Written October 20, 2009
Mediocre. Adjective 1 indifferent in quality 2 second-rate. Synonyms include: average, fair, commonplace, ordinary, passable, pedestrian, run-of-the-mill, undistinguished, unexciting, uninspired, unexceptional. This is according to my trusty, slightly worn, Oxford Paperback Dictionary & Thesaurus. And for some vague reason, this word has been lingering for the last couple of weeks, cropping up during conversation, as I sit and watch television or listen to music. And it has me worried. Either I am truly becoming my father, or the years are starting to add up and manipulate my perspectives.
I grew up surrounded by music. Every Sunday morning, I would blast my father’s records as I washed his car, which I had to do summer or winter, submerging myself in the sounds that he loved. Before starting my task, I would go through his record collection to determine the theme of the day was. It is there that I acquired my broad taste in music: Reggae, Jazz, Soul, Rock, Classical, etc. Reader’s Digest used to have these record box-sets with a collection of records around a particular theme or artist, i.e. The Big Band Era (10 record set) or Music from the 20s, 30s, 40s, etc. I systematically went through each one, exploring, embracing and being inspired.
At the same time, I listened to radio, watched music videos and embraced the music of my generation. The 1980s were a colourful hodgepodge of styles and artists across genres. The 1990s were the true global explosion of hip hop, with its potpourri of sounds and colour that mirrored our lives. I evolved with it from 1983 and continued to find a home for myself in its essence.
And then it happened. Somewhere along the way, I was left behind. Somewhere along the way, I stopped hearing innovation and creativity and fun and inspiration and just started hearing the word ‘mediocrity’ every time I listen to music. I sit with my father and listen to him talk about the music he came up with, music that also birthed me, and am enthralled in the spirit of it. When I think of Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Osibisa, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Sade and the like, I get warm and fuzzy feelings. I think of them and their music in the same breath as greatness.
When I think Outkast, D’Angelo, Maxwell, Public Enemy, Lenny Kravitz, Prince, Seal, Jodeci, Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, I know I will be listening to them for years to come. In the same way that I still play Hugh Masekela, Curtis Mayfield or Jonas Gwangwa, I know I will still play Mos Def, Common, Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco or Zubz, even if they never release albums again. The work the contemporary artists have produced, while not at the level of greatness that the older artists have achieved, has enough substance to stay relevant, for me, and they are still at beginning of their journeys.
Yet, the current artists I have mentioned are not necessarily mainstream. They are not top of playlists on radio stations around the world or on MTV. Every day, I am bombarded by music that, at best, I feel is mediocre. It really feels like we have reached a place where we consider certain artists and albums above average because what we are comparing them with is unexceptional. I listen to artists like ‘Lil Wayne, Drake, Flo-rida, etc and just don’t get the hype. It continues to be the same misogynous, uncreative, materialistic dribble that is out of place in a world in the eye of a painful economic reality. I really don’t see myself in 10 years from now going “oh, where’s my Lil Wayne CD” in the same way that, even then, I’ll hunt for my Nas ‘Illmatic’ CD, Tumi’s ‘Music From The Good Eye’, Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’, Maxwell’s ‘BLACKsummers’ night’ or Musiq Soulchild’s ‘Soulstar’.
Content is important to me. I like to be told stories. I like to be taken somewhere. It doesn’t have to be ‘deep’, or intellectual, or serious. I play music to reflect my state of mind and circumstance. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince entertained me with adolescent stories when I was making sense of my adolescence. Public Enemy taught me to look beneath the surface. Diddy provided me with music to dance to, and never said he was doing otherwise.
I also like to be enthralled by language; by clever turns of phrase. Eminem, Wu Tang Clan did things with words that blew me away. To a large extent, they still communicated something and it wasn’t lazy or predictable. I have had so many friends try to convince me of the quality of some of these artists and I just don’t see it. Perhaps the problem is that I compare them with the music of my youth and I have just crossed over into the age bracket that has me blocked to the current reality. I accept that. I accept that I am not the target market and this won’t affect their sales in any way. I accept that I have become that older person moaning about the music of this generation. I accept that it is also because my priorities have changed and therefore couldn’t possibly understand. I’m comfortable with that. Despite that awareness, I still feel that, as a friend of mine recently said, “popular music today is characterised by unadulterated mediocrity.” I’m Just Sayin’
I agree and have been having the same problem for a while. Rihanna and Lady Gaga are pouring out hit after hit but I just don’t “get” their music. How Rihanna can have 4 songs in the top 40 at the same time is beyond me, especially since they all sound more or less the same.
I’m getting the sense that we are more and more being fed music by marketing teams.
I.E. What’s on the playlists isn’t so much what people want, but more what someone somewhere has paid to have played over and over again on radio and TV until people want it.
I agree. I have been commenting about this with friends for the past of couple years. Creativity and innovation in music is dying. I try so hard to be “open-minded” about some of these new artists but they really are mediocre. Even if one is not the target market, one can differentiate between mediocre, good and great.
I can’t agree with you more.Sometimes I wonder what the record companies are aiming for with this kind of music.I can respect that the artists are making a living,but I am sure they too know they’re producing average music.As you also eluded,the music is not reflective of the economic reality.
I have a clip of Wise-Intelligent titled Hip-hop Poor Righteous Teacher,talking about how hip-hop changing from positive to negative is not a consequence of history.He mention the 1967 Kerner report on urban disorder,which figured out that the youth who rised against the system of oppression back then were driven by an enhanced racial pride.He goes on say to that, the findings of the report led to the flood of black explotation movies,so as to kill this pride.On hip-hop music,he says in 1992 when Rodney King was beaten in front of the world,the youth rioted because they saw the system for what it was and because the were listen to the right positive messages from groups like the x-clan,public enemy and brand nubian on the radio.He compares that with the lack of response when Sean Bell got shot 50 times in New York and Lil Wayne’s like a loli-pop being the number one song of the day on the radio…Makes me think that maybe this why our young people are not interested in issues that affect their communities,in which they could contribute positively with their talents whatever it maybe
RnB and Rock and roll is basically dead! Actually, Rockn’Roll has been dead for a long time. When I saw Eric Clapton winning awards for that pitiful bossa nova version of Layla on the Grammy’s back in the early ’90s I knew it was all over!
Basically, MTV killed music. Once music videos became popular, the visual became more important than the aural. It has devolved now where it is totally style over substance. How else can anyone describe rap and hip hop? Or Britney Spears? Madonna, Rhianna and Lady Gaga who can only do more provocative acts on stage for attention? These performers have set a low standard for up and coming musicians. Most of these new “talents” don’t even play instruments. Look at “gangstas” Lil Wayne who are idols to millions of our young. Not musicians, they are respected because they are thugs!
Will there ever be anything recorded along the lines of The Beatle’s Abbey Road or The Who’s Tommy? I highly doubt it. And that is only speaking of rock. Music is so commercialized and over-produced that there is little soul or “feel” in music anymore. Pity our young people who have to pay R300 concert tickets to watch a bunch of recorded music and choreography. The stage shows back than were not much of a production infact I remember once going once to watch a Brenda Fassie show as a kid there no paratechnics there was none. It was jus her , the mic, the bare stage and the music. Yes the music! Something never to be forgotten.