Wynton’s Blog

Crossover to What? (Part II)

In the 70's the American music industry and national radio became almost completely segregated. The industry and the country (all of us went along with it) used code words. R&B meant black, Rock 'n' Roll and Pop meant white. Michael Jackson was popular but his heartfelt song to a rat (Ben), even though he did a credible job in an incredible situation, cost him on the street (whatever that means).

Anyway, by the mid 70's, the two great, black, pop bands conceptually were Parliament Funkadelic and Earth, Wind and Fire. There was 'party, shake your booty, and love music' represented by the Commodores, Smokey, and the Ohio Players amongst others, and there was consciousness music represented mainly by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and one of the few integrated bands, War. The Jackson 5 faded from view.

In the late 70's, the Bee Gees had their smash hit with 'Saturday Night Fever'. Even though much of that music was superior to what followed, their enormous success ushered in the mindless and tasteless exuberance of disco which dramatically changed the music-to-entertainment ratio in pop music. With disco, the beat was the star and it didn't have to be funky or deep in any discernable pocket — it simply had to BE there. Reemerge Michael Jackson now a young man, wispy and can dance; a throwback to an earlier era of entertainment even though just in the bloom of young manhood. This was a critical juncture in Afro-American popular music. Of course generations always like to think the crises of their times are new and definitive for all times when they are often repetitions of past problems or unresolved issues that keep coming around. Michael Jackson and the decisions he and his peers made on behalf of American music would seal a direction for popular music that continues today.

These are the components of their styles:

1) Emphasis on technological achievements in lieu of artistic achievement.

2) Fantasy as the principal commodity—fun and the creation of excitement with technology and loud theatrical elements replaces the creation of excitement through communication of musical ideas and a shared music.

3) Dance and visual elements like literally running around the stage and/or imitating guitar players in front of them (while they're playing) take precedent over musical ones—-the music is purely background with the exception of the song line (generally a lot of repeated notes) and the beat (generally something so static a machine can play it).

4) Afro-American musical imperatives, such as the blues timbre, virtuoso instrumental improvisation, and a highly personalized dance-beat relationship that produced so many great rhythm sections, are devalued as if these elements are somehow less 'progressive'. (In the 80's rap was to counter state this trend only to succumb, in a few years, to a plantation-minstrel version of Afro-American entertainment that replaced musical objectives with socio-pathology which got so deep some of the musicians ACTUALLY ended up dead or going to prison to prove the 'authenticity' of their confused conception of blackness).

5) The artifact takes years to produce because production values and studio effects replace actual musical sophistication.

6) The only concerns for the finished 'product' are commercial. If it sells, it's good- if it sells more, it is grreeeat!

7) A critical community more concerned with not killing the goose laying the golden eggs than assessing the value of music in relation to what preceded it (very much akin to loan officers who loaned money indiscriminately in order to scam secondary investors with bogus unrecoupable debt—-beware buyer! your protector is part of the game). This was a perfect concoction for the specific genius of Michael Jackson. A great dancer with good looks and unquestioned pedigree in the Afro-American tradition (a real crossover doesn't feel as triumphant unless you're actually the thing you're crossing over from). A fan base (cognizant of the pressures of being a child star) that wanted to see what Michael would become as a young man. A point in history when spectacular production values and an expanded media penetration provided the MEANS—— and the lack of national music education as well as the insistence on forcing entertainment to also carry the weight of music (akin to asking fast foods to represent a whole cuisine) provided the WAY for an ill equipped populace to be exploited and thrilled about it at the same time.


Crossover to What? (Part I)

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