Print Edition: April 2, 2014
We are all influenced by our surroundings. Put a Canadian in England for two years and they’ll come home using words like “loo, chips, chuffed, and knickers,” with a somewhat more rounded vowel to them.
Musicians are influenced by what they listen to too. This may seem like an obvious statement, but do we really take it into account? If you think critically about what you listen to, you’ll soon discover there is nothing (musically) new under the sun. Every artist has been influenced by someone else. This is part of their musical development and inspiration, however, too often artists sell out.
When I say sell out, what I am referring to is the quality of the artist as a whole. This includes musicianship, lyrics, performance, even the way the artist behaves outside the limelight. In the mass money-making industry of music, you get artists who are falling into the “sell-out” model all the time, because the industry is constantly telling them, “you must sell yourself if you want to sell your music.” Unfortunately, if artists buy into this mentality and sacrifice one of those crucial parts of their art at the expense of the other, it creates room for us to question their authenticity as musicians.
One of the ways I commonly see artists do this is lyrically. Lyrics are a significant portion of a song and artists lose their integrity when they cheap out on the words. Music as a medium serves the purpose of getting a message across and leading someone into an experience. A song-writing professor I had told once told me that “if you are going to use a song to say something, sing something that matters to you, because the more personal your song, the more universal it becomes.” People want to relate to real life experienced. She told us if we wanted our songs to matter, we needed to live a life that matters.
When artists lose the creative aspect of displaying their message through words, they end up with empty lyrics, and where I hear this happen the most is in modern country, pop, and R&B genres. Think of the stuff you hear on The Beat or JACK FM.
Words often get sacrificed for hooky melody lines and a booty-shakin’ beat, or they are used to portray poorly thought-out ideas with bad vocabulary, clichés, and unnecessary sexual references.
Let’s look at Justin Bieber. He was 15 years old when he produced his first album My World and 16 when he came out with My World 2.0. Although we loved his innocence and his super catchy melodies, his lyrics consisted of empty promises, like “I’ll buy you anything, I’ll buy you any ring…” Really, Justin? You’d do that for me (and the 100 other girls you’re singing too)? I trust you sing about love from all the experience you’ve had with it — at age 15!
Now I don’t want to pick too hard on the Biebs (bless his heart). He’s a millionaire because women — ahem — I mean teenage girls, love his music and just want to eat him up, but can we really take the songs and performances of Justin Bieber and other similar artists, and come to conclude they have been true to the authenticity of the music? They haven’t — they have been true to the money. So why does our culture deem them as musicians when the music and lyrics are a fraction of why they do what they do?
Many of these musicians are more concerned with erotic dance moves or how flashy they can make their shows than with the music itself — they are using music as a vehicle to create a “unique” identity, but they end up just looking and acting weird and completely crazy — did anyone see Lady Gaga perform on Jimmy Fallon?
Gaga herself may categorize her work as “Artpop,” but just because you label yourself a trendy name and experiment with creating an eccentric image to receive an eye-popping response from fans, again says nothing about an artist’s musical skill. Rather it points everything about their “work” to what I would consider a narcissistic point of view.
This is not what music should be about.
I think many of these pop stars are legitimately talented people, but true talent lies beneath the show. True talent is found in the stripped down performance, in artists’ ability to grab the instruments they are skilled at, be it guitar, piano, or their voice, gather a group of people around them, and share their personal experiences with the listeners — no manufacturing required.
I honestly find it hard to name modern bands who fit into the aforementioned category — artists like the National, Beck, and Arcade Fire are a few. But when I think of artists like Bob Dylan, a folk singer and member of the protest music genre, I see and hear a man who believed the words he sang, and played his guitar and harmonica with passion. His music came from a yearning desire within to evoke change in the world. He sang words that his feet had walked through, his melodies were a cry from his soul, and sometimes the notes were barely sung because the emotion was so strong.