Recently Pop Star A and Pop Star B were both nominated for a prestigious music award. Pop Star A uses songwriting teams and producers. Her music is heavily processed and is designed for mass consumption. Pop Star B writes and performs his own songs yet still makes songs for mass consumption. Pop Star C uses methods of both Pop Star A and Pop Star B, yet was not nominated for this award.
Pop Star C ran up to the stage at the awards show and stopped short of allegedly telling Pop Star B that Pop Star A deserved his award for her “artistry”. Therefore implying that Pop Star B lacked the “artistry” of Pop Star A. Apparently it’s one of Pop Star C’s methods for keeping his name in the press.
My social media feeds have been tied up on this issue for days about what “artistry” means. Many people appear to think that if you hire many producers and songwriters (like Pop Star A) that your work doesn’t carry the same “artistry” as writing and performing your own songs (like Pop Star B). I think this is an odd position to take in 2015, however it was definitely a relevant argument in 1964.
Music designed for mass consumption like the kind that award shows celebrate is a very particular kind of artistic process that has a long history. You can trace Beyoncé all the way back to Tin Pan Alley. A number of years ago I read this great book called Always Magic In The Air about the Brill Building era and it’s songwriting teams. You had Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller writing hits for Elvis and The Drifters in one cubicle, Burt Bacharach and Hal David in another, and countless other cubicles churning out songs. According to myth, Brill building songwriting couple Gerry Goffin and Carole King saw Bob Dylan in the Village and in him the rise of the singer/songwriter as the future while 1960’s got underway. They quickly swam to the other side.
After 50 years of music trends, we now know one model is not better than the other. The collaborator or the single artists both have the right answer. Through the act of spectacle, award shows and pop stars (with an agenda) will push the conversation away from music towards the social politics of economics. The award show is one of the last retreats for showbusiness in the age of the inspired amateur with lots of distribution capabilities.
Award shows are designed to sell products and I erroneously thought the web would faze them out. I love music so much; that I don’t see what good comes from choosing one cultural export as the song that defined our year 2014. The investigation of the word “artistry” is the only good thing to emerge from this media blip. We live in a wonderful time where the listener has the power to access any recorded music at any time. I urge you to consider using that power to drop out.
Here’s a nice collection by The Drifters who are my favorite Brill Building alumni.