Why Some Musicians Last
Originally published on Fri September 21, 2012 10:53 am
The mists of eternity wafted over my Twitter feed the other night. Okay, not quite — but talk of eternity, or at least of the pop scene in thirty years, did make for a lengthy and spirited group exchange. It started when a friend who's not fond of singing competitions asked whether Kelly Clarkson will be remembered in 2042. The conversation rolled on from there, with some mounting passionate defenses of Clarkson's commercial impact and vocal talent; others casting alternate votes (Kanye West and Beyonce got the most hugs, Justin Bieber the loudest groans); a few stumping for sideways icons like The Velvet Underground or rehabilitated ones like Duran Duran; and still others rightly questioning the question itself.
This same idea was recently discussed by one of my favorite prognosticators, Chris Molanphy, on WNYC's Soundcheck, as a way of thinking about what hits of today would play on oldies radio stations of the future. But while it's fun, this game of tracking future legends is perennial and, in its moment, futile. The future's not ours to see, as Doris Day once crooned; everything from a star's early demise to changes in demographics or technology can enhance or detract from staying power. I'm not here to tell you what aging or departed star will appear on college kids' t-shirts in 2042 or produce legions of acolytes, any more than I could have known that Duran Duran would be hot at Hot Topic in 2012. Still, it's an apt moment for such debates to resurface.
Bob Dylan has released an new album that shores up his late-career efforts to become a walking, croaking electrical transmitter of American songlines; the sea chanteys and saloon stomps of Tempest encompass the centuries and further the old bard's quest to become not just one generation's favorite figure, but a living embodiment of the nation's full folk consciousness.
At the other end of pop's continuum, hip-hop innovator Missy Elliott has just released her first new music in seven years amidst of growing interest in her own legacy and that of her onetime collaborator, the gone-too-young ingénue Aaliyah. The sound Aaliyah developed with the producer Timbaland has resurfaced as a favorite influence among young innovators in indie pop and R&B — Drake's made a claim (questioned by Elliott) to Aaliyah's spirit, as have a growing cadre of others, including British band The xx and rising diva Dawn Richard. With female rappers finally gaining a strong hold on the pop charts, Elliott's 1990s work is earning props as a major inspiration — though her fresh cuts have, ironically, received criticism for their somewhat outdated sound.
In the case of Timbaland and his crew, legacy is concrete and trackable. But there's also the aura of inheritance, a major element in the rituals of pop acted out through American Idol and its competitors. My friend who was dismissive of Idol's impact was right to infer that vocalists who come to fame imitating other people may not be honored with important imitators of their own (though Adam Lambert's queer tweak on glam has certainly opened a door.) These pseudo-events annually pique our interest in pop's heritage not because they add to it, but because they fetishize it.
As the the immediate cultural relevance of this kind of star system fades — Idol still makes hits, but rarely real crossover ones, and The Voice and The X Factor have bestowed not much on winners besides Pepsi commercials and opening slots on judges' tours — these programs circle more hungrily around the concept of inheritance. This feels truer than ever as new judges move into the fore.
With Britney Spears making hilarious squinchy faces on The X Factor now, and Mariah Carey soon to arrive at the feet of Ryan Seacrest, each show now boasts a female panelist who shaped the hopes and dreams of the singers who stand before them. A drinking game structured around the times a contestant hysterically hugs her childhood hero Christina/Britney/Mariah could singlehandedly double alcohol tax revenues. These women are now the heat and the center of singing competitions — like fairy godmothers in platinum extensions and push-up bras, they extend their blessings. (It will be interesting to see how the impish revolutionary Nicki Minaj will mess with this formula.)
The general shift toward a focus on mentoring is turning these programs into tiny universities where the pop canon is tweaked and solidified and the teachers cement their own place in history by persuading their acolytes to emulate them. Yet because the judges, mostly old-fashioned music bizzers, aren't really connected with the new models for pop success (beyond Cee Lo and maybe Minaj, none live in world of the viral or the Kickstarted), their guidance is worth less and less. Rarely able to produce genuinely current music, Idol and its ilk are strangely caught in the pop ages.
Mainstream pop feeds the myth of a master tradition because it's good for business: as the freshly minted version of Michael Jackson's Bad reminds us, product endures more predictably than inspiration or even a life itself. But what's actually handed down, or what trickles through, is often a smaller, though no less daring or innovative, choice or gesture an artist makes.
Bob Dylan's decision to "go electric" and challenge the acoustic bias of the 1960s folk scene has been framed as a revolutionary event; in reality, it was a half-turn back to the rock 'n' roll he'd played as a Minnesota youth. He kept what he'd learned from one context and then adapted it to fit another. Aaliyah found a new way into hip-hop just by turning things down: as Rich Bellis recently discussed in The Atlantic, the cool, quiet introspection of the singer and her crew flipped a switch on the aggressiveness of rap and the emotionalism of R&B. It was a deceptively simple turn that opened up a new realm of possibilities. The same is true, in fact, of Britney Spears as a vocalist: she also conquered a field full of big-voiced pop divas by choosing instead to explore the more seemingly limited possibilities of the murmur and the moan.
Lasting impact, it turns out, is often grounded in such specifics, because they actually provide the artists who come later with something they need: a way to solve a problem or adapt to a new set of circumstances. Drake, Bellis writes, wanted to play down his not-very-gangsta vulnerability, so he put his fingers on Aaliyah's smoky palette. Another relevant example is the resurgent popularity of groups like Fleetwood Mac and The Band, resurgent elders name-checked by newcomers like Best Coast and the Lumineers. Right now, conventionally structured rock groups with charismatic lead singers only rule the moribund "active rock" scene where Nickelback still dominates. The coolest 21st-century bands from the Arcade Fire to Animal Collective (Collective!) have readjusted the group dynamic to be more non-hierarchical. Entities like the Band, who never had one clear front person, offer a different model by unassumingly arranging the old one's parts.
These are just a few examples of how legacies survive in very particular ways. From there, of course, legend grows. Bob Dylan will always be remembered for much more than finding the perfect blend of folk directness and rock 'n' roll edge. Still, when thinking about whose voices may echo in the next mid-century, I think it's worth listening for the little things. The future might be contained in something we hardly notice now.