‘And Now, Another One…’ (2018)

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I’m always being contacted by publicists inviting me to review their clients’ books. I don’t think I’ve yet said “Yes,” in several hundred tries.

And Now, Another One…

The thing that most amazes me is the appalling sameness of it all–as if there were only one publicist, only one writer, and only one book; the same cliches heaped up, one on top of another; you know what they’re going to say three pages ahead. I mean, this stuff is nutra-loaf for the mind.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I do do book reviews. I’ll even review books suggested by my readers here, without benefit of a publicist.

But this… this… stuff! out there, boxcar-loads of it, all the same darkly handsome men and mysterious gorgeous women–all of whom need to be picked off in a hurry by a giant chameleon!

11 comments on “‘And Now, Another One…’ (2018)

  1. “ I wonder what effect it has on the brain, to consume vast quantities of books like this. What does their very existence say about our culture?”

    That’s a great question. Some years ago, I realized that I almost always knew what was going to happen next when watching broadcast television. It wasn’t because I had some special gift, but was simply a matter of having figured out the rules of drama and comedy. In other words, I had tripped over the formula and had realized that virtually everything on TV was based upon a simple, predictable formula.

    Television was, and remains, mass produced entertainment and usually very cheaply produce. It doesn’t take any special insight into production techniques to crack the code, as long as you keep in mind that everything you see on TV is there deliberately. If the camera is pointed at a doorway, it’s because the director deliberately pointed it at that doorway. No sound or image is random, and every word is either pre-scripted, or if improvised, it is left in only because the director chosen to keep it in the final edit.

    Over the years I began to notice the same thing in popular music, which is nowadays so formulaic that I find it painful to listen to. While I know nothing about video production, I do know a thing or two about what is involved in the production of recorded music. Nothing you hear is accidental and songs reuse the same formulas endlessly.

    What has changed is the production techniques and even the process of writing songs. It used to be that songs came from a spark of an idea. Usually the germ of an idea is fitted over a well known pattern, which is noting new. For example, the song Walk Don’t Run is based upon a pattern that has been used in music for thousands of years. No problem there, familiarity is not a bad thing, but the process of songwriting has changed in our time.

    Nowadays, many songs are not written out of a desire to express some sentiment, but are written to exploit gimmicks that are known to elicit a response from whatever demographic that song is intended to appeal to. Gimmicks are created and by committee and the “songwriter” basically stitches some pre-made ideas together into a song. The result is a collection of predictable cliches which I find almost painful to listen to, for the same reason I don’t like most television; everything is exaggerated and there are no original ideas. It’s mostly frosting, and almost no cake.

    I hear it in Country music and in Youth Market music. “Smooth Jazz” is a series of cliches, chosen to sound smooth, and to my ear, boring. I listen to almost nothing recorded recently and when I am exposed to such music I find myself wanting to get out of earshot.

    Many books seem to be following the same path; written for effect, instead of presenting any truly original ideas. I can’t tell you how many books I have started to read, but left unfinished. This lack of creativity cannot be doing us any good.

    1. On second thought, wasn’t popular music, or mass consumption music, ALWAYS formulaic? (Don’t be afraid to say no: you know a lot more about music than I do.) And I like folk music, but who wouldn’t say folk is formulaic?

  2. It has always been formulaic and I’ve traced common devices at least back to Mozart, but these days, there’s no pretense of creativity. It’s music via focus group studies. One could justly criticize Merv Griffin singing “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” as formulaic and transparent, but at least it was a coherent idea. Much of today’s Pop sounds like R&B cliches glued together with lots of insincere emotion. It’s as if lip service has to be paid to every cliché. Now it’s more of a “check off all the boxes” approach and creativity doesn’t stand a chance.

    Now, contrast that with the Classics IV, in the late ‘60s. Stormy, Spooky and Traces were three songs that got plenty of airplay, circa 1968 and 1969. There may have been a degree of formula, such as the Em7 to A7 riffs that appear in both Stormy and Spooky, but these were real songs.

    Think about Italian cooking. You have Marinara sauce and Bolognese sauce. There are varieties of pastas and ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses and Italian sausage and other various meats, but there are a wide variety of dishes which can be made from these and these dishes stand on their own.

    Popular music, these days is more like a sampler. You have to have everything, in every song. There has to be a groove, has to be an impassioned climax at the end of an overdone buildup to that moment. Modern Country uses a handful of devices that even a houseplant would realize came straight out of a cookie cutter. Pop is just as bad. Listen to some “Smooth Jazz” and you will hear the same gimmicks used all the time. They stole a couple of ideas from mainstream Jazz and have never progressed to something original. It’s background music by design. If I were to write a song, it would never be with the goal of being background music, but the Smooth Jazz genre is obviously deliberately that way; Soft Rock Muzak, calling itself Jazz.

    When I was in my teens and first trying to play Jazz, that’s about what I sounded like, but I grew beyond that. Modern mass-market music doesn’t want to grow. So long as it sells, that’s all that matters.

  3. Short answer: yes. 🙂

    Long answer, it isn’t that simple. Melodies are frequently unique to a set of lyrics, but barely so. If you go back a few hundred years, many instruments were limited to one key, or a few keys and they didn’t have the luxury of a fully chromatic instrument like a piano. If Gershwin were composing on a bagpipe, An American In Paris may have sounded somewhat less compelling and Rhapsody in Blue would have sounded similar to An American in Paris.

    It’s really only fairly recently that music has become almost strictly entertainment. Music was used to preserve culture. A simple melody and meaningful lyrics can be passed rom generation to generation and if virtually the entire community knows the same songs there is even some built-in error correction. To someone in Scotland hundreds of years ago, music may have been a matter of spiritual beliefs, military organization and community identity. Armies marched with bands because music served both as a form of identity, and as a way of communicating to the troops. This has been going on, at the very least, since the days of Joshua.

    If you were to resurrect someone from that ancient past, they would probably find our use of music curious. I grew up listening to music on a car radio and we had a constant turnover of songs, so that we might only remember a few truly memorable songs among what we were listening to a year ago.

    Chick-a-boom, chick-a-boom; don’t you just love it?

    How could love so right, turn out to be … so wrong?

    Everybody’s heard that the bird is the word!

    Remember those lines? They all came off of the Pop charts. If you want to entertain yourself, page through the Hot 100 lists for various years. You’ll be amazed at how many songs you will be reminded of. I actually did this, about 20 years ago, as I compiled playlists of songs from various years.

    It was fun to do that, but the point here is that assembly-line music is a fairly new phenomenon, probably within the last 150 years or so. It is tied to systems of distribution, such as sheet music and piano rolls. Various forms of recorded music made music consumption the province of many more people, but when broadcast radio came along, distribution went into overdrive and new songs were gaining exposure that would have been unimaginable a generation before.

    When the market demands more, the supply chain accommodates the demand, but sometimes at the cost of quality. The market called the shots, however and the shot Parade, Top 40 and Hot 100 were reflections of this, basing song rankings upon jukebox plays, record sales and radio requests. It was, IMHO, mostly a good thing, because the market would weed out the low quality material fairly quickly.

    Through out this time period, however, a lot of research was done to try to determine what made a song a hit. They tried focus groups and would film groups of teens dancing to new music. They were carefully observing to see what sorts of music elicited certain responses in the test groups. The goal was to find out what sorts of musical and lyrical resulted in mild sexual responses, and that was the jackpot. Find something that teens found mildly exciting, but without going too far, and you had a Pop hit. With slight variations, the same sort of studies were applied to other types of music and find8mg what various demographic groups found appealing in their music. While teens of the fifties and sixties might have wanted a slight thrill, people ten years older might have wanted music that appealed to blue collar workers or perhaps which related to the challenges of raising youngsters or the desire for a haven from the madness of life. Every demographic has something that it wants, and if you can identify it and provide what they are looking for, the music will sell.

    If you are really lucky, a song will “cross-over” and now a Blues, or Country song will hit the Pop charts and sell far beyond any single demographic. When B.B. King’s version of The Thrill Is Gone was released in late 1969, it crossed over into #15 on the Hot 100 and made some serious money. When I was in High School, Lynn Anderson’s (I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden crossed over from Country into the Hot 100 and went to #3. Baby Boom kids with shaggy hair aware listening to a song and artist from the Nashville Country Music world, and loving it. A lot of money was made from that crossover.

    Producers feverishly wanted to learn how to make hits, and learned that certain characteristics elicited certain responses. Over the years, this morphed from being about finding what the market wanted into trying to manipulate the market’s tastes. Radio stations quit taking requests and DJs were held to playlists that “consultants” compiled. Deviating from these lists was grounds for dismissal and the tail began to wag the dog. Market analysis dominated and the experts became so sure of their methods that the market was at fault if a song that should have made it big fizzled out. By the ‘80s, it was all based upon formulas and, indeed, there were all sorts of catchy songs, but how many were memorable. What was left on the margins were songs with meaning and true emotion. Much of it was an artificially sweetened version of Pop that left one unsatisfied and with an unpleasant aftertaste.

    Adding to it: this was the era of MTV and video appeal was at least as important as the music itself. Brian Setzer played some great Rockabilly in the ‘80s, and he is a great musician, in my book, but the exaggerated pompadour he wore looked great in videos and the appearance of The Stray Cats loomed large in the minds of the music executives. I use Mr. Setzer as an example, because he is a very capable musician and has sustained a career for over 40 years because of ibis abilities, but he’s also a perfect example of what the business demanded of artists in that era. You had better look the part.

    Stevie Ray Vaughan was a Texas Blues guitarist that hit it big when his flat hat and unusual appearance got his musical ability into a David Bowie video and made him a guitar hero. SRV was great at what he did, but a cameo in a 1983 video opened the door to success, for him.

    The problem is, that there were a lot of video friendly artists that made a big splash, but were not necessarily musically substantive. Sadly, there were many music consumers that never understood the difference, and the market has turned into an endless parade of artists, many of whom fade to obscurity almost instantly. Substance and skill are secondary to immediate impact, hype and forced novelty. Music is now a business I am glad to be out of.

    1. The book publishing industry started to go south in the 1980s and 90s. I remember an editor at a major New York house said to me, “Gimme a Thomas Harris! Write a Thomas Harris!” He wanted a “Silence of the Lambs” knockoff.

      Don’t get me started about what happened to the horror fiction market back then.

  4. When I happen to hear the popular music of the moment, it all sounds so canned, and the singing is awful. It is like no one has a band anymore – no real drums, no guitars, just electronic gimmicks.

    1. Not to mention the processed vocals, with pitch correction. It sounds awful to me. A few years ago, an acquaintance made an album (which he funded out of his own pocket), and they pitch-corrected the vocals. It sounded awful.

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