Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Betrayal of Soul to Flash & Pomp

The tragic death of Amy Winehouse at age 27 recently reminded me of a documentary I reviewed for radio called 27, about the music and message of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison – all of whom died within one year of each other, also at age 27. Watching footage of their concerts really got me thinking about how the lives and performances of musical icons tend to reflect, and help shape, the culture in which we live. While substance abuse still persists among high-profile musicians, artists and celebrities alike, it seems to me that in the 1960s at least, the motivation behind drug use was different than it is today.

I am no historian. I cannot claim to have studied the subject or anything close. Nor was I a young adult partaking in the 1960s, so my observations here are merely peripheral. I bring this up only because I am often disturbed by how few of today’s young stars show any real expression of soul on stage. We rarely see the likes of Janis Joplin anymore, who put so much passion into her performances that, as one observer noted, you would be surprised to see her still alive at the end of it. Jim Morrison, notorious for his destructive streak and perpetually stoned, was still widely regarded as being more of a true artist than a performer, deeply committed to living on the edge. Who today can match the psychedelic effects of a Doors or Grateful Dead concert?

What I see instead now is image-making. Pop stars in this day and age are focused on choreography, personal branding, reputation building by association with their peers and staged performance – with emphasis on the staged. While some of them are extraordinarily gifted – Beyonce being one clear example – for the most part I still find watching an awards show like the Grammys unbearably boring. Musical performances from modern-day youth are riddled with flash, pomp and narcissism. It’s less about the music than it is about the cool factor. It’s less about soul than it is about persona.

What I don’t see enough of is self expression that embraces living on the margins. Lady Gaga is one of the few counter culture darlings in existence, but she is of a starkly different breed than the legends of half a century ago. I recently interviewed nationally-known forensic psychologist Jeffrey Smalldon, an expert on the mind of psychopaths and serial killers who has studied everything from cult leaders and the mentally ill to genius and celebrity. Fascinated by the abnormal, he tells me about a book called Freaks: Myths & Images of the Secret Self, and its analysis of the complicated and nuanced relationship between so-called freaks and the people who comprised their audience. He talks about how freaks challenged our understanding of identity and how, in the late 1960s, the term “freak” was associated with free expression and hippies. I am surprised to learn that hippies generally considered this a badge of honor.

The evolution of “freak” from the hippie era to the current day Lady Gaga phenomenon could make for an engrossing read. Personally though, I am deeply compelled by the anomalous expression of soul, as evidenced in the young talent and rich character of Casey Abrams on American Idol. An artistic genius too large for the pop culture stage, he earned high praise for his creativity, fearlessness and lunacy. For me, his body language, vocal stylings and facial expressions were delightfully freakish, but it was his soulful performances that stirred the embers of my innards. In him I see the seeds of an icon; the marriage of soul and heresy at its best, even if largely undeveloped.

I hope he does something with it. I hope, by age 50, he has begun to sort out his artistic legacy. By then, surely, he will have glimpsed what he is capable of. By then, hopefully, we all have.

But I digress.

I want to see the soul brought back into music. Enough of the strobe lights and elaborate posturing. I don’t want to be dazzled. I want to be transported.

I want to feel something real.


DazyDayWriter said...

Agree! Casey was a joy to watch on IDOL and we need more authentic musicians and writers out there ... image-making is everywhere to the point of exhaustion.

Jesse Mendes said...

Well put, Daisy! Image making indeed -- it is driving the market, and it's soul depleting, for lack of a better way of putting it. I look at young people like Justin Bieber and I think, sure he will be rich and have lots of girls and a life with pizazz and glory and all the rest of it, but think of all the things he will miss out on, or never experience, because of the pressure to maintain an image, and the isolation that that kind of fame imposes on you. He will be surrounded by people who adore him all of his life, and yet I can only imagine how lonely (in a different kind of way) that kind of life can be, as well.

Phil said...

I'm in two minds about this. On the one hand you're right, on the other wasn't it always so? I used to worry, but then The Beatles (for example) were heavily hyped, they just happened to be very good too!

Still the thought that so much talent is being overlooked, through lacking the necessary image, remains rather sad.

Jesse Mendes said...

Hi Phil while I appreciate your comment, I'm sorry, I do not understand it. When you say "wasn't it always so?" I am not sure what you are referring to. When you talk about worrying I don't know what you are referring to either. I also don't understand your last point.

I'm so sorry. I appreciate that you have taken the time to comment but I just do not follow you. Jesse

Christine Young said...

Jesse, I am so in tune with what you have to say about the young stars of today. As you say, “…few of today’s young stars show any real expression of soul on stage.” I would try to explain my feelings to some of the young people I work with during our discussions over American Idol contestants. We each had our favorites. My favorite was Carly Smithson in 2008, who displayed her diversity and passion with songs as far apart in range and style as The Shadow of Your Smile and Come Together. They questioned her tattoos. I was also blown away by Adam Lambert when he performed It’s a Mad World. They acknowledged his talent but questioned his sexuality (as if it matters). I seemed to be alone in my admiration of them. My youngster co-workers—each of whom I love dearly—were more in tune with the conventional artists. I saw neither Carly Smithson or Adam Lambert as conventional.

Back in the day I was more a fan of singers like Barbara Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight and Mamma Cass, to name a few, and less into singers like Janice Joplin, but that was just my preference. I cannot argue that Janice Joplin was the epitome of the soulful singer. There is a passion there undeniable.

I have watched and listened to some of the young performers of today, but I have not seen enough of them to weight one talent against the other. I will only site the eleven year old Jackie Evancho as phenomenal. And what kills me is that without America’s Got Talent, there are many of us would not have had the pleasure of hearing her sing. She has the voice of an angel and sings with a passion that you would not expect to see in one so young. I can envision her passion for music becoming more profound as she gets older.

I am so glad I came upon your blog. It is exceptional. And I too admire Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep, but would like to add Dame Judi Dench to my list of role models.

Jesse Mendes said...

Christine, how good of you to offer such a thoughtful comment and post. I appreciate it very much, as well as your kind words of support. I wonder how you found me? I could not locate you on Twitter to offer a tweet of gratitude. Please do stay in touch. I love your blog.


Christine Young said...

Hello Jesse,
I found you as a link on him+17blogspot.com. I will enjoy reading more of your blog. I'm not very blog savvy myself, but I'm glad you like what I have so far. It needs a lot of work. I do not know how to arrange things. I certainly do like yours and will visit often. You inspire me.

I am on Facebook but not Twitter. I will have to check it out.


Jesse Mendes said...

Wow, okay, I never heard of that blog spot before. Thanks for telling me. I sent you an email by the way, so please look out for it.

Cloistervoices said...

Great post! Thanks. I tweeted it.

Jesse Mendes said...

Thanks "Cloistervoices". I tried going to your blog to find your name or your Twitter page but could find neither. In any case, thanks for the feedback.

Anne Flournoy said...

Interesting. I especially appreciate your thoughtful tone. The whole concept behind the blog is sort of...well, astonishing-- especially considering that in your profile picture it doesn't look like the whole older woman as a sexual being is yet a personal issue.

Anyway, it's great to find another woman doing work that feels urgent and driven by a private passion. Thank you for having found me on twitter.

Jesse Mendes said...

Hi Anne

I appreciate your comments because feedback like this mean the world to me. However, I do not understand your phrase, "especially considering that in your profile picture it doesn't look like the whole older woman as a sexual being is yet a personal issue." Are you saying I do not look like an older woman? Or...I'm not sure what you are saying. For the record, I am 49.

Written Words said...

I agree with your observations about the differences between the performers of half a century ago and today. One factor you left out of your analysis, though, was the huge amounts of corporate money behind the biggest "stars" today. The performers on the big stages, magazine covers and with the big displays in the record stores are products of carefully orchestrated advertising and publicity campaigns. Their talent is secondary to their success. Justin Bieber, Hannah Montana, Lady Gaga etc. are not performers so much as they are brands, and sell more perfumes, clothes and toys than they do music.
There is more talent to be found under the radar: independent artists and small labels. It's just harder to find.

Jesse Mendes said...

Hi Scott,

Good point. So many artists today are "products" of carefully orchestrated marketing campaigns. They are BRANDS. Honestly, I look at the kind of attention Justin Bieber is getting and I think, you have GOT to be kidding me! Talented, sure -- but he has been elevated to the status of a Pop God thanks to a whole host of factors, the least of which is his artistry. It's insane, really.

Thankfully, there stars whose gift is more than deserving of the attention they are getting -- people who are, in their own ways, also trying to do some good with the hype. And Lady Gaga is most certainly one of them.

Thanks for taking the time to comment.


Mack Collier said...

"I don’t want to be dazzled. I want to be transported. "

Or said another way "Don't give me songs, give me something to sing about."

I agree completely ;)

Jesse Mendes said...

Dear Mack,

You have such a beautiful way with words, and this gets right to the heart of the matter. Thank you for sharing. Am an avid supporter of your blog, you really know how to tell a story. I encourage anyone who wants insight into how to make smart use of social media to check it out:



Todra Payne said...

This was such a truthful post. I disagree with your assessment that Beyonce is "extraordinarily talented" but nevertheless, great post :)

Jessica Mendes said...

Thanks Todra! I appreciate your comments!

pmassey64 said...

I agree completely that there is something lacking in the rock/pop music scene today. Of course, I come from the generation that produced talent like Janice Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix, so I am a tad biased. However, there are some young musicians today that are what I consider to be old souls. Melody Gardot is one of them. Her unique style of writing and performing harkens back to another era. She is quite a talented young artist who is gaining prominence in the music world.

Jessica Mendes said...

Thanks Pam -- I have checked out Melody Gardot and she is very interesting and lovely to listen to. Many thanks for sharing!