IN THIS PHOTO: Tom Walker/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Is Genuine Joy Escaping from Music?
THIS is something I have raised before...
and it seems that, with every passing month, there is no real improvement. I am thankful we have artists like Lizzo around right now: someone who brings a festival to music and can definitely make you smile. She is not the only one who brings funk and sass to the table. There are others in the mainstream who, rather than mopping or opening their bleeding hearts are genuinely trying to say something positive. I understand it is important being pure and honest and, in fact, two albums I have recently written about, Like a Prayer and The Velvet Rope, had positive and upbeat moments but there were a lot of deeper moments. From domestic abuse to AIDS, they are not exactly light albums. I love both of them and I always approve of artists who put their all into albums and can stray away from the obvious themes of love and heartbreak. Big musicians like Janelle Monáe certainly have a lot of drive and there are plenty of bands out there who can put us in a better mood. A few articles caught my eye over the last few days that seems to suggest that, largely, artists are becoming a bit downbeat and defeatist. I have reviewed some great mainstream albums this year and loved what they were about.
From Julia Jacklin’s Crushing through to Little Simz’s GREY Area, these records are terrific and pack a huge punch. The reason these albums resonate is because the artists are discussing their lives and not shying away from its harshness and realities. There are breezier moments in both albums but, largely, it is a more confessional and stirring listen. One must distinguish between music that is down and slightly negative across the board – in terms of lyrics and music/vocals – and those tracks that have slightly heartbroken lyrics but can build up a real storm with the composition. Many artists are still using love and its sting as their major stock so, invariably, we are seeing a lot of songs that are slower, more repetitive and have that haunting sound. It seems that, especially with male solo artists, there is this rather rigid and predictable sound. Most of them are white and heterosexual; they are quite cosy and, in these troubled times, providing music that is pretty safe but, when you listen to it, somewhat dour. The vibe is not especially captivating and, led by artists such as Ed Sheeran and Tom Walker, we have these samey and identikit men who are willing to talk about their lives with real honesty but you never feel joyed or happier hearing them. This illuminating article from The Guardian talked about this new trend and how a rather boring and unspectacular brand of artist is storming the charts:
“In this moment of international pop utopianism, Britain, naturally, has gone the other way. Our current pop stock-in-trade is a school of male singer-songwriters with exceptional voices and wilfully unexceptional images that entrench an impression of authenticity. They are all white, despite their soulful vocals, which sing of safely secular salvation (they’ll provide it), epic loves (they’ve had and lost them) and struggle (broadly defined). These ordinary boys bolster their yearning with a sound that homogenises sturdy rock heft, EDM dynamism and delicate electronica, with occasional intimations of hip-hop. And hats...
IN THIS PHOTO: Ed Sheeran/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
“That direct appeal to men has also fostered an environment where these artists can connect by discussing mental health. “There’s an idea in society that men have to be really masculine, tough and unemotional and put on a hard exterior,” says Grennan, who started playing guitar as part of his recovery from a violent attack and the depression that ensued. “I’m sometimes spoken about as being a ‘geezer’, which is weird to me as I’m just a product of my environment – a working-class lad from Bedford. But if that helps other ‘geezers’ talk openly and drop the bravado, then great”.
Look across most genres now and is there one that stands out regarding happiness and something more positive? We used to have a great House and Dance scene that was all about joyfulness; a British Pop movement that, if you see it as crap or not, was definitely determined to make people come together – there has been a massive shift in terms of subject matter and mood in music. I look at the Pop mainstream and even when one looks at some of the biggest artists like Dua Lipa and Ariana Grande; their music might be quite poppy and bouncing but their words, for the most part, are about heartbreak or challenges in life. It is important to have your audience identity with you but I fear, at a time when we need a more positive wave in music, artists are going in the wrong direction.
Look at Country and Folk and, yes, there are happier times to be had but not a huge difference. I listen to a lot of Country and do appreciate that one can definitely find greater energy and excitement when it comes to the compositions at least. Big artists like Kacey Musgraves can get one kicking but, look closely at what is being sung, and there is still an element of being trampled or having to overcome difficulty. I am not suggesting we have this sad-free culture that urges people to come together but I wonder where the chink of light will come from. Another article from The Guardian investigated how a more confessional and revealing style of Hip-Hop is coming about. The genre has always been pretty strong regarding tougher subjects and talking about stuff like suppression, depression and violence in the streets. Now, with so many performers suffering from poor mental-health, this is coming into music a lot more:
“The data – amassed from lyrics in songs featured in the end-of-year charts from 1958 to 2017, using a computer program called TextBlob – reveals that the most popular music genre in the US may also be its most depressed. A rise in rappers discussing mental health has led to a significant spike in the number of tracks mentioning suicide, depression, anxiety and prescription drugs.
The study, run by marketing agency Take 5, found that 24 of the 100 singles overall across rock, pop and hip hop in 1958 mentioned mental health, compared with 71 in 2017. The data also backs the huge popularity of what has been dubbed SoundCloud rap, an offshoot described by the New York Times in 2017 as “the most vital and disruptive new movement in hip hop”...
From the very beginnings of hip-hop, rappers have reflected on difficult lives; in 1982 Grandmaster Flash delivered one of the most seminal verses in pop history with The Message. The lyrics – “Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head/ It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under” – are just one example, says Dr Carson, that show hip-hop has always been about more than the cliches around gangsta rap”
I have advocated, for a long time, for artists to be more honest with regarding mental illness to ensure that we raise awareness. I have also been keen for political matters to be tackled and, largely, artists have done this – not that I had anything to do with any of it! I appreciate that music is this platform where artists can discuss important and life-threatening issues but is there too much reliance on seriousness and drilling the point home? It would not distil the cocktail and take away from the gravity of subjects like mental-health concerns and drugs if there was some humour and light. So many artists – from be-hatted British mainstream artists to Rap and Hip-Hop stars – are unable to find anything positive and fun to talk about. There is a school of thought that suggests we are beholden to the music we grew up around and modern music is a bit rubbish.
PHOTO CREDIT: @brucemars/Unsplash
I grew up on artists who would talk about heartbreak and splits and was not immune to the pains they were going through. That said, whether it was The Beatles or Oasis, there was always something upbeat to be found. Whether it was a hands-in-the-air chorus or a beautifully-crafted Pop song, I always had that sense that things would be okay. I do not think I would be invested in music and where I am now were it not for all the sunshine and energy I found growing up. Have we, now, had to settle for a compromise regarding mood? Are we happy enough if a song has a spirited aesthetic and sound even if the lyrics are melancholic. I have hope that a lot of the more promising Pop artists, such as Sigrid and Robyn, are going to keep injecting energy and bangers into the mix. In fact, Robyn was the focus of a recent Pitchfork article. She is unique in this age and has a lot of passionate fans. So many modern artists, such as Carly Rae Jepsen, adore her because of her passion and how her songs make you feel. Even if the lyrics cover something quite sad and heartbroken, Robyn sort of combats that with the sense that things will be okay; that there is light and hope to be found. Jepsen is definitely a convert regarding Robyn’s objectives:
“When I ask Jepsen which of her own songs feels most indebted to Robyn, she picks the airy and yearning “Love Again,” a bonus track on E•MO•TION. “It has that same sad-but-hopeful message, that idea that you get back up and keep going even when it feels like you’re heartbroken,” she muses. Jepsen’s lovestruck, wondering songs on E•MO•TION are full of imprecations to take her to the feeling. That feeling, in her songs, seems closely related to the tropical-house vibe that shimmers out of Robyn’s songs like bodysuit spangles. This is, in many ways, the Robyn Feeling: sad, exultant, vanquished, triumphant. Human romantic longing as epic unstoppable tide, something that might start from within but quickly engulfs from without”.
I do love Robyn’s music and suggest you seek it out if you want to hear pure Pop made by a singular artist. What is it about Robyn’s music that gets to people, though?
“Robyn’s music prioritizes seamlessness and unity. Her tracks feel like Robyn’s moods, her internal weather made manifest. When she sings, “Don’t go messing with love, it’ll hurt you for real/Don’t you know that love kills,” she sounds determined, grim, and defensive, and so does the track. When she walks you through the process of breaking up with your girlfriend so you can be with her instead on “Call Your Girlfriend,” she sounds sly and winsome and flirtatious and empathetic, and so does the track. You can wrap the whole thing around yourself, live inside of it, and still dance to it.
Dance music has a long history of unleashing exultant energies, but Robyn brings an element to that cresting wave that is less common: melancholy. Melancholy, historically, is largely an emotion that makes you drop your arms, hang your head, feel like a coat hanger holding up your own body. But in Robyn’s world, melancholy is blown up, glittering, transfigured. Her music acknowledges the weight of melancholy and pulls against it with apposite weight. The feeling Robyn’s songs want you to have is hard-earned glory: Glory within your own body, however gawky or awkward or weird you believe it to be; glory in your life, however lonely or sad you feel”.
There does seem to be this split between artists who always project something boring, moody or routine – I refer to the British male solo artists who seem incapable of finding light anywhere. Maybe I am being harsh but there is a trend here towards something a bit sunken, confessional and samey. Look at modern Pop and Hip-Hop and, whilst we have some thrilling artists to be found, there is a greater weight regarding the introspective, confessional and quite unhappy. We do not have the same explosive Dance scene we once had and even Hip-Hop is producing fewer of these kaleidoscopic and colourful acts that could bring some wit and humour to the party – I do miss the glory days of De La Soul! Even a treasured artist like Robyn, as we all know, can get people dancing with her tunes and, whilst her messages project hope, there is still that base of something more melancholic. I understand how vital it is for artists to understand what we all go through and write something relatable. We all need to know that artists go through the same s*it and we will all come together. That is great but I do worry, as I have theorised before, music has lost its smile, sense of joy and colour. Surely, as we are more torn and broken, a new wave of House and European invention – that brought us the likes of Deee-Lite, among others -; some innovative and joyous Hip-Hop or Pop that has no agenda and genuinely has a positive outlook in all respects...this is what we need more than ever. The reason I listen to more older music and stuff I grew up around is not because of nostalgia at all but, rather, that I know I can get a hit of fun and positivity with no sour core. We all need something delirious, inspiring and positive to get us through but does that mean, more often than not, we need to...
STEP back in time?