Musings from the padded room

lördag 4 december 2010

Musical musings

There's been a lot of talk about the re-formation of the old boy band Take That on the radio lately. As I usually listen to the radio while doing the chores in the stable I can't help but hear and make some personal reflections over it.

I find this whole boy-/girl band phenomena quite fascinating. Most fascinating of all in my opinion is how people can actually tell the bands apart. To me, they all seem to be same same, without any difference, other than maybe their accents.

Firstly, they're all built up around the same sort of line-up. There's always a "cute pretty-boy"; a "sensitive, poetically inclined guy with slightly brooding eyes"; a "hip/cool guy with street attitude"; a "bad boy" and then most often a fifth member that is cast in various other roles but seldom especially noticeable.
Backstreet boys is, to me, a glaringly obvious example of these roles. They had five members when they first began. There was Nick, the "cute pretty-boy"; Brian, the "sensitive, poetically inclined guy"; A.J, the "cool guy", Kevin, the "bad boy" and Howie (whom I really never got a hang of, not being that into the band more than to note these stereotypical roles). Looking at pics today I can't help but wonder if he was cast in the role as the "open-minded, sweet friend".

Secondly, the bands usually deal with the same type of lyrics about love, pain, romance and various other, to me quite sappy, subjects. And all of them seem to have eaten chalk to get those soft, sweet voices supposed to caress the ears of the adoring audience. Personally I've always felt sleepy when hearing it, unless I'm busy cringing over the complete lack of depth and originality in their lyrics. Or, for that matter, the paradox of hearing the "bad boy" sing like that. While he may look the part, the part doesn't fit into the music they sing.

And thirdly, they always do those, yet again in my opinion, silly little choreographed dances, all the while smiling soulfully/wickedly/sweetly and so on according to their roles and what they're singing at the time. I do admit that I have sometimes felt impressed by their stamina and agility while doing those choreographies, but since the steps are so similar between bands I actually haven't paid enough attention to the actual techniques.

To return to the first part of this post, Take That was a bit before my time, but not that much before it (Boyzone and later Backstreet Boys were the big boy bands during my teenage years). Still, I've heard enough of Take That's early works to be able to discern some patterns. I think that what they had going for them was, as one of the main things, the rather distinctive voice of Robbie Williams. I'm not surprised he's managed to do so well on his own. Other than that they all had the looks "suitable" for a boy band, attracting teenage girls of most types. However, looking at their pictures today, after the re-formation, I just have to raise the question... Can they still be considered a boy band? They're far from pretty any longer, a few of them could be what is politely called "distinguished" and, granted, Robbie Williams seems to have either been graced by good genes or plastic surgery (I don't know enough to say which although I suspect a little bit of both), but overall there's no getting around it. They're middle aged men trying to sing like they did xx years ago. Once again, what they have going for them is Robbie Williams's voice. Listening to their new release "The Flood" however makes it glaringly obvious to me that whatever they once were as a band, Robbie Williams has grown too large for them. Meaning that while one almost immediately recognises Williams's voice, the others feel more like background noise, indistinguishable from each other and without any specific trait to mark one from the other. So, rather than the re-formed Take That, it feels like it's Robbie Williams and his back-up crew. I might be overly harsh and some might argue that I'm way off my rocker and out of line for saying it, but that's what it feels like. So once again I raise a question, if a once popular boy band re-form after xx amount of years doing their own stuff separate from each other, what genre would they then belong to? And why do it? Boy bands have a best before date nowadays. Just like so much of the music today.

Which brings me to my second reflection:
I once got into a discussion with my teacher about music. I said that I didn't think there had been any actually good music released in the western market since 1995. I still mostly stand by that opinion, even though I've since had to admit there are some exceptions to the general rule (the song Hero of War by Rise Against being a most obvious such exception to me, thanks to its very interesting lyrics and the simple music supporting it).

The thing is, I generally feel that with the music of (mainly) the 60's and 70's the artists had a cause. They often used music to raise the overall awareness of what went on in the world. Issues like war, injustice, bigotry and so on came alive in the songs and together, the song and the meaning behind it, made a whole. And since the artists really believed in what they sang the songs have an impact even today, even if some of the issues might not be very topical of today's society.

If I was to put a picture or metaphor to the different decades of music I'd say that the 60's and 70's were all about fire and glam. Fiery passion, beliefs and the hope to make a difference. Or glitter, glamour and sass.
The music of the 80's and 90's feels a little bit dirty, gritty like the aftermath of the heated glamour-party of their predecessors. Like a sequinned dress lying forgotten on the dance floor among deflated balloons and leftover food, with a bottle of alcohol next to it.
The music of the late 90's to the present feels, to me, like plastic, like Tupperware. Practical, useful for the moment but easily discarded and forgotten. Mass-produced music with recycled or nonsensical lyrics, lacking most of any real content or feeling, has become mainstream and a song's worth seems to be judged by how often it is played on the radio in a day, never mind the fact that the song doesn't sound much different from any other song that day. Meticulously manufactured, uniform music is practically flooding the Western world with the aroma of American Idol (and its' spin-offs). If music is supposed to reflect the people and the contemporary society... what does it say about us that the hit lists are topped by these recycled, easy-listening kind of songs?

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