August 7, 2021, at Radio City Music Hall, with Lady Gaga, ninety-five-year-old crooner Tony Bennett gave his farewell performance. Had I been there, I’d have heard and understood virtually every word, without hearing aids. This started me wondering: What happened to the music?
A monotone with a tin ear, I may be the least qualified person to play ”Music Critic.” I only report my experience.
After WW I, the Great Depression, and WW II, three decades of sacrifice and grief, on September 2, 1945, the Empire of Japanese surrendered. The United States of America heaved a great sigh of relief! Good Times were back!
I hypothesize that “Popular” art reflects the mood of a culture through a period. Remembering songsters from the twenty-some years after WWII, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Sonny and Cher, The Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Peter Paul and Mary come to mind. I heard and understood the lyrics, even Elvis and the Beetles!
With graduating from Brigham Young, three years in the Army, a decade living and working in Alaska, marrying Karen, moving to Oregon, raising a family, holding down a fulltime job, running marathons, and earning an M.S. in Psychology, music slid to the back burner of my mind.
Occasionally, I caught a TV snippet from some “Concerts” where, amid strobe lights and smoke, entertainers hopped like kangaroos, squalling, and wailing, busting up guitars and equipment. But the onstage mayhem didn’t matter. Audience members who did not already know the lyrics surely could not decipher more than the occasional stray word or repeated phrase. “Luv ya baby, waha, waha, waha! Luv ya baby, baby love ya baby, waha, waha, waha!”—bang crash!—“Oh baby I Luv ya baby, baby love ya baby, waha, waha, waha!”
These days, my music exposure comes from “America’s Got Talent.” I should emphasize that my assessment is totally biased by an old man’s hearing and mind. From my perspective most vocalists may as well sing in Mandarin. Here again I wonder. Do the lyrics matter? The stunning staging, blaring accompaniment, and audience’s cacophony overwhelm the music. On closed caption, I read a whole lot of repetitious, sophomoric sentiment.
Two singers are exempt from my crotchety-old-man’s opinion of today’s music. On AGT, Jimmy Herrod’s melodic and articulate “Tomorrow,” “Pure Imagination,” and “Glitter In The Air” recalled Bennett, Sinatra, Belafonte, and the rest. I love Lady Gaga! Her articulate and beautiful voice gives the lyrics significance. And, I understand virtually every word.
I hypothesized that “Popular” art reflects the mood of a culture through a period. Might the, to my ears, deafening volume, lousy articulation, and inane lyrics of so much of America’s music today reflect American’s culture today?
A potpourri of discord: As a candidate, President, and former President, Donald J. Trump prides himself in lies, divisiveness, and hatred, the very antithesis of the truth, inclusiveness, and respect for others on which America is founded. President Trump called White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis “very fine people.” As the capstone for his Presidency, Trump organized, coordinated, and ordered a seditious assault on our Capitol, Congress, and Constitution.
Beyond the Oval Office: Spurred by their ex-president’s groundless, unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and a rigged election, many Republican state legislators who were happy with election protocols which installed their guy in the White House, scramble to pass Jim Crowe era regulations disenfranchising folks who, under those same protocols, helped deliver Joe Biden’s landslide. A minority of US citizens refuse to accept CDC and NIH assurances that masks block virus and COVID-19 vaccines scientifically proven to be safe and effective. A charming city, Portland, Oregon, is desecrated and vandalized by mindless thugs. Among the most thankless of jobs, school board and election workers ask law enforcement for protection from angry citizens and death threats.
Where did our country veer from the paths of civility, decency, mutual respect, and common sense? Columbine? Then Sandy Hook, Parkland, Las Vegas, and all the rest! The decade preceding 2019, America’s homicide rate ranged around 5 per 100,000. In 2020 it jumped to 6 per 100,000, a twenty percent increase. Through the first ten months of 2021, homicides are on track to leap twenty-five percent over last year and forty percent over 2019.
The first six decades of my life, virtually everyone had a “home,” however mean or meager. Today homeless Americans’ tents and tarps border highways. They live in cars and RVs on city streets. The even-less fortunate block urban sidewalks with shopping carts and meager bundled possessions.
The material and moral rift between America’s top five percent and the rest of us became a chasm. Ironically and sadly, too many ninety-five percenters are duped into championing the five percent’s White-Male Oligarchy!
Vagaries of genetic and environmental, often beyond our control, favor some and curse others. At heart we are all the same. Folks who do not appear, speak, believe, or behave, as I do, merely want what I want: To be treated with kindness, respect, and love.
What happened to the music? What happened to America?