2016 was tumultuous. The convulsive, nauseating developments of this century’s bleakest year to-date have had a palpable impact on cultural and societal perspective worldwide. It is quite an astonishingly cruel coincidence – so improbable as to seem fatalistic – that the very same year was marked by two incomprehensibly tragic losses, not just to Music, but also to global culture and the celebration of individual human artistic achievement.
The deaths of David Bowie and Prince, respectively, have left a deep scar; a black star; a sucker punch to the gut, the memory of the pain from which still brings a grimace or sigh whenever a reminder resurfaces: the dispiriting recognition of the untimely end of two uniquely talented individuals, creating in an environment that welcomed their incandescent personalities, lauded and adored their sonic expression, and handsomely rewarded them with a timeless place in the history of Humanity. A time that can never be lived again, by people whose lives most of us only ever dream of experiencing.
More heroes will die as time’s metronome mercilessly and remorselessly goes on keeping its beat. We will read Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney’s obituaries and the same sickening feeling will resurface. This is not meant to be morbid, but it is a lament. A heartfelt lament and an impassioned cry for the future.
Death remains (as of publication) inevitable. What is not inevitable, however, is the dearth of truly iconic, immensely talented artists rising up to step into these heroes’ shoes. Just looking at the leading artists to emerge from each decade of music since the 1950s lays bare this uncomfortable fact. There is no point laying blame – common refrains like “it’s the labels”, “artists don’t take risks” are facile answers to a trend now lasting twenty to thirty years, although there are certainly structural problems within the infrastructure behind the creation, consumption and performance of music that indubitably impede the rise of a new hero.
Some of it is quite Borgesian. As posited in La Biblioteca de Babel (and several of Borges’ other Ficciones) – to paraphrase – how can one be original if every book that will ever be read has already been written?
Some of it is Barthesian – as soon as something innovative does arrive, it is codified and hence stripped of its jouissance.
Some of it must also be imparted to our species’ magnificent capacity for nostalgia, a pernicious drug that (like its chemical brethren) should be imbibed in careful moderation. First we began using Polaroids again, then we made our digital images seem like they were older, now we deliberately blur video footage and add fake timestamps – for what? The very same tendency to look back fondly on the past and erase it of its ills is present in Music (note the current trend for pop music videos to reference ’90s culture). Certainly there are artists today standing out above the fray, with the potential to achieve iconic status. Time will tell, but even when adjusting for nostalgia, it is challenging to build a coherent argument for any contemporary artist to be uniting people across genre, race, creed and culture in the same way that Michael Jackson, Freddie Mercury or The Beatles did, and continue to do so. For now, we remain addicted to nostalgia, but our veins are thinning rapidly and there are fewer areas of the skin that aren’t scarred or riddled with abscesses.
It is important to note the use of the word ‘artist’ and its intended context in this lament, as it is a vital piece of differentiation in assessing or commenting upon Music. There are various subsets of musicianship, from composer to producer to arranger and performer. Artists, from Audio Snobbery’s perspective, are individuals who possess several – if not all – of these aforementioned abilities, and unite them behind an image (be it an icon or themselves), to present their art (for Music is Art) as a coherent piece of expression. The Beatles were artists and John Lennon was an artist. Ariana Grande is a performer (and most certainly not an artist). Michael Jackson was also a performer (Quincy Jones was the artist), although his iconic power and the virtuosity of his performances propelled him into artist-dom. David Bowie and Prince were both spectacular examples of artists, as they also powerfully incorporated visual aesthetics into their image and art whilst producing, arranging, composing and performing their songs, which is what led them to become such globally impactful icons. Trent Reznor, Radiohead, Dr. Dre and Damon Albarn are all artists (or bands) that also make powerful use of iconography in their self-expression, and are probably some of the last heroes.
Identifying contemporary heroes is challenging. At the risk of falling into the generational trap of decrying all that is new as shadow of what came before, it would appear, looking at the musical world surrounding us in 2018, that there are next to no artists on-track to achieve the levels of superstardom seen in the 1980s.
There are strong contenders. Kendrick Lamar is probably the most readily identifiable. The majesty and diversity of his albums has outshone all other contemporary gangsta rappers in the game, testament to which has been his ability to cross into mainstream popularity at minimal cost to his artistic credibility or identity. The world appears to be recognising this, as Pulitzer prizes head his way and his outspoken, post-modern and enlightened perspective on what it means to be a black American today continues to outshine the observations of his peers, whilst simultaneously complimenting his artistry. Rap, however, is a genre that can struggle in a live performance setting, and Lamar can fall prey to this dilemma. Heloise Letissier (Christine and the Queens), on the opposite end of the spectrum, is a superlative contemporary pop artist, with demonstrable songwriting and performing sensibilities and capabilities, and certainly one to watch over the next half decade. Childish Gambino shows promise, as Glover’s multifaceted nature continues to raise his profile amidst a post-millennial sea of dross, and This is AmeriKKKa powerfully tapped into the zeitgeist of – again – the contemporary United States. Anderson Paak and Blood Orange’s multi-instrumental talents also remain bright lights in 2018 (and hopefully beyond), although it remains true that none of the aforementioned artists have yet to reach the peak: to be universally recognised and acclaimed as global icons; to take a place in the history of Humanity. Some (Lamar) are close, but the road is long and arduous, and talent is a gift to be nurtured, not a goose laying golden eggs.
Upon Bowie’s death, Elton John remarked:
“We all know how inspiring he is. We all know that his music stands. We don’t have to say anything about the music: it speaks for itself. He was innovative, he was boundary-changing, and he danced to his own tune—which in any artist is really rare.”
It is rare indeed, which is why it is coveted by music fans when it is discovered. Heroes cannot be resurrected – Prince’s abject horror over the use of holograms was spot-on: it is heresy. The beauty of these heroes is the potency of their individualism and improbability of their existence; they are one of a kind, and the experience of seeing them live is a once in a lifetime experience (David Byrne is also an artist).
There is a manifest lack of heroes in the world today, and their power to unite and inspire should not be callously dismissed. Where does this leave us, and what are we to do?
Certainly, without laying blame at the labels’ feet, the Majors can afford to do more – particularly as the industry returns to semi-robust growth thanks to streaming’s ability to undo the enormous damage wrought by piracy. Napster’s “gift” of rendering music free had the unintended consequence of accelerating the A&R industry’s latent unwillingness to take risk even further towards the ‘zero risk’ spectrum, yielding a litany of uninspiring artists pushed onto the consumer as the ‘next big thing’, even though it is abundantly clear that the vast majority of these artists will not provide the perpetuity income streams yielded by the likes of Elvis Presley. The music industry needs to find the courage to take risks once again, to indulge artists and producers as it did in the 1960s and 1970s, to bring a wider range of artistic output across a broader span of genres to a mainstream audience (who, it must be said, will listen to what they are told to listen to, when push comes to shove). Media has a role to play here, as well – one could dare to have an opinion in lieu of optimising for engagement, for a start.
Artists can also aim higher. Ask yourself questions: What is fame? What is artistry? If you are a contemporary artist today with any modicum of talent close to yesterday’s heroes, there is no reason that, through nurturing your passion, you cannot achieve their heights (the unquantifiable unknown is Luck). Distribution and audience are easier to achieve than ever, which was meant to herald a new era in Music. Instead we have mediocrity, peddling for attention and influencer deals with brands on Instagram in lieu of any form of authenticity.
Contemporary society and culture is a bleak place. Humanity seems to prefer to feast on outrage and argument in 2018, in direct juxtaposition to the peace and love offered by comparable generations in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Recognising that this very comment risks veering this lament into the trap of nostalgia, it is simultaneously hard not to notice the cultural void left by the lack of outspoken artistic voices on any form of cultural, artistic or political comment (Trent Reznor is a rare exception, and should be lauded for it). Staring down the barrels of authoritarian guns the world over, we need heroes. Music is more unifying and egalitarian than any socio-economic ideology or religion; any one of the thousands (if not millions) of aspiring artists today could step forward to pick up the mantle. Even just to try and be a comparable artist in authenticity of expression and audacity of endeavour can have an unimaginable impact and capacity to unify.
We can beat them, for ever and ever. Oh, we can be heroes, just for one day.