evokes are priceless. Basically, Sheffield revisits a number of songs from the 80s, and shares stories from his youth that in some way tie into each song featured. The best chapter so far concerns “Maneater,” by Hall & Oates; it looks at the many artists who attempted to go the new-wave route once MTV became popular, and concludes that Hall & Oates are the only band that successfully made that transition. I shared this with my husband, and he laughed in my face. Of course, he absolutely hates Hall & Oates, and despises the idea that they are even considered to be musicians in any sense of the word.

There are always going to be bands that sound alike on the radio, and there are always going to be people sampling the work of others, if not just downright stealing from them. But I remember in the late 70s and into the 80s, there were so many great bands & singers, and they were all unique. They had distinctive voices, a distinctive sound, and they all wanted to be different, to stand apart from everyone else. These days, if I listen to the radio or even peruse iTunes each week, I have a seriously hard time finding anything distinctive about the artists or the songs. Of course, I suppose I’m thinking only of Top 40 here–because there are a lot of interesting and refreshing artists to be found on iTunes especially. However, for the most part, I just don’t find originality or individuality in popular music today.

My husband and I spend just about every Saturday out of the year on the road, rambling around to various thrift stores, yard sales, estate sales, and the like, in an effort to support our small online vintage businesses. It’s a hobby for me, as I work at another job full-time, but it’s his lifeline, so we’re always on the go. Every Saturday, a local radio station has Retro Lightning, in which they highlight a year in music, ranging from about 1966 up to 1988. Part of the fun is guessing which year will be featured on the upcoming Saturday (yes, we’re complete and utter nerds), and part of the fun for me while we’re listening is to correctly guess who the artist is for each song. Since the show lasts 4 hours, they play some pretty obscure stuff, and much of it is foreign to me. But I never cease to impress my hubby when I’m able to guess the artist about 95% of the time. I’m able to do this because bands in those eras were so distinctive–the singers had original voices with recognizable tones; the songs were often very different, but each artist had their own sound; and none of this made the music boring. Cheesy sometimes, yes–but never boring.

Let’s look at my very favorite year for music, of all time: 1977

These are some of the songs to hit the Top 100 on the Billboard charts in that year:

You have Manfred Mann, David Soul, Marvin Gaye, ABBA, Hall & Oates, Glenn Campbell, Stevie Wonder, Leo Sayer, KC & the Sunshine Band, Fleetwood Mac, Alan O’ Day, Shaun Cassidy, The Bee Gees, and some instrumental music. You may not consider this to be great stuff, but there is a lot of variety at #1 on the charts for that year.

Now, let’s look at 2009 on the Billboard Top 100:

I’m not saying that any of this music is necessarily bad, but it all seems to be made up of about 3 genres. And how many of the songs from the last several decades contributed to making these songs hits? Sure, the artists put their own spin on the songs, but Pitbull can’t claim that he came up with the “hotel, motel, Holiday Inn” bit (and, I know, I’m sure he doesn’t claim to). Pink seems to be the most versatile artist in this group. And at least in most cases, she doesn’t need to use the Auto-Tune effect–which, incidentally, annoys the crap out of me . Some of them have great hooks– I love T.I’s “Whatever You Like.” And I love Jason Mraz, as well. But “Birthday Sex” sounds just like every other song on the radio today. Seriously. And I can’t tell the difference between groups like Shinedown and Nickelback, or The Fray and OneRepublic.

Again, there is some good (& very distinctive, original) music out there, but you won’t find it up very high on the popular charts. In the 70s and 80s, there was so much musical variety that the charts were loaded with all kinds of music, but perhaps these days, people don’t want, or don’t know how to deal with, variety. I’m not sure who’s to blame: the people who buy the music that’s on the radio, or the agents that put so much money into promotion and heavy rotation of this stuff. All I know is that I will likely continue to stock my iPod up with the oldies but goodies, and the obscure stuff that you can find today if you know where to look.

Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite singers/bands from recent years; ones that I can instantly recognize when I hear their music. I believe they’ve taken their talent and great voices and put a spin on their music to give it that little extra something that makes each of them unique.

Fleet Foxes

The Avett Brothers

Ben Harper

The Airborne Toxic Event

Against Me!

Alice Smith

Arcade Fire (yes, they sound 80s-ish; something like a cross between The Rave-Ups and The Hooters)

Babyshambles

The Bastard Fairies

The Black Keys

Butch Walker

The Fratellis

LCD Soundsystem

If you happen to read this and have any suggestions as to a modern singer or band that I might like, based on my choices above, please feel free to share. I’m always looking for something new to enjoy!

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