It was more than two weeks ago when Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke embarrassed themselves on the MTV Video Music Awards. And the Internet is still abuzz about it.
I recently read a blog post about the incident and the current state of music these days. It brings up some good points about what the music industry calls music—the overuse of sampling, sacrificing true talent for sex appeal and shock value, auto tuning.
It’s not like this is a new thing. Shock value and spectacle help sell music. It raises awareness of the artists involved, whether it’s positive or negative attention. It’s happened throughout the history of popular music. When Elvis first did his now-famous pelvic thrust while performing "Hound Dog" on "The Milton Berle Show" in 1956, critics slammed his performance "… for its ‘appalling lack of musicality,’ for its ‘vulgarity’ and ‘animalism.'" When John Lennon said that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, many fans of the band burned their albums in massive bonfires out of protest. And when Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a live bat in concert in 1982, rock critics shamed him (though Ozzy fans ate it up).
My point is that these types of incidents are history-making, whether they were done on purpose or not. But what’s interesting is to ponder what will be remembered—the incident or the artist? In most of the cases I mentioned, history has proven that the artists and their music are remembered more than the controversy they stirred. Unfortunately, and I’m only speculating here, I’m willing to bet that Cyrus and Thicke will be remembered for their soft porn performance more so than the music they produced because neither of these artists’ music have much staying power. And I use the term "artists" loosely.
Thicke is talented to a certain degree, by which I mean that you have to have at least a sliver of talent to land a record deal. But as he’s proven by his serial sampling of Marvin Gaye, his music is superficial and lazy. But Cyrus has talent. And she’s got soul. She had the potential to be something more than a former Disney burnout who went the easy route of making formulaic pop music and the even easier route of going the less-clothes-more-money route. At the risk of sounding old, that’s the problem with mainstream music these days.
Don’t get me wrong. Pop music, particularly rock 'n' roll, is all about sex, among other things. It’s about rebellion, power and emotion. But talent goes along with it, as well as a message. Whether it’s "F$%# tha Police" or "Born to Run," good music, I argue—songs that become classics—have to be memorable in their own way: lyrically, musically or both. Cyrus and Thicke represent the very worst of what music has become. The music takes backseat to spectacle. And it’s generic.
So what does this mean for the next generation of music fans? What will my young boys grow up listening to? What will they be exposed to when listening to mainstream radio?
I’ve come to terms with the fact that I have little control over what they will like musically when they are older. But I can at least provide for them a solid background of what good music is. And the answer lies in the history of rock 'n' roll.
When I was a kid, I rarely listened to what current music was on the radio at the time. I spent my time listening to the classics: Buddy Holly, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, Martha and the Vandellas, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye. I could go on and on. These artists gave me a solid music foundation so that as I grew older, my taste in music grew with me. I stopped just listening to music and began experiencing it, listening to what the songs were really about, what influenced them, and what it said about the musicians and the times in which they lived.
As my kids grow older, I’ll give them a rock 'n' roll education similar to what I had. And if they do end up listening to the next Miley Cyrus or Robin Thicke, they will at least be able to appreciate how good music once was—and how good it can be again.
Charlie Moss writes about local history and popular culture, including music, movies and comics. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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