The Queen of Soul Departs: Where Do We Go Now?!
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
Can Modern Music Produce a True Icon?
WE started this music day…
bidding the Queen of Pop, Madonna, a happy sixtieth birthday but have ended it on a sad note: we have had to say goodbye to the Queen of Soul. Aretha Franklin’s passing has seen an outpouring of memories, upset and disbelief. When the news was announced she was gravely ill, a few days back, we were preparing for the worse. The seventy-six-year-old seemed to rally – friends and family said they’d hope she’d pull through – but it has been announced she has died of pancreatic cancer. I opened the day talking about ageism in music and how icons/older artists are given far less attention than new, young stars. Madonna’s sixtieth is a time for celebration and sharing memories of her but, in another way, it is a sure-fire excuse for radio stations not to play her music. We are all hoping more material comes from her but I wonder how many radio outlets will house her music and gives her the respect deserved. Looking at the life and music of Madonna and Aretha Franklin has given us all to look back at a music world that really doesn’t exist anymore. I felt this type of heavy heart when we lost Prince and David Bowie back in 2016. With each musical loss; we celebrate what that person gave but mourn the fact we will never see the like again...
IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in 2014/PHOTO CREDIT: Mert Alas for Interview Magazine
It was wonderful casting my eyes back at Madonna’s life and my memories – the giddiness of discovering her in the 1990s and that evocative, media-courting star whose fashion, sexuality and incredible creative spirit has dominated music and changed the Pop scene as we know it. You get a personality with Madonna; a real spirit and unique human who strikes the heart and head in so many different ways. She has not merely got where she is by commercial success and doing the absolute minimum. You can smell the blood, sweat and tears in every music video, album and year of her musical life. Like Kate Bush and other Pop greats; they are compelling, ground-breaking and utterly beguiling. You are never bored and are torn between which songs are best; the fashion choices that stand aside; which controversial remark or wonderful event defines what makes that artist special. Madonna is still full of life but, with less radio play and ageism creating a lot of discrimination, I wonder whether the Queen of Pop will struggle to mix it with the new, critically-lauded breed. Aretha Franklin has departed us but we all look back at her incredible career and all she did. She was a big campaigner for civil rights and, in many ways, did so much to create equality, conversation and awareness. Her religion was a big part of her music and that immensely powerful voice scored some of the most evocative songs ever.
If Madonna changed Pop and spoke out against sexism, ageism and censorship; Aretha Franklin battled racism, hatred and brought so much love to people’s lives. She was and is that peerless icon who brought Soul into the mainstream and created some true anthems. Whether you prefer Think to Respect or like (You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman and Chain of Fools best – there are so many gems to choose from! Her classic albums like Lady Soul and I Never Loved a Man the Way That I Loved You defined the 1960s and gave us so much brilliance. It is devastating she is no longer hear – for more than one reason. We will miss that music and the chance of hearing any new Franklin music but it is yet another musical icon that has left. Every time we say goodbye to a decades-surviving star who has enriched lives with the music, personality and memories; it seems like we are so much poorer and darker as a community. Look at the existing icons; everyone from Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones to Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith. Although I am not wishing death on any of them, from Paul Simon and Neil Young through to Roger Daltrey (The Who) and Robert Plant; one thinks their time is always precious.
IN THIS PHOTO: Bob Dylan in Columbia Studios in 1961/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
That sounds morbid but those artists are in their sixties and seventies and one feels we will all live through the days when they are all gone. There are younger icons in our midst but imagine a day when we have lost every one of those idols and artists who defined the very best music ever. It is tragic to think of a planet with Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell; no Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon or Madonna – how will we cope when we only have their music in the world and not their bodies?! The obvious solution is to foster the new breed of legends who can create new memories, make history and redefine music – we can have a new roster of heroes and heroines and foster them. I look around music and there is a clear divide between these pioneers and geniuses and a bunch of artists who vary from the average to the near-iconic status. Maybe the likes of PJ Harvey, Damon Albarn and the Gallagher brothers (Liam and Noel of Oasis) will be around for a lot longer but I cannot name anyone like Madonna, Aretha Franklin and Paul Simon who has done so much for music. One can say that is unfair – you need to give music a chance and cannot compare the climate of now with the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
The world is different and developing in terms of innovation, breakthroughs and changes. Now, when so much has been done; how do artists push the game forward and go down in history?! We have lost legends like David Bowie and Aretha Franklin but their legacy and brilliance is being carried by the new generations. The voice and depressing realisation comes when we think of their uniqueness and how much more alluring they are to the current crop. Modern music is more about streaming, promotion and predictability as it is mavericks, game-changers and genuine personalities. One of the reasons I am sad Franklin has died is her warmth and compassion; the immense vocal power she possessed right until the end; the consistent popularity and how she tackled civil rights horrors and spoke out. Her work in The Blues Brothers (1980) is one of my earliest childhood memories (I saw the film a few years after it came out) and it is amazing to think how much she packed into her seven-and-a-bit decades of life! Same goes for your McCartney, Madonna and Mitchell types. They have transformed music, settled in our memories – their music has been passed through the ages and is popular and worthy now as it was when first released. So much modern music is seen as disposable and easily forgettable.
It is hard to stand out and, at a time when there are imbalances, issues and drawbacks in music; I wonder whether we need the young stars to speak out more; do something different or just distinguish themselves from the pack. We do not see anyone who has the quirk and chameleon-like nature of David Bowie; the incredible background and awesome force of Aretha Franklin or the back catalogue and evergreen popularity of the bands of the 1960s. Each time a stalwart and pillar of music history dies or retires, it makes me think: Is music so modern and changed we will see merely great artists but never a true icon?! Will we still be recalling greats bands of today in forty years or have that surviving and compelling musician that brings about universal mourning when they die?! Maybe, given the digitisation of music and the scene changes, it is hard to stand out and go back to a time when genuine personalities could be found in the scene. A couple of years ago, producer Tony Visconti bemoaned modern music and how boring it is:
“Guitar Star aims to unearth old fashioned, raw ability. I’m looking for virtuosos like Hendrix, Cobain and Bowie.”
He also took an indirect shot at the inferiority of modern TV talent shows, saying: “There’s no fluffy back story, there’s no ‘I lost my pet dog in 97 and that made me want to play’ nonsense… No one can mistake me for Simon Cowell. It’s the worst time ever in the music industry”.
There are so many wonderful artists now and sub-genres are being created; we are seeing epic albums and brilliant tracks come out all the time and it is very exciting. I want to get to a point, forty years from now, where I can keep hold of the existing icons but have a new photo album of modern-day artist who has lasted that long and stand aside alongside the greats - those I can share with relatives and friends and talk fondly. We see the ‘best albums ever’ lists and most of them pre-date the last decade. We think of a ‘music icon’ and our minds go back even further. There are some modern-day heroes but I think the 1990s was the last decade when we started to make and elevate genuine personalities. I long to see someone with the fashion sense and changes of Madonna or a great band that can challenge The Who or The Beatles and produce album-upon-album of brilliance that lasts the ages. The sad thing is we always look back for quality and reliability. I have to cover new music but am not as attached to artists now as I was when growing up. Look at all these icons and unique personalities and they were living through wars, economic recessions and huge political changes. The Beatles defined the Summer of Love and songwriters like Bob Dylan documented the threat of nuclear war and destruction; Paul Simon defied rules and performed with black South African musicians during apartheid; Joni Mitchell and Madonna reflected the times and either directly confronted them or created a persona and art that managed to distract our minds and create something wonderful.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in 1967/PHOTO CREDIT: Apple Music/Getty Images
I have been looking at this article and how it charts music’s changes through the decade; what bands of the past were writing about and how their social lives and relationships bled into the music:
“In comparison to today's music which is not to say bad, but relatable in a different manner. A manner centered around our social lives or the physical aspect of relationships; partying, drinking, smoking, other substances, sexual relationships, and making money. Classic Groups like The Beatles (the best), Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, all wrote music revolving around love, story telling, growing up/teenaged angst, and definitely drug undertones worthy of mentioning (IE, "Dark Side of The Moon" by Pink Floyd). For instance, clubs are constantly playing "I took a Pill in Ibiza" by Mike Posner. Does that song have any sentimental or actual value to it? Unless you dropped some very intense substance and actually "felt 10 years older," then you have no way to appreciate that song for more than the catchy EDM backing his adjusted vocals. No, I didn't take that damn Pill, and no I am not going to listen to you when I am depressed. We seek out the comfort of previously stated groups; Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, etc.”.
Some good changes have come in – less excess and sexual looseness; better morals and activation through social media – but I wonder whether the way artists promote their music and the role of technology has removed the soul of music and meant it is harder to forge identities, longevity and true spirit:
“The generation definitely started in a different way, but as technology came out we became wilder only because everyone posted about what we did. There were still new-age throwback groups like; The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Foo, Ed Sheeran, but things became more wild with Future, Drake, Lana Del Rey, Fetty Wap, Kendrick, A$AP Ferg + Rocky”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
“… The soul is very absent from recent artists, and it's due to not having any common passion for everyone to relate to. So what'd we do? We embraced music to describe a lifestyle we want to live. It's not a bad thing because it creates new ways of finding friends and enjoying life, but it's just very different without any real backbone. I will be the first person to tell you that I listen to L$D by A$AP Rocky frequently because the meaning behind that song is very emotionally similar to the general idea discussed by the groups of previous generations. Rap is just fun too, along with EDM, and other not necessarily deep genres. The main passion of our peers is just one that isn't the same”.
I wonder whether our comparative lack of socialisation, community and interaction has affected how we view music and how artists are recording. If we are sitting behind screens and less connected with the outside world then it is not going to go into the music and, as such, resonate and affect people decades from now. It is a complex brew but I have that fear the last of the ‘icons’ – whoever that may be – will leave us and we will be sad.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
We will take to social media and provide sympathies and share all those great memories. The following days will be upsetting but, when we return to our normal lives, we will look around and see the new breed – all the legends have gone and one wonders how we will move from there. It is hard to swallow the possibility of a music scene with few greats like Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan; a world where values have changed and longevity is not a possibility – just a series of great artists who are around for years but we never hold them to heart the same way as the musicians we grew up around. Maybe the answer is simple or the real answer is there is no way to counteract reality. In any case, there is extra sadness in my mind thinking about Aretha Franklin and how she is gone. Such a complex, extraordinary and incredible being whose legacy and reputation was forged around more than music – she was a genuine personality who spoke out and gave a voice to so many others; inspired generations and broke down walls. Social media is flooded with condolences for Franklin and, when reading each one of them, I wonder whether we will see any modern-day artist who matches her legacy and status. It is sad to think but, in years to come, we will lose all of the true personalities and legends of music. Can we create modern heroes that last for decades and create such an impact as the icons of old? Thinking about it and I feel that likelihood…
IN THIS PHOTO: Joni Mitchell (2015)/PHOTO CREDIT: Norman Jean Roy for New York Magazine
IS an impossibility.