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con artists
do you want to be my lover?
by sigbjørn lund olsen
pop culture

No, Joe. I don't care what you want, it isn't going to happen. I won't have you. You can't be my lover. Ever. Being my lover isn't going to save you when I rule the world. Considering what happened to all of Darth Vader's admirals, you might even say that it would be a bad career path, assuming you're not suicidal.

Besides, if you want to be my lover, you'd have to get with my friends, and make it last forever. *cough*

If any reader can't guess where we're heading now, then I envy you. Because I would only far too quickly recognize these lyrics from "Wannabe." You know. The Spice Girls hit, and the music miss. Spice Girls weren't the first, and they won't be the last. The '90s have rolled by year after year, and I've seen way too many productions. Boy bands, Girl Power, Britneys, et cetera...

I know that things have a tendency to look like they are continually being flushed down the toilet, but never totally going down the pipe. That little annoying piece of dirt will just circle and circle and circle in your sink, never heading down the drain. The stars will "form" galaxies, and every star will just circle and circle and circle, never hitting the singularity at the center. The world will just become more and more and more commercialized, but there'll always be another spot to put up that commercial. Always.

The music industry is no exception. Aside from having to buy music at almost ridiculous prices, my most prominent grudge with the music industry is the gross commercialization. I can't help but to get angry when I hear an interview of the newest thing out from the factory line...

"So how did you form your group?"
"Well, stupid as we are, we went to an 'audition,' and then a manager and a panel of beauty experts decided who would work best in the band. We did a singing test, which they taped. The manager would every once in a while carry a bunch of tapes into the room next door, where we could see him throwing them into a dust bin."
"Oh? How come you saw that?"
"The door was open."
"But he wouldn't want you to see that, now, would he?"
"Ah, it didn't matter - we had already figured it out."
"How so?"
"The dustbin in this room was already full of the tapes."
"Ah. I see. You're very clever. So voice wasn't an issue?"
"No, not really. After all, our function is to make all those young girls want cosmetic surgery, and make all those horny boys jerk off while looking at our pictures."
"So basically, you were the prettiest."

That interview there would never happen -- ever -- even though it's probably closer to the truth than any member of such a band would want to admit. And to be honest, I suppose that they listen to their voices before they "fuse" such a band together. Perhaps they even have deep, thoughtful conversations with them. Perhaps they consider their psyches, their behaviour, their interests, too. But sometimes, I wonder. The Spice Girls, for example, truly had lousy live performances. It seemed that the tones they were supposed to sing were the only ones they wouldn't hit. Think about it. Fiveway polyphony. Accidental fiveway polyphony. Of course, their records don't show this - in a studio things are much easier to get right, given enough time.

But I'm not going to slaughter the Spice Girls because they sing false tones. I'm willing, however, to term them a prime example of a sickness in the music industry. Consider the number of number 1 hits that "artists" such as Westlife, Backstreet Boys, Boyzone, Take That, and Spice Girls have had. If you add a couple of those bands together, you'll find they beat the Beatles. But I ask, will we remember Boyzone in 20 years? Probably not. In fact, my brother pointed out to me that con artists have always existed, but that we don't really remember them because, basically, they are nothing to remember. Will we remember the Beatles in 200 years' time, though? Yeah. Why? Because they made classics. Timeless classics that pushed the art further on. They made something truly innovative. I don't see innovation in boy bands. I see production. It's like music companies have created a factory line labeled Making Money From Gullible Children Who Don't Care Enough About The Music They Buy As Long As It Keeps Them On Good Terms With Their Friends Who Think Exactly The Same Way. The entire idea that bands can be formed by having someone else pick them out from a crowd based on marketability is just phony.

I just have to laugh at it all. When I was 21 months old, the largest international pop sensation that Norway (my home country) has ever spawned, a-ha, took the world through the gigantic hit single "Take On Me." At the time, a-ha was looked upon as a boy band. In fact, they were so much of an image that I think a lot of people underestimated the brilliance of their music. As it turns out, the band hated it. They were composers, musicians, poets, and performers and wanted to be credited for that, not their looks. In the end, the image circus made them split apart. They made a comeback recently, but that's another story.

There's a pattern in factory line music - rhythms are the same, harmonies are the same. I listened to songs like "Manhattan Skyline" by a-ha and "A Day In the Life" by The Beatles, and I sigh and think that at least not all is bad. You just have to dig a little deeper to find true innovation.


Sigbjørn still maintains that he is going to be somebody ... carefully neglecting the fact that all the ninety-year olds still singing into their combs in front of their mirrors, they too knew that they were going to be somebody. It is slowly dawning on him that his shot at being a star kid actor may very well have passed, so as a backup plan, he's currently attending university in Trondheim, Norway, studying film.

more about sigbjørn lund olsen


adam kraemer
5.29.01 @ 11:38a

The music business, of course, has been creating teen sensations since at least the '50s. Anyone who's ever heard Fabian sing, without knowing what he looks like (or even knowing what he looks like) can back me up on that one.

sigbjørn olsen
5.29.01 @ 1:21p

Hmm... Well, still, I think it's important to realize that the teen sensations of the past were usually musicians and/or composers. This isn't the case any more.

yasameen sharif
5.29.01 @ 1:34p

WHAT?!? Boyzone is not considered to be in the group of great musicians/composers of our time?? I just can't accept that.... (I have actually never heard of boyzone. Of course, having had it brought to my attention it will now be used by me as a reference to a place that might be fairly amusing and entertaining to hang out where cute boys abound...."I just can't wait to get back into the boyzone! mmmmm yeah!")

matt morin
5.30.01 @ 8:54p

Art is whatever someone thinks is art. While I'm on board with the A-Ha characterization, there are probably a million people who could argue that they're just a Norwegian version of ABC or Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark. And while popular in their time, I can hardly say we'll be talking about "If You Leave" 200 years from now.

sigbjørn olsen
5.31.01 @ 9:07a

Matt, you won't be talking about The Beatles' "Don't Pass Me By" either. That goes for all bands, really. For every classic, there will be a little heap of mediocrity.

And I disagree with your assumption that art is whatever someone thinks is art. In my humble opinion, art is something created to express something. Art is expression. "Art" that is made just to make money, on the other hand, is IMHO not art. It's a product then. An expressionless product.

adam kraemer
5.31.01 @ 10:02a

I'm sorry, but the premise above is just not true. It wasn't until the late-60s/early-70s that the singer/songwriter caste really emerged. Think about how many Elivs songs were written by Lieber and Stoller. Or how much music of the '60s girl groups came out of the Brill building. Or how The Monkeys were auditioned, created, given their own TV show, and told what to sing. Songwriters have been penning hits for others for decades.

joe procopio
5.31.01 @ 10:34a

I think it has always been true that there is a sector of entertainment that uses music as a springboard to branding a band/artist and making a buck. The Beatles/Dylan/Elvis, you name it, they were signed and in the studio for a reason. Even Hendrix had to fight his record-company-controlled image. I just wish they'd show their true colors a little more. I loathe when Madonna is referred to as a musician.

One thing I will say about the 80s, is you got a big dose of pop bands who weren't pretty, just odd. And for every Culture Club, you got a Madness by mistake. Wish that would happen again.

matt morin
5.31.01 @ 12:56p

I don't want to debate whether or not individual bands made their music to express something or just to make money. But say I write a song just to fill the bank account, but a listener hears it and takes something more away from it. Is that art? I guess the question boils down to: Is art in the eye of the creator or the listener/viewer? I think it can be both.

adam kraemer
5.31.01 @ 1:31p

Well, I mentioned this in a former column, but as a musician who's never really been able to write a decent song, I have at least a modicum of respect for anyone who can create music, regardless of its inherent worth or of the personal integrety of the songwriter.

juli mccarthy
6.1.01 @ 9:47a

Sure, there are incredible artists out there, but the music industry has and always will be about marketing. The fact that some amazing musicians have actually achieved fame and fortune in that environment is a fluke. If the music world were about integrity and artistry, or even plain old talent and dedication, Tim Lockwood's name would be as familiar to you as Paul Simon's.

juli mccarthy
6.1.01 @ 9:47a

Sure, there are incredible artists out there, but the music industry has and always will be about marketing. The fact that some amazing musicians have actually achieved fame and fortune in that environment is a fluke. If the music world were about integrity and artistry, or even plain old talent and dedication, Tim Lockwood's name would be as familiar to you as Paul Simon's.

juli mccarthy
6.1.01 @ 9:48a

Hmm. That's weird. I so rarely repeat myself.

jael mchenry
6.1.01 @ 9:55a

A nitpick, because turnabout is fair play: Adam, I don't think that was a "former" column. It's still a column. It's just, well, previous.

adam kraemer
6.1.01 @ 11:08a

Yes. That's what was relevant in my comment. Good job.

tracey kelley
6.2.01 @ 5:27p

I don't entirely agree that the singer/songwriter movement emerged only in the late 60's/early 70's. That may seem true for music classified as "popular," and the credit for that moniker probably goes more to the advent of AM stereo and eventually FM radio, multiplying exposure potential.

However, a decade prior, folk and country artists were perfecting the songwriter-as-performer act, weaning themselves off Amercian mountain standards and integrating their own compositions into live performances and building a following.

Jazz musicians had 'em all beat on originality, especially those pioneers of the contemporary jazz form like Jones, Brubeck, Coltrane, Davis, and so on beginning in the 50's.

adam kraemer
6.4.01 @ 10:53a

Okay. I'll buy that. I was also considering this the other day and I'm curious as to where the line gets drawn. Does a performer have to write his own stuff in order to be legitimate and respected? The Beatles started out doing covers of American R & B hits. Some of my favorite classic rock songs are covers of Bob Dylan tunes. Does it somehow become less artistic if it hasn't been previously validated by rock "royalty"?

tracey kelley
6.4.01 @ 11:06p

A musician friend of mine and I have this discussion quite frequently. My opinion: No, it is not necessary to always write your own music to be a respected and legitimate performer/arranger. The key is to remain true to the essence of the music. By doing so, you will do it, and the songwriter, justice.

Frank Sinatra - how many classics did he write? Not many. Quincy Jones - hasn't played his own music since he got a plate in his head, often writes but more often arranges others. Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby did two of the most popular holiday songs ever -written by Berlin and Torme', respectively.

Clapton does Marley. Manfred Mann does Springsteen. Rolling Stones and Led Zep do Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Lennon and McCartney add to their enormous portfolio Meredith Wilson's "Til There Was You" from The Music Man. (Why? Obviously, it was a love song they thought they could do well with also.)

If the song interpretation is valid, than it v

tracey kelley
6.4.01 @ 11:07p

validates the musician.

sigbjørn olsen
6.7.01 @ 7:17a

Fair enough. But do fabricated groups and music do this? One could imagine that managers and record companies forge groups out of their good will, but I very much do not believe that. The object is simple and plain: Making money. Are they then still artists, or are they merely factory figureheads?

adam kraemer
6.7.01 @ 10:21a

I guess it really just comes down to whether the performers themselves are in it for the money or if they're in it for the music. Everything else is just trimming.

tracey kelley
6.7.01 @ 10:32a

Well, I think we're exploring two different subjects: the craft of songwriting - and what makes a "good" song last - and the corporate farm that is the music industry. I'll pass over songwriting for the moment to discuss the other.

Make no mistake - every label wants to make piles of money on every musician in its stable. As discussed earlier, throughout popular music, people have been thrust together - "pre-formed" if you will - to perform as a ready-made act because they were cute or pretty or young or whatever, and someone with more "experience" had a vision they wanted executed through a preformed image.

However, like with the Beatles or Supremes or even the Osmonds - an evolution takes place where the artist desires to be more than a puppet of celebrity - to have more artistic control and influence.

It's when this happens that the true merit of the artist is tested. Some, like the Beatles, succeed beyond measure. Others, like Donny Osmond, struggle for ye

tracey kelley
6.7.01 @ 10:34a

con't... years to prove themselves worthy beyond the prefab image that brought them initial fame.

The test for the cardboard artists of today will be 10 years from now, based on the type of music they produce.

If any.

sigbjørn olsen
6.7.01 @ 3:50p

Then we are in agreement :-)

Oh, and I think Tracey kinda proves that the max 500 character limit is slightly useless, Joe. Heh :-)

tracey kelley
6.7.01 @ 3:58p

Sigbjorn - yes, we are! :)

I don't mind the 500 limit so much, except when I'm on a rampage and there's not even a beeping noise to let me know I'm approaching the boundary. I've never been good at word counting, but would edit to fit if I had a little help.

Joe? Can I have a beeping noise? Please?

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