Scarecrow On a Wooden Cross…With a Poker Face?
By Ryan McDaniels
Boy, has Caesar got me thinking about music and our country and our times. I often wonder why my iPod is filled with music from before I was born. Probably because it is just so much better; it contains heart and purpose. But more importantly, it brought people together and told us a story. How would an album about family farms, entitled Scarecrow fair today? My guess is, it may appeal to the modern Country and Western listening audience and those who think they are listening to Country. But, in 1985 John Cougar Mellencamp brought such an album to the number two spot on the popular charts with a series of top ten singles about small town America. The title track was somewhat of a commercial flop. Through the power of Music Television, a fairly new concept in the mid-eighties, imagery mixed with music helped tell the story of the American family farm to young viewers otherwise separated by thousands of miles and cultural differences. Mellencamp founded Farm-Aid on the heels of this album and has been working to promote the family farm in the United States ever since. You don’t get to number two just selling records to farmers. Something resonated in this album that was uniquely American.
I read recently that this genre is now called Heartland Rock. In addition to Mellencamp, it includes artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger and Tom Petty. But wait, these four guys are from Indiana, New Jersey, Michigan and Florida. Except for being from Presidential battleground states they can’t have anything in common. Can they? Throw in a New York City cop, like Eddie Money, and now I’m really confused. Who could have influenced these white-bred, blue-collar American realists? Their bios say Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones. Nooo, that can’t be true. Dylan is a folklorist freak. Van Morrison is an introvert from Ireland. And, the Stones are leftovers from the British invasion. They just didn’t get the memo to go home. These 60’s and 70’s artists were all influenced by Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. Southern Blues, you know the heart of Rock and Roll. There is no way the 1980’s middle-aged, white guys from swing states can have anything in common with Southern Blues. Unless, it really is a small world, at least, musically speaking?
Has an art form lost its way? Today’s artists seem to perform to niche markets. We have hard rock, heavy metal, alternative rock and punk rock. Yup, there is even alternative Country music now. The Blues Brothers once played under the name the Good Ole’ Boys. They tricked a pub owner into believing they had two kinds of music: Country and Western! Even our rappers are divided between East Coast and West Coast factions. Our Grammy’s, with their distinct categories, now compete for ratings against the Hip-Hop Awards and the Country Music Awards. American music is as diverse as its population. But, in the past you could always find crossover themes in the eclectic, mixed bag of hits. The cross-over themes today seem to be about scoring and bling. Not that Elvis Presley didn’t sell sex and make money.
However, it seems those early artists were driven by something more. They poured their heart and soul into an art-form and changed the way musicians got paid. They wrote songs about their fingers bleeding to come up with a hit. If they got girls and glamour as a reward it was a plus but not the mission. They didn’t walk into a TV studio and have a judge make or break them. Vince Gill came out this week to say even he is fed up with the business of Country music. “For me, it’s lost its traditional bent pretty severely,” he said. “I would love to hear someone write a song like ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ rather than ‘You’re hot. I’m hot. We’re in a truck.’ It’s just mind-numbing to me.”Gill believes his frustrations stem for the commercialization and gimmicks in today’s music industry. He goes on to say that a song that he worked months on to perfect sells for the same download price as a fart application.
It is deeper than that. If today’s good music had broader appeal you could make a living selling art at $0.99 a download. I believe the polarization of our country can be seen in our music. Country fans today act as though it is a patriotic duty to listen to Kenny Chesney. Hip-hop fans almost have to hate authority in order to enjoy it. I love music with a message. I love music that is just for fun too. But, when the music with a message becomes too focused you’re leaving the broader market open to crap and gimmicks. Hence, the prominence of Lady Gaga– fun stuff but pretty shallow.
There was a time when the market had room for both depth and fun. I’m told that in the 1980’s you could envision yourself walking on a fence in Bloomington Indiana, while listening to Mellencamp, then be whisked away with a one-hit wonder and find yourself “working as a waitress in a cocktail bar”. All on the same radio station or MTV. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see Human League and Mellencamp hanging out at the same clubs. In the 1980’s they hit the same charts, along with Ronnie Millsap, The Oak Ridge Boys, Journey, Michael Jackson and The Motels. These records were sold in the same stores. Maybe different floors but, you had to go through one to get to the other. This variety was for the most part all found on played together on top forty stations. Now we have a station for every genre and sub-genre. Or, you can hit “genius” and only play songs that sound the same. “You better change it back or we will both be sorry”.
Maybe there is hope. Maybe art will begin to imitate life once again. In recent years radio slogans have gone from, “The Home of America’s Top Country Hits” to “We Play Everything”. Last month, the American Academy of Country Music played a tribute concert celebrating the life and genius of Lionel Richie. A duet of Kenny Rogers and Richie singing “Lady” highlighted the evening. This hit was written by Richie and given to Rogers to release in 1980.
Both artists credit that song as helping them launch the second half of their careers. Richie, born in Tuskegee Alabama, began his career with Atlantic Records, and quickly moved over to the Mo-town label. This is what African-American singers did in the 1960’s. They had their own labels because they had to, not because they wanted to be distinct.
Rogers graduated from Jefferson Davis High School, in Houston Texas. Davis was born in Kentucky and spent most of his life in Mississippi. I will optimistically speculate that Texas felt compelled to name a school after him for his role in the Mexican-American War and not his tenure as President of the Confederacy. But I digress. The point being, these artists found more in common with each and their music than they found different. This generation grew up with the promise of the 1960’s and 70’s. They carried this message into the “Me Generation” without wavering and made life easier for artists who followed. They have survived against all the gimmicks.
We now roam the countryside without leaving our couches in search of America’s next top artist. Hopefully, some remotes will get stuck on re-runs of Country’s tribute to Lionel Richie. Maybe some young viewers will begin to understand that American music is about hard-work with a purposeful message and when the time is right, maybe an occasional steamy love song about hittin’ some booty. It is about sampling and exploring other facets of our culture. It took some shaggy kids from England to show us the beauty in our backyard.
Like Americans always do when we put our minds to something we took our music back. We mastered it and made it authentically ours again. Recently, we may have lost our way as a nation and as music fans. It is slowly coming back. Long after Lady Gaga goes bye-bye, Mellencamp and Bon Jovi will still be relevant–because they have soul.
The public awaits the next Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers to show us that “We Are The World”.