This Modern World Sometimes Sucks

by Joshua B. Hoe So, Brittanny Howard can WAIL….I mean she can change the atmosphere with her voice.

Don’t get me wrong, she is also a very good guitarist...But WOW can she sing.  And I mean deep down, shake you to the core, tell you her story from her soul sing…She doesn’t have to share the details of her life story, because you can hear them all in her voice.

(If you are not familiar with Brittanny’s work, go listen to Sound and Color the latest album from her band Alabama Shakes).

And when she sings live...holy crap.  I mean face-melting vocal chops and soul.

So why does this suck?  It doesn’t…

Well, nothing sucks about Alabama Shakes,

And this post isn’t really about recorded music, but it does suck that if you look at the album charts Sound and Color is at number 25 while dreck like Mumford and Sons latest album and Now That’s What I Call Country Volume 300,000 are selling more units.  And, lets face it, nobody sells albums anymore….No song from Sound and Color is on the singles list this week.  Instead artists that blatently use auto-tune like Jason Derulo are the HOT ones.

Anyway, this post is about live music.

I was accidentally watching the Tonight Show like a month ago and Madonna was on...I kind of remember the 80’s Madonna I kind of liked (Lucky Star was a good song), I kind of half-assed paid attention...She did some bizarre stand-up comedy routine and then did a “performance” of “her” song “Bitch, I’m Madonna.”  

I immediately noticed several things about her performance:

  1. She sang nothing live...In fact, I am not even sure you could in any way identify her voice on the track.  Do not get me wrong, I am not saying she did not actually utter the words at some point through some music filtration and purification device when it was recorded.  
  1. I am not sure anyone cared that she was doing a live performance but with the eye to a youtube video.  There is this odd experience where you see parents recording the live performances of their children….This performance by Madonna was like that...more a calculated exercise in curation than an actual live performance (In an odd way that is kind of what the Tonight Show has become IMHO - more about the cynical generation of content than the creation of authentic interactions or real moments).  

It used to be that great live bands and live performances changed how you perceived artists or their music.  

I feel like mainstream live performance has become oddly inverted.  Hardly anyone actually sings live anymore.

Every month there is a new music awards program that advertises like 20 new “LIVE” performances that are never really live….They are coreographed and practiced, but no real music is ever being played and no actual singing ever happens.

I am almost shocked when it looks like they are actually singing (instead of lyp synching to a recorded track).

Years ago, I saw an interview with the majority of the members of Monty Python where they were reminiscing about their first tour of the United States...They said that one of the oddest things that they experienced on the tour was that when they were doing the bits, the audience was doing the bits with them...often out loud.  They wondered if their performance of the bits was even necessary.

Has all live performance become an exercise in audience participation (like Japanese baseball)?  Is fan participation becoming more important than the artists performances?

Are performers even necessary anymore?  I kind of feel like Madonna has become a brand so removed from the artist herself (or her actual physical voice) that almost anyone could perform as Madonna and I am not sure anyone would notice at all.

So, I have all these questions built up about performance and…..

….then I turn the channel, and there Paladia, Alabama Shakes are performing on the Jules Holland Show….And they are killing it….And Brittanny is WAILING...She is pouring her whole soul out. They wreck the place...Her vocal power and interpretation is overwhelming.

They played a version of their song “Gimme All Your Love” that was better than the studio version.  It communicated the impatient longing, the craving for Brittany’s partner to finally come correct and be totally present….You could feel her plea for deep emotional and physical presence.

Is it possible that we no longer want our performances to be about the performers?

Does nobody care if music is really live anymore because  we want performances to be about us and about call and response?  About selfie sticks and singing along?

EDM is constructed to allow maximum crowd participation….The DJ’s are stars, but stars that all have the exact same fist pumping and button turning onstage….

In Japan there are actual computer-generated pop stars….I mean that literally.  They do not exist outside of the computer - the voices are created out of whole cloth programming, they are visually represented as cartoons.  Any interaction with the audience is entirely designed.

People go to concerts where these generated images “perform.”

I feel like there was a time when live performances were a place where magic and disaster were always possible.  Where people really put themselves at risk.  Songs were taken to entirely new places.  Personalities and meanings were explored in new and exciting or even dangerous ways.

Live performances were a way artists added depth and context to their art.  A band that could kill it live was universally considered better than a band that was only good in the studio.

I mean, I never respected Madonna’s voice, but she used to at least do performance art and pop art while she lyp-synched.  Now, it just seems so artificial and cynical.

I suspect, in reality, just as much great live performance is happening...and even back in the day, for every great Prince concert there was a staged Michael Jackson television event.  I guess what seems to have changed is that now the puppet masters - the actual artists behind whoever is “live” is hidden.

Most popular songs today could be sung by anyone….They are written by nameless and faceless producers and sung by a rotating chorus of souless drones.  Some are even talented drones with decent voices, but who generally expose nothing of themselves when they sing.

I guess what scares me is that artists no longer seem to want their art to expose something personal from or about an artist.  Iggy Azalea doesn’t want you to know about Iggy, she wants you to know about her appropriation of black feminity through a white lens.

Maybe even worse, we don’t want her to expose anything either.  We just want to feel a part of things.

It seems like people want music to be a predictable canvas - a backdrop - upon which they can project themselves.  Just like parents taking videos of their kids school play to share with friends instead of actually experiencing the performance...Live performances have become backdrops for us to take selfies (like the staged Oscar picture a few years ago - what matttered was how many people looked up the picture not what actually happened at the Oscars) or for us to sing along with...If the song doesn’t follow the exact path of our recorded version how can we sing along in unison?

This is why movies with no soul - like Age of Ultron - outsell movies full of soul like Mad Max...Mad Max has surprises and twists and turns while Age of Ultron is exactly what we expect - to the letter.  

Meanwhile, Brittany and other less celebrated artists bleed out and share themselves…..and less and less people seem to care.  I still care.

What is art now?

If you want to talk about the state of music, about Alabama Shakes, or about the state of art in general please leave a comment, we would love to hear from you!