Commercialism Part V: A Musical Kaleidoscope
By Jerry Flattum - 09/17/2001 - 11:42 AM EDT
When I first discovered my love for playing, singing and writing songs, I had no clue about the business or the meaning of commercialism. It was the late 60's and I was quite young. And in my influences, whether it was Paul Butterfield and James Cotton or Santana and Led Zeppelin the only thing that mattered to me was the music itself--what I heard, not what I saw.
But, there was bubblegum. Bubblegum was this cheesy pop style that consistently reached the top of the charts. The term is still used today although less frequently. Anything by the 1910 Fruitgum Company or the Monkees was, well, it wasn't real music. It was the sound of bubblegum I hated. It was the sound of blues I loved. I had no idea James Cotton was being measured by number of albums sold.
Led Zeppelin never had a number one hit (correct me if I'm wrong), although by now there is a complete statistical report on sales over the years, to be sure. It was the birth of AOR--another term infrequently used today in the new millennium. The goal of AOR was to avoid the need, glitter and glamour of writing a hit song.
As a budding songwriter and performer I found myself torn between needing and not needing an image. Songwriters are heard not seen. But the image of Frank Sinatra was totally taboo. By the 60's, Frank's "throw the coat over the shoulder" bit was as phony as could be. Likewise for Elvis's slick black hair and white-fringed suit or Johnny Cash's all black look.
The Beatle's classic outfits--all Fab Four wearing the same thing--was never seen by me as "commercial." Like everyone else I guess I saw the long hair--the bangs--as something more controversial than a planned strategy of image making. Hmmm...The Animals, Herman's Hermits, Dave Clark Five...weren't they all wearing similar outfits?
I didn't care what the band members in Santana looked like. I cared less that Jimi Hendrix was black although I was bedazzled by the acid-induced psychedelic look of the Are You Experienced album. Blood, Sweat and Tears were amazing because they did amazing things with horns. Not once did I ever see Janis Joplin, Grace Slick or Linda Ronstadt in a mini-skirt.
But then, Elton John's sunglasses...
Because I was also a keyboardist, I once wondered if I should wear huge sunglasses and jump on top of the piano (or like Jerry Lee Lewis, at least play the keys with my feet). And when I first encountered the pyrotechnics of metal, I wondered if my keyboards should have fire shooting out of them whenever I hit a bass note. When I sing, should I twirl the microphone cord and wiggle like a snake wearing leopard tights and a bandana? One thing for sure, I had to get a tattoo.
I wondered about Pink Floyd. I wondered if their infamous light show was an artistic statement or a rock age gimmick, not unlike wearing feather boa's in the Roaring 20's, or Madonna's pointed silver bra.
When the Disco craze hit in the 70's, things really began to look phony. Whatever "Aquarius Age" mentality existed in the so-called spiritual late 60's had now become astrological dust. The now stereotyped look of open shirts, hairy chests and gold chains was at the time the ultimate expression of male virility and the love of materialism. And Elvis and Frank were still alive. Women's clothes were getting tighter.
I loved a lot of Disco music. But it bothered me that to be commercial, a dance tune had to be 120 beats per minute--no more, no less. It was a "producer's medium." You didn't need a band to create the recording. But you did need cocaine.
Eventually I learned that many of my favorite bands from the 60's were forced to lip sync on TV. Like a good fan, I never held the Who, Kinks, Animals, etc. accountable for this sleazy trick. I blamed the labels and TV for forcing them to do something against their will. Forget Milli Vanilli's lip-syncing scandal.
Oddly, a song from the Broadway musical, Gypsy, summed up everything: "Gotta Have a Gimmick."
Then Punk. Punk was the commercialization of non-commercialization. But it was Rebellion Without A Cause. The anti-materialism/anti-establishment stance Punk took just didn't have the same spiritual connection--the same fervor--as the rebellion of the 60's.
But the emptiness of Punk also revealed the emptiness of the 60's--a time not of spiritual awakening but more so a time of paisley clothing, beads, lots of colorful acid images and the now immortal two-finger peace sign. Hell, hippies weren't on a mission--they were just having fun. But from pink beads to nose rings, it's hard to tell who dressed worse.
The 80's took commercialism to new heights introducing Corporate Rock, stadium tours and MTV. The "image" of Bob Dylan sitting on a stool at Folk City in New York was blown to smithereens by an increasing number of stadium events that rivaled an exodus to Mecca or the Second Coming. I learned it wasn't just about writing songs but putting on a show--a big show. Folk music bit the musical dust because it had no image. There was nothing to watch. However, Joni Mitchell did eventually take her clothes off.
MTV--it was new. It was creative. But even from the start, the new buzzword for unsigned acts was, "ya gotta have a video." Ya must have a video and a promo kit. Your music alone doth not a record contract make.
MTV held out for some time, but eventually to support itself it gave way to commercial endorsement. In the 90's, I had a very difficult time telling the difference between an advertising commercial and a music video. Artistic statements are still being made--but then, what do bikini-clad babes and coca-cola have to do with songwriting?
Marilyn Manson will be the first to say he is a "showman." But not many people are running around whistling his tunes. But then, where did I ever get the idea that a good song was something anyone could whistle? So, to write a song I had to put on a big show, dress weird, have a video and endorse Coca Cola.
Somewhere on this songwriting journey I learned Mildred J. Hill wrote the "Happy Birthday Song" and she never collected a dime in royalties. I learned Stephen Foster died penniless and thereabouts the event gave birth to ASCAP. I learned that from vaudeville to Motown there was more to making a song popular than just a hummable melody or a catchy beat. I learned it wasn't just about making music but also about earning a living.
I learned that getting your songs heard or "placed" was a far more arduous task than writing the song itself. The idealism of the song gave way to the practical needs of getting it recorded and out in front of an audience. And from the turn of the 19th century to the turn of the 20th century, songwriters have done some pretty crazy things to insure their tunes were heard above the noisy competition.
And at some point I found myself competing. This did not sit well at all since the essence of music is about sharing. I mean, it's utterly absurd for me to think my love song is better than someone else's love song. It seems totally childish to think "my song makes people happier than your song."
I love to dance. I love to have fun. I love wearing crazy costumes because it appeals to the performer in me. I'm part clown. I love extremes, from loud metal to a sweet Spanish guitar. Pushing the barriers is a good thing. If you're an artist, it comes with the territory.
Is it right to say Disco was phony? Was the swirling mirrored ball hanging from the ceilings of most disco clubs any more of a gimmick than Pink Floyd's incredibly expensive laser show?
And what about Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, the Dixie Chicks or Brooks and Dunn? Did they all go to the same school to learn how to talk with a twang? What's country music without a steel guitar or a banjo or a fiddle? Talk about extremes, I've actually tried to imagine a vegetarian country singer. K.D. Lang-not you're your average country girl. I wouldn't want her any other way.
I learned that not everything fits into a nice neat package. Not everything is black and white. What I think is phony is very real to someone else. I don't need Dido or Sade to be Madonna clones. Eric Clapton does not need to wear leotards. But then, I don't want to see Britney forced to sit on a stool or have the camera cut her off at the waist.
So is it live or is it Memorex? Is it commercial or artistic expression? Is Mickey Mouse art? Is Britney Spears' Coca Cola endorsement any less of a statement than Sting's endorsement of Jaguar? Did they sell out or are they earning a living? Hell, maybe they're just having fun. Maybe they are just being who they are.
I learned that the innocence of music is caged within the prison cell of pop culture. It's sort of like an Iron Butterfly. And to think that such a concept became the name of a band that wrote "Innagaddadavita..." Well, that's certainly no less strange, gimmicky, or phony than the Monkees, the Butt Hole Surfers or Elton changing his name from Reginald.
I learned music is a kaleidoscope. I learned variety is the best thing of all. Everybody has their own image, their own sound, their own way of doing things. Commercialism is a launchpad for reaching a wider audience and a way to earn a living. And it's OK to be a millionaire.
Still, I really don't know what gold chains, Coca Cola and biting the heads off of crows or running a chainsaw through an amplifier has to do with songwriting. When I'm trying to move from a G chord to a C chord, it's really hard for me to think "this would be a good place for me to fly across the stage swinging on a vine with a can of Pepsi in my hand."
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