“The radio plays what they want you to hear” — Reel Big Fish, “Sellout”
Mike and I have the same argument at least once a month. Inevitably the subject will turn to music, and inevitably, I will bring up the genius of Tom Waits. (On a sort of related note, our friend Adam once suggested in jest a Tom Waits drinking game, that is, whenever I mention Tom Waits, everyone takes a drink. Jason replied that within moments, they’d all have alcohol poisoning.) Mike hates Tom Waits. He hates Tom Waits and Morrissey and David Byrne and Karen O for the same single reason: He can’t stand their voices.
Mike is my alt-rock love god. Green Day is his favorite band. Personally, Billie Joe Armstrong’s nasally screechy little-girl-wants-a-pony voice makes me want to pop my own eardrums. The boy listens to terrible, terrible music. Okay, so I like Muse and OK Go is good party music and anyone who reads Mix Tape Blues knows I spent a lot of time lying on the floor listening to the Killer’s “Mr. Brightside” but let’s face it — these guys all suck.
The biggest problem with the American music industry is the lack of voice. Brandon Flowers and Gerard Way and Kelly Clarkson and Hilary Duff all have the same, innocuous singing voice. One without character or sensibility or emotion, simply a vehicle for carrying tepid, mass-produced, asinine pop lyrics. Matthew Bellamy and Chris Martin orally raped Thom York and stole his vocal cords to use for their own sick purposes, making what was once unique now commonplace.
I blame American Idol. American Idol promotes the most middle-of-the-road, ineffectual, inoffensive vocal styling to bored housewives and teenage girls who think singing is about standing on the stage with one’s arms in the air. This is not music. I argued once with My Professor because he put Kelly Clarkson on a mix he made me, and he complimented her “big voice.” Most people can carry a tune. It’s not hard. Being able to fill a vacant space or hit the high note so hard you have to bend backwards is simply a practice of breathing, not vocal ability.
Simon would have laughed Tom Waits off the stage. Morrissey would have lasted a few rounds because he’s attractive to the gay audience, and Janis Joplin might have done well with the judges but voters would have texted her less-than-perfect ass right out the door. Never mind that these are some of the most influential and critically acclaimed singers of the latter half of the twentieth century, they don’t package well, and that’s what matters in the music industry these days.
Being able to convey emotion, that’s what music is about. Billie Holiday could make a song her own simply by opening her mouth. Debbie Harry’s voice made you want to kiss her for fear of getting your ass kicked if you didn’t. Cyndi Lauper’s Bettie Boop squeal gave her ditzy pop songs a solid character, something you could stand behind. Remember when Britney Spears butchered Joan Jett’s immortal “I Love Rock and Roll?” Me neither, because no one saw Crossroads, but you get my point. The gates of pop music hell opened right there.
Music is more than lyrics or guitar licks. The appeal of Tom Waits is the honest passion in his voice. If Taylor Hicks were to sing “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” you wouldn’t ever believe that this guy’s been drunk on anything stronger than cough syrup, but when Waits rasps, “No, the moon ain’t romantic/it’s intimidating as hell” you feel a hangover coming on, you understand the song, you find a part of yourself in his voice because it’s your voice. Waits understands heartbreak. Chris Daughtry does not. When Danny Elfman shudders, “I’d love to mess your pretty hair/I’d love to see you dead” you get the beautifully violent sense of what love really is, not Clay Aiken crooning how he’d like to be eating your shit and buzzing in your ear. All the American Idols are interchangeable, season after season it’s slight variations on the same thing, wan interpretations of small-town claustrophobia and hearts with hairline fractures.
The music industry knows we hunger for the median, we simply want noise to fill empty spaces conversation once occupied. We cram our iPods with as much soulless crap as we can to drown out the sound of homeless people on the subway or our children in the backseat. We don’t want to listen, we don’t want to feel, we just want to hear something besides the sound of our own overcharged heartbeats, the growling of our junk-ravaged stomachs, the ticking of the clock that says life is passing us while we wait in traffic with Sirus set to six.
We can align with the false sense of misery My Chemical Romance feeds us because we can’t face our own real sorrow, that is, the vacuous commercial shells we’ve become. We channel our nameless frustrations through the baseless hate of Linkin Park. We equate love with grinding on the dance floor. If it doesn’t hurt our ears, we love it and if we don’t love it, we’re stupid, we don’t have fun. Where we once controlled the radio, the radio now controls us, telling us this is how we have to feel, this is what we have to think. Big Brother with a guitar.
Turn the radio off. Pour a stiff drink, and toast to heartbreak whether it’s yours or not. Drive with the top down and remember summers you were too young to know. Dim the lights and see the orchestration like gossamer in front of you. Kill your idols.