Singer-songwriter Don McLean is credited in popular culture for coining the phrase “The day the music died” in his best-known song, “American Pie.” That “day” was the day a plane crash killed musician Buddy Holly, one of McLean’s biggest musical influences. As a baby-boomer, I loved that song (still do), because it hit me when I was in high-school in 1972, a time when pop music was still breaking free of its social restraints, forging new sounds, experimenting, growing, changing almost daily.
Back then, I never took the phrase, “the day the music died” seriously, because pop music had grown by leaps and bounds since Holly was killed in 1959. Styles exemplified by The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, and Motown, among others, hadn’t yet blasted off into the stratosphere. So how could anyone look at the death of one great star like Buddy Holly as such a mournful turning point in musical culture?
I couldn’t see it then. I don’t see it now. But with the benefit of thirty-plus years of hindsight, I propose there is another day that actually signified the death of pop music—music of the people, music for mass consumption. August 1, 1981. The day Music Television—MTV—broadcast its first music video.
Why? Because once the watching of a musical performance became more important than the listening to a musical performance, the quality of music began to suffer as the marketability of musicians started elbowing out their talent and creativity.
I agree music has always been a visual activity as well as an aural activity. Heck, until Edison invented the phonograph, the only way to hear music was to be in the physical presence of the musicians. So I won’t disagree that it was possible for the listening audience to prefer watching the more attractive musicians perform over the less attractive, but if an ugly guy was a musical genius, his fans still showed up to the concert hall.
With the advent of the mass marketing of MTV music videos, and the emphasis on the visual images cobbled together to make the video, along with the actors and musicians performing in the videos, the music industry soon discovered that the more beautiful, glamorous, sexy, attractive the performer, the better the video sold. And when I say, “sold,” I mean the selling of advertising during the video shows just like ads for any TV sitcom or one-hour drama. The more attractive the video in all respects, the more money the advertisers made.
Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to have talent. A musician had to have good looks. If the musician didn’t have the looks, then the band or the dancers or the actors in the video had to be attractive. As more emphasis was placed on looks and selling ad space, less was given to writing truly innovative music. A hit became just a catchy tune that stuck in viewer/listener heads, or perhaps had a shocking scene of a sexual or violent nature to pump up the buzz.
I hold up Michael Jackson and Madonna as the early pioneers of the video phase of popular music. Jackson for his emphasis on dance, choreography, and story telling in his videos; Madonna for her outrageous sex appeal and visually groundbreaking videos.
Jackson’s videos sparked a revolution in dance that was uniquely captured in his videos. He was a consummate entertainer, with a decent voice and charisma to burn, but few of his songs stood out musically. Madonna has had even more success with her videos and music, but her voice is barely competent, and her hits are so forgettable that I only remember a few lines from one or two.
The video age further diminished the emphasis on a performer’s talent with the adoption of the standardized use of lip-synching. Lip-synching subtly implies that singers can perform all sorts of dance histrionics while we hear their near-perfect studio recordings over the action. Listeners are fooled into believing the singers are more talented than they really are.
Lip-synching led to computer-enhanced recording, which allows an engineer to alter any facet of a recording—voice, instrument, speed, overall pitch. Once again, an attractive, visually appealing musician with marginal musical talent can be “musically enhanced,” just as celebrities are surgically enhanced, to make them seem “better” than they actually are. So we get entertainment that’s fun to watch, but in which the music falls far short of its potential.
Lastly, attention to commercial success necessitates appealing to the lowest common denominator in order to sell to the largest audience possible. The music can’t be too intelligent, too esoteric, too different from whatever sells well. Just like television, music became a commodity with which to sell merchandise, not an end in itself. Maximize profits by putting minimal cost (read quality) into the product.
You might think I’m just a baby boomer pining for the good ol’ days of Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Carole King, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Aretha Franklin—hell, all of Motown— and all the other truly historic, groundbreaking musicians of the 60s and 70s. You may be right, but I’ll counter with this:
How many of Madonna‘s hit songs will still be listened to in 100 years? Michael Jackson? Britney Spears? Beyoncé? Any Rap/Hip-hop artists or songs? Boyz II Men? Usher? Will “Like a Virgin” be played ubiquitously on elevators and in grocery stores in the twenty-second century?
Now, how many Beatles tunes will still be listened to in 100 years? Carole King? Smokey Robinson? Paul Simon? Elvis? Chuck Berry? I’ll bet money our great-grandchildren will still be enjoying Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude” as much as we do now, and as much as we did when those songs were new.
And of course, how can we not still be listening to this truly great song in 100 years?
What do you think? When did the music die? Or hasn’t it died? Is it more alive than ever?