Problems with the music industry: a visual metaphor
With Spotify, the internet and the fact we can now measure the changing of the seasons by the length of the judges’ facial hair on the X-Factor (or in the case of Louis Walsh, stages of the manopause) you may think there’s never been a better time to love music. It’s everywhere. Look around, you may not be able to see music – in fact, you may not be even be able to hear it – but rest assured, it’s there, waiting to punt itself up your ear canals. But take a closer look at the modern musical landscape and you’ll see it’s not as rosy as it initially appears. While we have instant access to pretty much everything ever recorded ever, we’re also at a point in human evolution where the longest attention spans can’t be recorded because interest is lost midway through the drool reaching the floor.
Pretty much every new album I listen to I skip the first few seconds to see what it’s like. I tell myself that it’s because my time is at a premium but, as regular visitors to this blog will attest, I don’t really plan my time very constructively; I just kind of let it have its way with me. And while this bite-size approach may reduce the kind of musical bloat that once made the second Stone Roses album unlistenable for the first five minutes (or seventy, if you’re feeling particularly churlish), it may also suggest that something as good as their first album may go unnoticed. Its fragile voice smothered by ‘grimestep’, ‘nu-bass’ and chirpy Canadian foetuses called Michael Buble.
Speaking of Manchester’s finest, you can’t launch a diatribe at the state of modern music without mentioning the resurrection of bands from the past. The music fan of today is like Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park and the glorious bands of yesteryear are our gallimimus, hotfooting it away from dignity and musical credibility, which, for the purposes of this metaphor, will be represented by a T-Rex – though perhaps not of the Marc Bolan variety. Although since Bolan’s current status makes him exempt from all but the most clumsy, insensitive and probably illegal attempts at reformation, perhaps he is best suited to playing the big lizard in this laboured example.
It’s hard to begrudge all bands that get back together. This year I’ve seen the pseudo-reformation of Kyuss, who managed to expire before they received acclaim – a bit like van Gogh, but louder, hairier and with the ability to reform and play at Manchester Academy – and Death From Above 1979, who ably proved that Canada has more to offer than singing foetuses. I was actively pursuing music the first time they were troubling eardrums but, unfortunately, the music I was pursuing was largely crap.
Because the former peaked while no one was there to witness it, and the other imploded before reaching their full potential, it’s hard not to feel that getting back together is more than just acceptable. It feels somehow right. Then again, I’m completely biased because I like both bands and seeing their modern incarnations brought a shiver to my cynical spine. But let’s pretend I’m not being completely biased. In the case of the Stone Roses it’s hard to argue that they didn’t peak on the first attempt – as their debut’s place on countless best of lists, not to mention The Seahorses, will attest.
Still, one man’s food is another man’s mechanically separated mush. There are obviously enough people who didn’t see the Stone Roses first time around (though presumably not their infamous Reading performance), or just fancy an opportunity to take the mothballs out of their Joe Bloggs. And while their reunion gigs may just be an elaborate reconstruction of the ‘Climbing for Dollars’ ad from The Running Man, I’m not sure the ruthless pursuit of money is an applicable criticism any more. Let’s face it, credibility doesn’t pay the bills and selling your songs to ads seems like one of the first rungs on the ladder to having a musical career these days. So while age, common sense and their artistic legitimacy suggests they should know better, these are tough times and art is often the first up against the wall.
The larger problem is that the music industry is clearly knackered. Like an overly excited old dog, it occasionally attempts new tricks but is much more comfortable chasing its tail and licking its own bollocks. And unless anyone can come up with a better explanation for Jedward, I’ll stick to that theory. Some may argue that’s what happens when the single more powerful figure in music is someone who found early success with the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Hulk Hogan and Zig and Zag and it’s hard not to agree. (I am of course talking about Simon Cowell, a human rectangle comprised entirely of wealth and body-hair).
But what’s the alternative? People say artists should be nurtured and allowed to develop but my attention span runs out midway through a trip to the toilet – much to the chagrin of my dignity, so I’ve no idea how I’m supposed to stick with someone who isn’t musically incrediballs on their first outing. It’s a Catch-22. Then again, Westlife have just announced they’re about to split, so the glass should be more than half-full. It should be overflowing with positivity. Clearly there are greater problems out there. And unless years down the line someone finds them preserved in amber, clones them and lets them escape their paddocks/stools, we should be grateful for what we’ve got. It is nearly Christmas, after all. Gawd bless.
So yeah, this will probably happen.
That Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the thinking man’s summer blockbuster should come as no surprise to those who’ve followed the simian saga so far. Each film in the storied franchise contains plenty of thought provoking sentiment that you wouldn’t normally find in a generic blockbuster. It seems you can get away with metaphorical murder as long as your film stars apes in polyester suits.
Along with downbeat endings and chimpanzees that look strangely like Christian Bale, one of the hallmarks of the Apes series is a strain of deep-running social commentary that makes them strangely prescient in regard to real-world events. Well, either that or the films are recycling what’s gone before and history is condemned to continually repeat itself. For the sake of this post I’m going to assume it’s the former – despite naturally being of the glass-is-half-full disposition.
Anyway, here are four real world events, as predicted by the Planet of the Apes saga – even the not very good one by Tim Burton.
The Intelligent Design debate
Planet of the Apes takes a hypothetical large pole and uses it to skewer organised religion, taking particular care to smite the idea of creationism. Despite excavating evidence to the contrary, the apes in the first film believe they are the first race to gain enlightenment and they’ll go to any length to maintain that belief, including hindering their scientists and using fear to keep their people in line. Which adds an extra layer of cynicism and real-world relevance.
Unlike the film, there doesn’t seem to be a begrudging live and let live arrangement in real life. Though on the bright side, that also means we don’t have to wander the desert in a loincloth until we realise that we’re all completely fucked. I think the encyclopedia entry for ‘Small Mercies’ may need a new example.
Katie and Peter: The Final Chapter
A couple of talking chimps feted by sophisticated society for their lack of pretension and ignorance of social norms are eventually ostracised, when the true nature of their existence is revealed and people get a little bit bored of their earthy ways. Yes, the story of Peter Andre and Jordan’s financially incentivised romantic coupling is truly a film script come to life. In this case, the film is Escape from the Planet of the Apes. And just like real-life, this state of affairs becomes even more sinister when the well-heeled realise these actions could inspire the less intelligent of their race to do the same. This is further compounded when it’s discovered they’re breeding.
But that’s where reality and fiction diverge; The Only Way is Essex and the continued awareness of the existence of Peter Andrew attests that the real chimps’ ending isn’t half as bad as their fictional counterparts. As the unwritten rule of the Apes film dictates, it ends less happily for Zira and Cornelius. Sob. But as depressing as this cinematic ending is, it’s arguably not as miserable as watching ITV 2.
The Arab Spring
A dispossessed class, forced into mindless servitude, unite to overthrow their privileged masters. Despite an equal level of synthetic clothing, the plot of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t bear much resemblance to the recent London Riots – as the lack of basmati rice and stolen plasma screens attest. But it does bear more than a passing muster to the momentous Arab Spring revolution in the Middle East. Having been inspired by the radical actions of an individual, the dispossessed literally go ape-shit in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, rebelling against those who’ve enslaved them in a bloody coup that appears to take place in Milton Keynes.
Unfortunately there’s no third act in real life, so while the rebellion in ‘Conquest’ takes about 20 minutes, in real life we have the bloody actions of oppressors met with some stern words from the UN. I’m no mathematician but I suspect the percentage of this shit happening on Charlton Heston’s watch is about -100%.
George W. Bush’s presidency
The Sit Down of the Ape
The prescient potency of the Planet of the Apes series cannot be denied. Even Tim Burton’s otherwise inept remake contained an element of foresight, ending as it did with a chimp reclining on a seat of power in Washington DC the very same year George W Bush took office. And while this ending was contrived and confusing, at least it only lasted a couple of minutes. The real life Commander and chimp’s term lasted for 8 shitting years.
The Planet of the Apes remake ended on a downer, mainly because it was so pants. Though all hope is not lost because the new film is very good indeed. So let’s make the most of it while we can as, according to ape lore, we have psychic humans with melted faces, the further intellectual decline of the human race, enslavement by smarter apes and a nuclear apocalypse to look forward to. That should make for some interesting reality TV.
Great vigilante, terrible beautician.
Like most people with eyes I was in awe of The Dark Knight upon release. To paraphrase the abiding message of Batman Begins, it elevated itself beyond the sum of its parts to become something much more rich and meaningful. In this case it was undoubtedly more than just a film about a rich nutter dressing like a bat to stop crime. And while its predecessor dealt with themes of fear and revenge, The Dark Knight dealt with escalation, both thematically and literally – using a broad canvas to explore, among other things, the impact of terrorism and how fragile humanity can be when pitted against the unerring will of a psychotic clown.
But with an overriding exploration of terrorism and its fallout, what once made The Dark Knight a transcendental contemporary thriller could also now confine it to a real world time and place. Like Steve Guttenburg, Chris O’Donnell or the word ‘Ninja’, some things are so indicative of a certain time that their addition is set to forever date the film in which they appear. Conversely, The Dark Knight’s predecessor actually featured ninjas, but holds up better, at least on a thematic level. I suppose ninjas follow the basic tenets of narrative: show, don’t tell, which would make sense because, like most people, I wouldn’t attempt to tell a ninja shit.
It’s likely that in a few years we’re going to roll our eyes at the prevalent themes of early millennial entertainment – like we do today with pop-socks or Alan Sugar’s E-m@iler – especially if it’s true that the death of Bin Laden has seen global terrorist incidents fall to 0.00%. This isn’t really going to help The Dark Knight’s legacy. And to compound matters further the film also features Batman engaging in levels of phone hacking that might have even raised a ginger eyebrow in the News of the World offices circa 2000. While this may have seemed like a necessary invasion of civil liberties back in 2008, it now makes the Caped Crusader look like a ruthless privacy-violating cock-end.
Still, tasteless invasions of privacy notwithstanding, The Dark Knight is undeniably superior entertainment and any problems it might have are caused by over-reaching ambition. Perhaps we’re so engendered by summer blockbusters that we need moments of levity, or the kind of fromage-laced dialogue that, when recited in the real world, would cause instant vomiting and/or a swift punch in the gob. Or maybe that says more about my own base levels of expectation. Regardless, It was a brave choice to make such an unremittingly bleak blockbuster. But it’s perhaps even more telling that audiences decided that this was exactly how they wanted to be entertained in the summer of 2008.
We don’t know much about The Dark Knight Rises, save for the recently released teaser trailer (below), but its voiceover suggests that it picks up some of the threads from Batman Begins. Whether that’s due to the fact that The Dark Knight’s themes are lacking in relevance, that there’s little left to explore, or because Heath Ledger is no longer around to pick up the antagonist’s mantle, we can’t be sure. But since the majority of new footage consists of Gary Oldman complaining in a hospital bed it’s possible that Christopher Nolan has chosen a new real-world crisis to explore: the one in the NHS . That would certainly make for an interesting rogues’ gallery. And even if The Dark Knight doesn’t soar like he once did, 2012 still can’t come soon enough.
The Chronic: brought to you by AKs, big dicks and the letter ‘N’.
Dr Dre’s seminal The Chronic begins with an introduction from Snoop Dogg (before he lost his ‘Doggy’) in which he proudly proclaims that he’s protected by N words with “big dicks, AKs and 187 skills.” OK, so Snoop claims that their bodyguards are in possession of 3 skills: 1) A large penis. 2) A machine gun. 3) A really good at killing. Now, the second two may come in handy due to the nature of their employment, but the first? It’s quite hard to see how having a large penis could place you at any kind of advantage in a combat situation. In fact, if anything you think it would be something of a hindrance – unless of course it’s the kind of conflict that starts with a hug and soon develops into heavy petting (which, for the record, R Kelly sees nothing wrong with). But then, why would you also need an AK and 187 skills? Seems to me that Snoop’s radically lowering his chances of finding a bodyguard by placing such harsh demands on an applicant’s skill set.
And how would they be expected to qualify the first? Would there be a physical inspection at interview, or would he rely on former employers’ references? Possibly the latter, but since it’s such a niche list of skills, you imagine said applicants would work for the only other game in town, which, would be arch-rival (at the time) Eazy-E. And when you factor the rivalry between the two camps it seems unlikely that Snoop would call EazymuthafuckinE enquiring about the proportions of an applicant’s John Thomas. Knowing the fractious history between them, Eazy could easily tell Snoop that his ex-employee had the required penile proportions, knowing only too well that in fact, he only had a regular sized chap, just to make Snoop look stupid, or – if his claims are correct – put him in mortal peril.
And to add a further layer of confusion, Snoop proclaims that when looking for the N word with the biggest nuts, guess whut? That is I (him), and he is him (him). He’s basically saying that he has the biggest nuts. So if you were looking to protect Snoop in the early 90s, you not only needed your own machine gun, murder skills and large dick, but your scrotum had to be smaller than Snoop’s. It was probably an unseen caveat on the job ad, but I imagine a lot of people would be pissed off when they passed the dick exam only to find that they lost out for having equally enlarged nuts. Maybe they could take their complaint to some kind of employment tribunal? Though with such a strange ratio of ‘frank to beans’ Snoop could just claim he’s doing his bit to be an equal opportunities employer, hiring only genitally malformed AK toting bodyguards (with 187 skills, natch).
Yes, the intro to The Chronic poses many important questions – many that it fails to answer. Perhaps one day we will find out what Snoop really meant. And also who killed 2Pac.
Stay classy, Hip Hop
‘Keep it real’ the only conditions placed on proponents of the art of hip–hop when it made the transition from disco rap to become the most exciting musical art form since Rock And Roll. But with such a unique offering, the founders of hip–hop didn’t have an established blueprint to work to and so kept the essence simple while they concentrated on making music and having fun.
What ‘keep it real’ essentially says is ‘be your self’. But the problem with using such a subjective phrase is how do you be yourself in a genre that historically, has little appreciation of the truth? If half the rappers actually did a fraction of the things they rap on record about, all a prosecutor would have to do is get one in the dock, drop a beat and record the resulting confession. Case closed.
Alternatively, if they did rap about the truth you may well see a platinum concept album called ‘Cleaning My Shit’ by The Game, including the hot club banger: ‘Who Left Mug Stains? (On My Shit)’ feat T-Pain.
So if genuinely keeping it real isn’t a way to earn your fortune in the multi-million dollar hip–hop industry then what is? Here’s a rough guide to establishing market dominance in the competitive world of modern hip–hop.
1) Make It Up
This is the most important lesson for aspiring rappers. If something in your past doesn’t fit in with the current realm of acceptance in hip–hop, then just pretend it never happened and then make up something completely far-fetched to divert attention.
Rapper, Rick Ross thought his real name (William Leonard Roberts II) didn’t sufficiently convey the type of gangster who makes and sells all of the world’s cocaine, and so adopted the name of a notorious, real-life Miami cocaine dealer, who had an almost equally less gangster-ish name, but was actually in prison for selling drugs. So that’s OK then.
(Fake) Rick Ross also didn’t think the fact that he used to be a prison guard would go down too well in a market that traditionally favours the sociopath over ‘the man’. And so he denied it, even when a picture of him dressed as a prison warden, receiving ‘Prison Warden of the Year’ award, surrounded by all his prison warden chums, appeared on the internet.
Ross still gets questioned about his past role as Mr Mackay in a real-life remake of Porridge, but will normally divert attention by flashing a new pair of trainers that are allegedly only made for gangsters, or will swear by the claim that he was a genuine cocaine kingpin in the same way an attention seeking child might claim to be a spaceman, despite a mountain of evidence that points to the contrary.
And it’s an approach that appears to have worked. The Miami Münchhausen has currently released three number one albums, which is something that aspiring rappers might want to take note of.
2) No, I’M The Man
Hip–hop has always been competitive, which makes a certain level of self-belief and bravado essential if you’re going to be taken seriously. However, most rappers have always been able to back up their claims with genuine talent. And those that can’t back themselves up have either sunk without trace, or released a novelty record, and then sunk without trace.
But if everyone is shouting the same thing, then how do you get noticed? Simple, you go one further. If someone announces that they’re about to release the greatest album of their career, you say you’re going to release the greatest album the world has ever heard. Ever.
This is essential to get a bit of buzz when you enter the industry. Every aspiring rapper who wants a few headlines in the over-saturated market will claim that their debut album is going to redefine music – not just hip–hop – to such an extent that they’re going to have to call music something else. These aspiring rappers will then go about releasing a series of very average mixtapes (now on MP3, duh!) until people lose all interest.
Aspiring rapper will then claim that their forthcoming album is so great, that they have no choice but to retire from the game after its release. But said rappers never have to say what they’re going to do in retirement, because they never intend to actually release the album. This is the very definition of a win-win situation for both rapper and listener, provided obscurity will have them back.
3) Keeping it realer
Hip–hop music is traditionally made from two-turntables and a microphone. This basically means that as long as you have these basic components, at the very least you can make something resembling hip–hop. Luckily for a lot of rappers, there are far less demands made on talent and ability.
As well as possessing a completely ill-advised pseudonym, Jim Jones was heralded as the saviour of New York hip hop for all of about five minutes when his single ‘We Fly High’ (literal translation: “I’m Spending Money”) sold more than twelve copies.
Jones’ reign was tarnished slightly when people went beyond the annoying beat, chorus and ad-libs by Jones himself – which consisted of him repeatedly shouting “Ballin” like a misguided Tourette’s sufferer – and realized that he couldn’t rap. At all.
In a situation not unlike a gangster retelling of The Emperor’s New Record Deal, Jones suggested that investing time learning to actually rap would be completely un-gangsta and not ‘keeping it real’, before presumably dropping an ill verse about a cat with a new gat. Besides, Jim was way too busy getting money (“Ballin!”) to do something ‘homo’ like learn to string a couple of rhyming couplets together in a way that might entertain the listener (“Ballin!”)
Unfortunately for aspiring rappers, Jones’ last album only sold about five copies, which, although it allowed him to come up with a new rhyme about going ‘wood’ in the ‘hood’, doesn’t really hold much promise for future non-rapping, rappers.
4) I can’t live without my radio (friendly unit shifter)
In the early days of hip–hop, recording a soft song about love with an R & B singer was a big no-no. The previously untouchable LL Cool J came a cropper with his needy paean to the honeys: “I Need Love”, in a time when Public Enemy were busy tearing rap a conscious new bumhole.
And despite EPMD warning of the dangers in the literal ‘Crossover’, by the late nineties every rapper was dipping their toe into the diluted waters of hybrid hip–hop and R&B, with the promise of huge sums of money by pandering to multiple fanbases.
Over time, the crossover has become the norm, and it’s almost a requirement for today’s rappers to have at least three unit shifters on there. These can be dedicated to everything from the love of the ladies to the mild appreciation of Japanese electrical goods. And if you can get a chorus from crooners like Akon or Stylophone in a top-hat: T-Pain (and let’s face it, these boys are spreading it about so frequently, they’d probably return Gary Glitter’s calls ) then you’re laughing all the way up the charts.
So in these days of acceptable cross pollination, where a rapper can be pictured mean-mugging on the cover of their album, only to get down to a sample from Dead or Alive on the inside, it seems that the bigger the pandering to the target audience, the greater the results. Just don’t be surprised to hear of a metal, hip–hop, country, pop song rapped by a gay Spanish dog (feat T-Pain), in the near future. Just remember you heard it here first.
5) Mo Markets, Mo Money.
To many, Lil Wayne is more like what happens when you give the crazy man on the bus a record deal instead of money for cider. But to young hip–hop fans, he’s the real deal: a rapper so talented, that he is rumoured to have resurrected a zombie Tupac, with the sole intention of destroying him (again) in a rap battle. Such rumours are untrue of course but go some way to conveying the levels of hype that surround this small, former cough medicine addicted rapper.
Wayne’s drunken style isn’t to everyone’s tastes. Personally, I’m of the opinion he should be applauded every time he manages to string a coherent sentence together (I’m still waiting, hands ready). But if you are cynical of his rapping abilities then you should probably skip this number – which concerns his attempts at rock music – and move on to the outro.
Armed with an electric guitar (that eerily resembles the one you get with Rock Band) ‘Weezy’ uses a T-Pain (feat T-Pain) style autotune effect on his vocals that creates a soundscape not unlike E.T masturbating over a Winger record. One might imagine.
But regardless of musical quality, Lil Wayne is in the position where he could feasibly excrete in a jewel case, retail it for £13.99 and still see it go double platinum. So the fact that his ‘Rebirth’ album has been pushed back several times is either due to a lack of confidence in its ability to appeal to a different demographic, or because it’s so good that Earth isn’t ready.
In keeping with the spirit of modern hip–hop, it’s almost a certainty that the latter will be the official line.
So for the time being, the jury remains out on the benefits of albums in different genres. But in keeping with the sprit of the upstart rapper, it’s probably best to make claims that you’re not only going to attempt all genres (successfully, of course) but that you’re also going to invent some new ones. Just coz, you know, you can.
There are far more lessons to be learnt from modern hip–hop, for example this guide hasn’t covered ‘Hating’ as used to great short term effect by 50 Cent. Nor has it covered Kanye West, whose approach to ‘keeping it real’ could only be validated by the reveal of ownership deeds to a studio apartment in Narnia.
It also hasn’t covered the serious issue of cramming as many tracks as possible on a CD, in the misguided belief that quantity is quality. Nor has it included the importance of having more producers than there are tracks on your album.
So with hindsight it seems clear that if the originators had seen how far off-track hip–hop has become, they might have refined the phrase.
This might make for a more sedate hip–hop industry. But it might also push some more positive traits to the surface and make for some better music at the same time. And who could hate on that? No one, (feat T-Pain).
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