Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Great Leveler

Not very long ago, pop music in India was divided in 2 categories - "fast" and "slow". The latter was not deemed to be any better than our own film music, while the former - with the novelty effect of extreme exuberance, justified its existence thus. Clearly, myopia ruled. In any case, anything called "pop" was always pretty unlikely to be taken seriously. No wonder the music is vastly underrated even today. (Originally meant to be a short form of popular music, today "pop" implies a genre less vital than rock. For the sake of convenience, unless otherwise stated, let's assume "pop" means popular music - rock, pop, soul, country, folk… all included.)

In fact, since the mid-sixties, the intelligence and passion that characterise the best films and writing of our times, have been constantly finding an outlet in pop music. The singer-songwriters, starting with The Beatles in Britain and Bob Dylan in America, made pop music a brand-new art-form, pushing the envelope, opening the mind, flooding the realm of possibility. In its short life of 40-odd years, pop has become the most potent and influential art form of this century (along with cinema, perhaps). The best pop songs have moved people by expressing the mood of its times, and yet have a timeless quality that keeps them fresh and vital for listeners who're initiated to it years after they were first conceived. Above all, they've cut across economic, social and even religious divides more comprehensibly than anything else this century.

A great pop song is like a beautiful short story, with its own peculiar means of expression. In anything between 2 and 5 minutes (usually), it makes you live through a distinct emotion. It may lift your spirits, or validate your pain. It may bring out an alien feeling in you, or it may accentuate a familiar sentiment. It may hit your gut squarely, or make you think tangentially. It may make you care for a cause you'd ordinarily oversee, or it may simply show you the world through someone else's eyes.

The best pop songs look life squarely in the eye, and life blinks first. Honesty is the hallmark in pop's greatest work. Honesty as in emotional expression, not lyrical content. In fact, contrary to popular assumption, the best songs are not about the best lyrics. Sure, some have a distinct literary quality, as is conventionally understood. But with many great songs, the lyrics can seem ordinary on paper, but when performed in tune, they have a power that is indescribable. (Dr. Jonathan Miller once said that it affects the nervous system positively, but its not been proven, or explained, scientifically.) In any case, emotional connections invariably come from passion, not intellectual appraisals of lyrics. Very often, you may find that you do not know the lyrics of a song that has moved you. And we all know how an infectious chorus can render the most innocuous words memorable.

The best pop songs have a soul, they're somehow more real than most things around us. They have an immediacy, often a spontaneity that is alluring. Sentimentality, melodrama, bombast and pretentiousness do not have a place in them. Interestingly, both artlessness and sophistication do, as long the feelings are true, not postured. And there's no subject under the sun that's not had a pop song written on. Nothing has been taboo, nothing sacred. The biting sarcasm of Randy Newman, the urban grittiness of Lou Reed, the mystical poetry of Leonard Cohen, the clear-eyed calm of Paul Simon, the passionate implosions of Bruce Springsteen, the desperate angst of Kurt Cobain, the anarchic rantings of Johny Rotten, the darkness of Nick Cave, the exuberance (and later, introspection) of Lennon-McCartney, the idealistic longings of Pete Seeger, the emotional directness of Joni Mitchell, the ironic wit of Richard Thompson… they're among the hundreds who gave pop music its cutting-edge, its well-rounded scope, its integrity. An integrity that is always less likely (not wholly improbable, though) to be achieved by an interpretive artist (like, say, in Hindi film music). Which is why the musicians who wrote their own songs, the singer-songwriters, are the ones who really vitalised this genre and produced its most meaningful work.

Of course, you cannot underestimate great musicianship. A searing electric guitar can speak most eloquently about the pain that emanates from deep inside. A lively rhythm can lift the spirits unambiguously. A soaring voice can give form and substance to a catharsis. There have been many great musicians who gave pop a musical respectability among practitioners of other genres of music. Guitar-players like Hendrix, Clapton and Page, pianists like Bruce Hornsby and Elton John, voices like Aretha Franklin's and Otis Redding's, melodists like Cole Porter and Paul McCartney, drummers like Keith Moon and John Bonham…the list could go on and on…

Slickness, cliches, affectations - they're found in popular music too, just like in any other art-form/idiom/genre. Unfortunately, this shallow brand of pop is what plays around us everywhere - on television music channels, FM radio, restaurants, the works. It is this mindless, market-driven music that gives pop music its identity today. As usual, we take in the worst the west has to offer, leaving out the more meaningful. Yet, the great works of popular music are available in India. Many path-breaking albums, both old and new, continue getting released.

Here are 5 albums that illustrate the points above. These are personal choices, therefore subjective, with its attendant biases. It is indisputable, though, that they all represent their times, and wonderfully demonstrate the heights great songwriting can touch.

Revolver (Parlophone, 1966) by The Beatles: A certain energy is palpable when something brilliant is beginning to happen. The 14 songs here showcase the start of that unbelievable inventiveness with which The Beatles soared over all their peers. Witty, touching, even weird in turns, this was a mind-expanding album that also stunningly captured the drugs and spiritual "movements" of the mid-60's. Yet, it sounds unbelievably fresh to this day - 33 years later!

Blood On The Tracks (Columbia, 1974) by Bob Dylan: "Acoustic Soul" is how one critic described this great album. The soul was Bob Dylan's , the pain was of lost love. The songs really cut deep. He sang about his breaking marriage with pain, remorse, anger, wonder and hope …honestly, unsentimentally, involuntarily. He HAD to do these songs, they HAD to come out of him. Strangely uplifting for an album of these concerns, this is the greatest songwriter of all time at his very best.

Graceland (Warner Bros, 1986) by Paul Simon: The album that brought "world music" centerstage. Using black South African rhythms and sounds as his tools, Simon created one of those rare entities - a huge commercial AND critical success. There were some who accused him of "musical tourism" - they mistook the means for the end. Exuberant, innovative and thoughtful - these were quintessential Paul Simon songs, enhanced by sounds from a different culture. Possibly the finest "fusion" album ever.

Avalon Sunset (Mercury, 1988) by Van Morrison: A 43-year-old masterful musician's musings on religion and spirituality. Though the album begins with a catchy, unsubtle duet (a huge hit) with well-known evangelist Cliff Richard, it graduates to more personal, more reflective expressions. Despite its otherworldly feel, it's a very accessible, very universal, collection of songs. The power of his singing, the passion and sense of wonder, make this a stunning album, despite a couple of throwaways.

Up (Warner Bros, 1998) by R.E.M.: A hugely underrated album by the finest band of the nineties. R.E.M.'s drummer had retired unexpectedly and just like a newly blinded man suddenly finds his hearing power enhanced, the band seemed to discover facets to their music they hadn't consciously deliberated on before. Lyrically, the album's 14 songs are basically introspective moments of 14 characters, each expressing a personal crisis. Sonically, the songs pay tribute to many musicians who influenced R.E.M., like The Beach Boys, Leonard Cohen, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, even Radiohead…without the band ever losing their individuality. Overall, Up is probably an album for older listeners, the over-30s set … a fitting example of the strides popular music has taken.

Jaideep Varma

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