There is perhaps no greater indication of the rapidly diminishing social relevance that comes with age than pop music. I am old enough to recall how little sense it made that my parents literally hated the sound of the music I liked, and often compared it to “just noise.” My late mother was so convinced of its utter lack of artistic value that she cited my continuing consumption of this music as the primary reason for believing I was a drug addict (I wasn’t). And yet, a scant twenty years later, I can look upon the landscape of modern pop music with similar disbelief. Don’t get me wrong, I catch a little Top 40 from time to time and actually enjoy it. But on balance, I find listening to most of the forgettable pop churned out by the modern music machine about as enjoyable as being in a Costco on a Sunday (if you’ve been there, you know what I mean). But it’s not just the songs I miss from those halcyon days gone by, but actual elements of the music which were as dependable and familiar as old friends. And so, in the interests of remembering those good friends I’ve lost, here are 3 things that have gone missing in music:
1. “Hoo” Are You. I’m certainly not the first person to note that there may be no genre that has suffered as greatly as R&B from this past decade of musical decline. Once a stalwart of innovation and quality in the industry, recent R&B has been reduced to the mindless crooning of forgettable voices and similar faces, often so formulaic as to make you wonder if they haven’t just given up completely, and are just computer-generating the stuff. In the 80’s, back when you wouldn’t even think of having a slow-dance set without the latest R&B hit, there was one thing which was as reliable an indicator of sincerity as it was of song quality: the “Hoo!” The “hoo” was as essential to R&B as the “Hi-ya” is to karate or the laugh track is to “Two and a Half Men.” It was the punctuation to the perfect lyrical sentence, an impossibly simple declaration of one’s utter coolness - delivered in near falsetto. I can still recall the first time I heard this iconic exclamation (Al B. Sure’s “Night and Day” 1988) and the great difficulty I had (and still have) in trying to reproduce it. These days, when I hear an R&B beat, I can’t help but offer up my own whimpering version, which falls woefully short, and makes me do something I had previously thought impossible: miss R. Kelly. In a genre where made-up words have been substituted for lyrics since its genesis, the “hoo” reigns supreme - and its absence is the most notable since Michael left the Jackson 5.
2. If You Mess With The Bull. With the ever-increasing presence of electronics in music, the vast majority of musical instruments in modern music have been all but eliminated. If it’s not a guitar, keyboard or drums, chances are it’s either not in the song or it’s been synthesized. Of course, I’m not saying I don’t appreciate a good guitar. In fact, a guitar player that can shred is the closest thing I’ve found to clergy, and I would consider listening to Dragonforce my own form of prayer. But that notwithstanding, whatever happened to the horn section? Big songs had big bands and big sounds, and nothing laid in heavier than a horn section. There was just something undeniable and profound about the particular sound of such a group. It almost defied recognition - it was just the music itself. You know what the guitar and the drums sounds like - you can even recognize the piano. But the horns, their brassy glare and subtle entrances and retreats, were the soul of the sound itself. Herb Alpert was more wizard than musician and Wynton Marsalis could play his horn more artfully than any piano has ever been struck. Chicago was not about Peter Cetera - it was about the horns. The horned chorus of Michael Jackson’s Ease on Down the Road has pulled me out of my deepest funks. It is the horn that naturally wakes what is within us, which is why it is so obviously absent from music. After all, they don’t play reveille on an electric guitar.
3. The Band Member Call Out. Much like football has become a sport about quarterbacks, music has become a game of lead singers. Notwithstanding the iconic bands of the past (AC/DC, Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, Def Leppard, etc.), band members have become utterly replaceable and the lead singer has become indispensable (just ask Van Halen if that works the other way around). Sure you can survive one lead singer change (provided it’s early/tragic enough), but the guys who play the instruments are as interchangeable as the batteries in the wireless mic. This hyper-focus on the front man may explain why, outside of live performances, you never hear a shout out to a band member in a recorded song. There was a time when this was as regular as the bridge itself - a lead singer compelling the solo about to be performed - and it drew you, if just for a moment, into the band itself. When I first heard Brett Michaels call out C.C. DeVille in a song, my rock and roll fantasy was simply to have that kind of raw guitar power at my vocal disposal. As if all I would have to say would be “Mmmmm, guitar!” and a crazy little blonde guy wearing more makeup than my girlfriend would come strutting onto the stage blasting power chords loud enough to melt the faces of the front row. I knew the name of Huey Lewis’ sax player long before I knew anyone else in the band, and Dollar Ben was, by far, the most important member of Morris Day and the Time. Point being, there was a time when a band was a band and not simply an accessory for a singer - and I miss it.
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There is a reason that the Rolling Stones can still sell out a stadium and you can’t find two dozen people who want to hear the Jonas Brothers. Because good music is forever and modern music has a shorter half-life than the flavor of Big League Chew. Even the pop music from my younger days, which was designed not to last long, has endured far longer than even today’s most “serious” acts can hope for. Music has never been so much about creation than it is about re-imagining. After all, it’s not like anyone is coming up with new notes or chords. Our artists are left to re-arrange what they’ve been given and to make it their own. But anymore, music studios have become like fast-food kitchens; simply assembling component parts, otherwise already prepared, and turning them out as though they’re “freshly cooked.” As much as anything, what’s missing from modern music are not the sights, sounds and characters of days gone by so much as the little bits of heart and soul that changed it from just music to the soundtrack of our lives.