Walking through any grocery store these days is an interesting exercise in listening – most establishments put on the radio and we are subjected to a mix of “classic rock”, “80s favourites”, and of course the modern one hit wonders. A closer listen to the modern songs has me reflecting on an issue that’s been on my mind for several years: emoting through music, especially singing.
It seems that the youth of today is straining to make us all hear how deeply they feel the emotions they are singing about. Is this because we need to be guided on how to feel? Is it that we’ve become so dumbed down that we can’t understand the lyrics and we need to be told how to feel? I’ve come to react very negatively to this kind of “singing”. Why must every young woman sound like she is on the verge of some tragedy induced orgasm, and every young man sound like he has digestive difficulties or is wearing no article of clothing not in a pastel shade? All of this is, in a word, boring.
But why? The answer to this is probably more than I have a right to tackle and more complex than I would be able to condense into a short article like this, but I believe I can identify a few important factors:
- more so than ever, music is utterly disposable. The songs we hear don’t matter. They are vapid and unnecessary, and perhaps it is in the face of this complete lack of relevance that performers feel they must put emotional delivery into overdrive.
- we may have Hollywood to thank for some of this in that nearly every mainstream movie experience spells out every last emotional detail for us. Has this created an audience that is at least unwilling if not unable to meet a piece of music on its own terms? That is, does the modern audience demand that all the emotional work be not only presented but actually done by the performer?
- further to this, do we have a generation of performers and “artists” that don’t understand what they are singing about? That is, are they going through the motions of telling us what they feel without knowing what in fact it is that they feel in the first place?
Upon reflection, I think I would have to concede that it is not only young performers that are guilty of telling us what to feel and how to feel it. Recently I was with a close friend watching a performance by KD Lang of the Neil Young song “Helpless”. And, while less obvious, the same thing happens. Compare this with a performance by Neil Young during the Winter Olympic opening ceremonies. Yes, he’s a very different kind of performer. Well, is it that he is an artist and not an entertainer? Is that the fundamental difference?
Maybe that’s it…the great artists are not the great entertainers. The artists give us a raw glimpse of an interior or exterior reality, and invite us to come into the experience, usually with much less instruction around how to feel it, much less emotional coercion. The place of work is directly in between artist and audience. For the entertainer, the work is entirely on stage.
I met a rather interesting artist in Tokyo once, a guitar player. Enigmatic, mysterious, and vibrant. He talked about feel in music: “Put on a metronome and try to play as exactly in time as you possibly can. You’ll find that you can’t do it. There will always be some small imperfection. But don’t despise that imperfection. It is your body – my imperfection can never be the same as your imperfection. Your physical being dictates the shape of your imperfection. Remember now too that this holds true for your emotional and psychological being too.”
What is the take away here? Well, if I dared take on that role right now, I’d be entertaining, wouldn’t I