Tag Archives: pop

Paul Picks Up The Pieces

And makes them rock.

It’s February! The time of year when temperatures drop to their most unbearable levels and we’re supposed to replace the warmth of our malfunctioning heaters with the warmth emanating from our hearts. What a bunch of delightful bull-crap. No, Valentine’s Day doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy, but I’ll tell you what does – pop songs rearranged and made into beautiful, much less simplistic, pieces of hard rock candy.

To reiterate a point I made a few weeks ago: modern pop music is dying a slow, painful death. The only cure would be a complete change in thought both on the part of the recording industry and musicians all at once. It isn’t going to happen, at least not in such a complete and obvious way. That said, not all pop music is necessarily bad when placed into the right hands. Obviously, this is something that runs on a case by case basis, and therefore I will once again be using examples familiar to me in order to get at the larger picture.

A couple years ago I discovered the guitarist Paul Gilbert during the last stop of the G3 Tour, and ever since he’s been the model I hold a whole host of other musicians up to. His technique, skill, range (with regards to his ability to successfully write and play music from varying genres), and his stage presence are in my mind unequaled. In the late 80’s, after his tenure with the metal band Racer X, he joined Mr. Big, a group who ran the line between pop, hard rock and hair metal. Well, let’s face facts – at the dawning of the 90’s that was popular music.

Their one relatively successful radio hit in the U.S. (they had a much larger following in Japan) was a song called “To Be With You” . It’s upbeat. It’s sweet. It’s a love song through and through. If the verses were shared, rather than dominated by frontman Eric Martin’s smooth (yet somehow raspy) set of pipes, the tune could easily fit into the Backstreet Boys library. A song like “To Be With You” would normally sicken me, but in my quest to explore the “essence of Gilbert”, I stumbled across something interesting.

I’m not entirely certain when the DVD was recorded, but sometime after his break from Mr. Big, Paul participated in a show called “Guitar Wars”, where he performed a very different version of the aforementioned song. The Van Halen inspired rendition is perhaps a bit ironic, as one will notice the opening riff is taken from “Ain’t Talkin About Love”, though the reason it resonates with me so well lies elsewhere. Here, have a listen:

Firstly, he begins the song in a minor key, which I think lends the tune a certain sense of desperation that just isn’t present in the original. That little added sense of danger turns the sickly sweetness of the original on its head. Paul throws in embellishments on the guitar from the very beginning, making the song sound thicker, and during the verses the chords are played in arpeggios rather than just strummed, which I think helps to change what was once a simple tune into something much more technically and artistically worthwhile.

Paul’s style of singing also throws away the fluff of the song’s previous incarnation. His voice is raw, which certainly fits better with hard rock, but it also adds to the atmosphere of the lyrics. Eric Martin’s vocals sound very confident, like the song’s subject female only needs a little pep talk to find her way into the arms of the right man – the way it’s sung sounds almost deceptive. Paul, on the other hand, first sounds as if he’s defending someone rather than giving a motivational speech, then with the chorus makes the longing and desire sound right. I wish I had better words for it, but the rawness of his voice makes the revealing words in the chorus sound more sincere.

To top it off, the accompanying harmony vocals of bassist Mike Szuter, and the fact that Paul manages to sing and solo at the same time make this version really dynamic. Though, if one is a fan of  Mr. Big’s version, Paul does throw in the original guitar break towards the end as a nice tip of the hat.

I suppose after looking at pop music through a rock filter, I’d have to say that in some cases there are songs that have actual potential. The song might need a hard rock makeover, but I cannot ignore the fact that it had its origins in the pop world. Of course, that still means that most of what’s out there is complete and utter garbage, but once in a while I’m surprised by what happens to catch my ear.

-Alex

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The Mass Market Music Blues

The train – she’s a goin’ nowhere.

I was prepared to bore the readership with a story about my personal evolution as a music listener, or as Vinny might put it, a “music appreciator”. While it might have explained how I arrived at my feelings towards certain artists and genres, and illustrated the love I have for some and the contempt I have for others, I feel it would have bogged down the reader with needless personal information. Therefore, I will make this statement as simple as possible.

I admire artists who take chances with their material and who don’t conform to a cookie cutter formula when composing music. I love artists that show a high level of musicianship, who can allow their instruments to speak for themselves, rather than letting a lone voice speak for them – not to say that lyrics and a charismatic front man aren’t important, but artists who strike a balance between the two find themselves high up on my list. It’s really more complicated than that, but for the sake of blog sized writing, I’ll leave it there.

On to the point – the cookie cutter approach, modern pop music’s crutch. Plain and simple, it isn’t working, at least not for me. Since hindsight is twenty-twenty, and because  it was recent enough to remain relevant, let’s take a quick look at late nineties pop and apply it to the mold I’m suggesting.

Britney Spears had just exploded onto the airwaves, alongside acts like the Backstreet Boys, and any number of R&B artists – not to mention Limp Bizkit and other “rap-rock” type groups. They gained popularity not through the merit and quality of their music necessarily, but through image. A sexy schoolgirl with a pretty voice, five preppy guys who could melt hearts, a dumb white guy with a Yankees cap – they all applied to certain demographics (well, maybe not Fred Durst).

In a money driven world, and perhaps more importantly, money driven music industry, the mass market is subjected to what will sell. While these trends endured, more of the same kept popping up: Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore, N’Sync, 98 Degrees, and so on. Were they all making the music they wanted to make? Maybe. Did they have any control over how the media would portray them? Doubtful.

To tie this in with Vinny’s argument about singles – the symptom is largely the same. Though I’m not an industry insider, I can say with some degree of certainty that artists have very little control over what songs from their album get chosen as singles. The recording industry decides what the mass market will like, and pushes it. What results are artists who are made to sound like they have very little to add to the music scene, even if other tracks on their albums are worthwhile. Because of the way the industry packages them, artists are unwillingly and unfairly categorized and stereotyped.

There are a few brave individuals such as myself who support artists that aren’t necessarily backed up by the full weight of the recording industry, but in general I think what we hear on the radio and see on MTV are representative of what marketers have decided the most people will enjoy (and pay to see more of).

But one can bet that when an artist branches out and tries something new, one of two things happens. They either become more successful, or really, really poor (or fall into obscurity, barely managing to eke out a living off of their small cult followings).

-Alex

Now, just for fun, I’ll toss in my answer to Vinny’s argument.

In the case that you believe my fears to be valid, what can be done to stop this from taking place?

Firstly, this is a valid fear, and it’s already happening. As for what can be done, there are a couple things. Looking from the top down – music is both an industry and an art, but money makes the world go round, and the same goes for music. Therefore, if labels were producing music solely for the sake of music and art, with profit only an idea on the backburner, we might see some more risky music falling into people’s hands. Until they stop trying to capitalize on every current trend and shove it down our collective throats, we will likely be faced with heavily marketed music. There’s slim chance that will ever happen, of course.

Looking from the bottom up, aspiring artists need to look at the musical landscape before them. The way things are now, if they want to make a living doing what they love, they need to play into current trends to some degree, or else they’ll never get picked up by a label. I’ve seen too many local bands with MySpace pages that want to “push the musical envelope” (whatever the fuck that means), but just end up sounding like everyone else – how many of them ever really “make it”?

Like any good revolution, it has to start from the bottom and rise to the top. There needs to be a collective effort on the part of aspiring artists to really differentiate themselves from all the other popular offerings out there. The problem is, paradigm shifting is a hell of a lot harder than sounding just slightly different than someone else. Yes sir, we’re in dire need of a game changer.

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