Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Monthly Mailbag Returns!

Longtime readers of The Blog remember a running feature entitled the Monthly Mailbag. The premise is exactly what you'd expect:

I get emails about music/being a musician/pop culture at large. At the end of every month, I take several of my favorite questions and answer them in rapid-fire fashion.

Because of the recording process and subsequent move, I missed a few months. But do not fear, Friend and Reader: your vitriolic emails were received, noted, and greatly appreciated. In summation:

1) You're right, I should be ashamed.
2) How dare I, indeed!
3) I will not do that to myself, but appreciate the suggestion. And creativity.
4) I don't sleep well at night.
5) I was raised better.
6) 6'1, why?

In the spirit of redemption and renewed hope, I give you the new, improved, resurgent, and wholly nutritious...

Monthly Mailbag, Part 1 (Part 2 Thursday)!

(***As always, these are actual emails from actual readers. If you'd like to be in a future Mailbag, just drop me a line! I promise every email is read, and I always enjoy them.)

You call your Mailbag "Monthly," but it's been a while. I'm kind of annoyed, and very litigious. I want to sue you for false advertising. Change it to BiMonthly Mailbag, or else. --Mark, Chicago
If I had to write one slogan that best describes me, it would be: "Chris Milam: Proudly Un-Sued Since the Eighties." Let's leave the lawyers out of this.

I thought about the Mailbag, and I thought about the demarcation of time, and I considered the "Bimonthly Mailbag." Unfortunately, I've never known if "bimonthly" means "twice a month" or "once every two months." So I looked it up. According to Merriam-Webster:

1) Occurring twice a month
2) Every two months"

So, neither Merriam nor Webster nor I have any clue. The English language strikes again. On one hand, this could mean that I avoid a lawsuit, so long as I post a Mailbag with any frequency at all. On the other hand, I'm a sucker for precision and downright Germanic in my organizational skills. Let's not cop out.

The Mailbag is now and forever will be a Monthly Mailbag. I will post it near the end of each month, just as the Monthly Playlist comes at the beginning, and Fan of the Month comes in the middle.

Count on it, Mark. Then, send me your mail!

Some friends and I were talking about the "Voice of a Generation" title, and wondering who might be this generation's voice. Who are the front-runners? In terms of impact, could you make a case for Jack White? --Michael, Buffalo
Great question, and it raises some interesting points. Three critical issues here:
1) Which generation are we talking about?
2) How do we define a Voice of a Generation/can there be only one?
3) Given pop culture's fragmentation, might this be the first generation without one unifying Voice?
4) How do we define Voice of a Generation?

I'll take the last part first. I'm not here to debate the merits of any artist mentioned below, or whether they deserve their title. I'm only here to list the artists that most casual pop music fans would identify as quintessential artists from their respective generation. That is, whether it's right or wrong, this is what most people would say. The list looks something like:
--Baby Boomers: Bob Dylan and/or John Lennon
--Gen X: Kurt Cobain
--There are also some in-between stand-outs: those coming of age during punk (The Ramones), 70's singer/songwriters (Bruce, Tom Petty), those during glam/new-wave (David Bowie), and the 80's pop revival (Michael Jackson) combined with the college alt-rock scene (Michael Stipe). Coming off the Breakfast Club, the Smiths would've certainly received a lot of votes.

Now, if you were born in the 80's, you're roughly categorized as Generation Y, or a Millennium, or Some-Other-Moniker-Time-Published-This Month. This includes 1) me and 2) most people reading this Blog. This generation has roughly "come of age" (i.e. late teens or twenties) in the 2000's, so one guide could be a list of the biggest pop musical voices to emerge this decade. That list could roughly look something like:
--Jack White/The White Stripes
--Outkast (debatable, since Stankonia came out in 1999)
--Eminem (again, on the cusp)
--Ryan Adams (again, Heartbreaker debuted in 1999, so this is debatable)
--Chris Martin/Coldplay
--Justin Timberlake (solo career started this decade)
--Britney Spears (ridiculous, but also unavoidable)
--Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes
--Pete Wentz/Fall Out Boy
--Jim James/My Morning Jacket

That list is by no means comprehensive. It is, however, a decent snapshot of the types of voices who emerged since 2000:

Jack White's the Retro Rock Hero. Justin Timberlake is Pop's Prince; or King, depending on how dead you believe Michael Jackson is (very), how loyal to his legacy you remain (not very), and how you feel about other contenders (indifferent). Outkast and Eminem are likely Hip Hop's Flag-Bearers (remember, Jay-Z was already huge by 1999). Pete Wentz and Fall Out Boy are as good a choice as any for emo's quasi-movement, and the brave new world of internet marketing. Ryan Adams and, to a degree, Conor Oberst represent the latest in a line of Singer Songwriters Who Speak to Their Times. Jim James's MMJ is probably the Biggest Rock Band to do things the New Way (post-Napster grassroots marketing, touring, reasonable record deals, slow-moving career arc, doing it "outside the industry," etc.). Chris Martin is the songwriter for arguably the biggest pop band to emerge in the Oughts. There's really only one thing missing from this list:

Voices from our generation. A few of the artists (Oberst, Wentz) are on the cusp of the age-range, and Timberlake qualifies. In other words, the defining "voices" of this decade aren't of our generation. They're older.

So, isn't this just a semantic argument? Who's to draw that line in the chronological sand and determine importance?

I am. Why not?

Of the millennium's pop superstars, Timberlake's had the most commercial success. Outkast has likely made the greatest album. To my ear, nobody's had a better, more definitive run than Jack White. In a span of a few years, The White Stripes emerged as the best of the rock-revivalist movement, releasing White Blood Cells, Elephant, and Get Behind Me Satan all by 2005. His production of Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose revitalized her career and gave yet another definition to "alt-country." His work on Cold Mountain helped reintroduce "roots music" and "traditional country" for a new generation of pop fans. And, if his songwriting talents weren't already above reproach, the b-material for his other band, The Raconteurs, remains some of the best pop-rock of the decade.

In terms of overall impact, commercial success, and residual "importance," I'm not sure anyone trumps Jack White. The problem, again, is that he isn't from the generation in question. He's of the weird, transitional generation that exists between Gen X and Gen Y.

These folks are somewhere in their thirties right now. Depending on their early-middle-late thirties designation, each might make a case for Gen X or Y membership. There's a lot of gray area.

For example, my brother is literally of my generation, but technically of a different generation. He was born in 1979, and I was born in 1983. He's too late to be Gen X, but is technically too early to be a "Millennium" kid. This makes no sense at all, but it makes total sense. When I think of the technological advances that shaped my peers after 7th grade (instant messenger, file sharing/piracy, personal cell phones for teenagers, video chatting/Skype, etc.), all came just after they would've become paradigmatic for his age group. IM's hit high schools hard just after he finished high school. Napster's spin-offs reached their tipping point long after he had started college. In terms of the social mores that shaped our development past middle school, we couldn't have been more different. We're from the same generation, but we're not of the same generation.

Meanwhile, many project that Generation Y will be the first without a definitive voice in pop music. The dissolution of the recording industry has localized music--more and more artists are finding sustainable ways to operate on a micro level. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. As I've written, I think there are more good bands than ever; but there less great bands, too.

To be the Voice of a Generation, you need to be popular on a macro level. You need to matter to everyone, even the people who don't like you. In 2009, this still demands major label support. You can't matter to everyone without the help of a giant promotional machine behind you (not to mention, ehem, great music). While it's wonderful that artists in our generation are finding sustainable ways to do-it-themselves, we'll have fewer candidates for "Voice of a Generation," if any.

I have a feeling that some great, transcendent talents will emerge from Gen Y and buck the norm--maybe even a singular "Voice of a Generation." But I also have a feeling that it will take a long time for that person to emerge. They'll likely find success after years of working independently and building a grassroots audience. By the time our generation has its voice, it might be thirty-five.

What would Kurt Cobain say?

When you posted the track list for Up, it got me thinking: why does it seem like my favorite song on every record is #5? I like "If You Don't Love Me By Now," which is track 5. What's the deal? --Sarah, Nashville
Great call. Here are just a few noteworthy Track 5's from my very limited iTunes catalog:
"Black" - Pearl Jam, Ten
"Nothingman" - Pearl Jam, Vitalogy
"Lithium" - Nirvana, Nevermind
"The Difference" - Wallflowers, Bringing Down the Horse
"And I Love Her" - Beatles, Hard Day's Night
"Here, There, and Everywhere" - Beatles, Revolver
"Ballad of a Thin Man," - Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited
"Anna Begins" - Counting Crows, August and Everything After
"Welcome to Paradise" - Green Day, Dookie
"Dancing Days" - Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy
"Heartbreaker" - Led Zeppelin, II
"Lightning Crashes" - Live, Throwing Copper
"One Big Holiday" - My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves
"So Fresh, So Clean" - Outkast, Stankonia
"Shiny Happy People" - REM, Out of Time
"Tumbling Dice" - Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street
"Runnin Down a Dream" - Tom Petty, Full Moon Fever
"It's Good to Be King" - Tom Petty, Wildflowers
"Undone" - Weezer, Weezer/Blue Album

And a few personal favorites:
"Here Is No Why" - Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie...
"Still Remains" - Stone Temple Pilots Purple

I'm sure there are thousands more. Given that I've listed but a fraction of noteworthy track 5's from my admittedly scant iTunes collection, I've only scratched the surface. Also, every track number has its list of classics. But two things stick out to me:

1) The 90's loved some Track 5.
I have basically no evidence (other than the short list above) to support this, but I swear there was a period in the mid 90's where every "rockin" single either track 2 or track 5. I have distinct memories of browsing through the CD, playing #1, anticipating #2, skipping to #5, and finding some likable power-ballad on the back half, usually #7 or #8. Of course, the closer always warranted attention.

Did record execs in the 90's do market research? Was there a sales strategy behind these song sequences? Is it just coincidence? Or am I just crazy?

I'd guess that it's some combination of design and coincidence, a byproduct of savvy mix-making by the bands themselves. Sequencing a record is the genesis of making a mix, and conventional wisdom is the same:

Track #1 needs to make a strong first impression, but needs to save room for Track #2 to really kick the doors down. Tracks #3-4 can coast a bit, to set up another rocking tidal wave at #5. A few mid-tempo songs can then set up a gut-wrenching power ballad that takes it down a notch (around Track #7, 8, or 9). Now we're ready for a home stretch with another likable rockers and an emotional finale.

It's possible that we had so many Track 5 "hits" in the 90's because that was the first generation of artists who had already mastered the art of mix-making.

2) This leads me to a bigger question: You're back on that desert island. I know, I know, you thought you escaped after the last Mailbag. You didn't. You're back for exactly one year. This time, you can bring every CD you own (or digital equivalent), but only one track. In other words, you will have every Track 5 from your musical catalog, or every Track 1, or Track 7, etc. No more, no less. For the purposes of this argument, we can group "Closers" together, since song totals vary by album. Which all-inclusive track do you bring?

My initial reaction is to take Track #1 and never look back. Album openers are openers for a reason: they're strong first impressions and, especially on older records, usually that album's biggest hit. Track #1 has the highest percentage of all-time favorites ("Like a Rolling Stone," "Hard Day's Night," "Help," "Whole Lotta Love," "Smells Like Teen Spirit," etc.), likable singles, classic anthems, and epic mood-setters. Track #1 is a solid, safe choice.

The problem is that I know all of those songs already. They're my favorites. And as hard as it might be to go 365 days without hearing "Like a Rolling Stone," the song itself--and my relationship with it--isn't going anywhere. The song's with me, island or not.

My next thought is to pick the all-encompassing "Closer" track, since those are often stand-outs and personal favorites ("Desolation Row," "Release," etc.). Upon further inspection, a playlist of only album closers would be insufferable. Maybe it's my catalog, maybe it's my interpretation of the songs, but this is a sordid, sick, sad, terminally depressed group of closers. I wouldn't last a month on the island. I'd start to build a coconut radio, "Something In the Way" would start in the background, and I'd end up lying on the sand next to dozens of branches that spell out "WHAT'S THE USE?" No, thanks.

The trick is finding the track that has the highest percentage of:
1) Personal favorites
2) Essential hits
3) Emotional range/depth/variance (everything from uplifting rockers to sad, acoustic ballads)
4) Songs I can't do without
5) Songs I might not be that familiar with/can revisit and hear something new

Of course, there are a million options, and every Track has its standouts. Tracks 4 & 5 especially make a strong case. Among oldies, Track #3 was excellent.

In the end, I'm picking Track #2. Most of my favorite music--or at least what tops the list in terms of "desert island accompaniment"--is older. By "older," I mean pre-1972. Track 2 is a little weaker with contemporary stuff, and is hit-or-miss through the nineties, but it brings heat with the oldies. In the end, you gotta serve somebody.

Here's just a slice of my Island's Yearlong Playlist, Track #2:

Beatles: "Something," "I Should Have Known Better," "The Night Before," "Dig a Pony," "Eleanor Rigby," "Norwegian Wood," "With a Little Help From My Friends"

Better Than Ezra: "Good"

Big Star: "The Ballad of el Goodo"

Outkast: "Ghetto Musick," "Gasoline Dreams"

Black Crowes: "Jealous Again"

The Band: "Up On Cripple Creek" (Last Waltz)

Bob Dylan: "Black Crow Blues," "Pledging My Time," "You're a Big Girl Now," "She Belongs to Me," "Girl From the North Country," "Tombstone Blues," "Mississippi," "Ballad of Hollis Brown"

Bruce Springsteen: "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," "Thunder Road" (Greatest Hits)

The Byrds: "Mr. Tambourine Man"

Chuck Berry: "Roll Over Beethoven"

Cory Branan: "Crush"

Counting Crows: "Omaha," "Angels of the Silences," "Mrs. Potter's Lullabye," "American Girls"

Smokey Robinson & the Miracles: "Shop Around" (Off Hitsville)

Temptations: "I'm Losing You" (Off Hitsville)

Gin Blossoms: "Hey Jealousy"

Green Day: "Jesus of Suburbia," "21st Century Breakdown"

Hank Williams: "Lovesick Blues"

The Hold Steady: "Sequestered In Memphis"

Joni Mitchell: "Help Me"

Josh Ritter: "Wolves," "Mind's Eye"

The Killers: "Mr. Brightside," "Human"

Led Zeppelin: "What Is And What Never Should Be," "Rock And Roll"

Live: "Lakini's Juice," "Throwing Copper"

Lucero: "My Best Girl," "Anjalee," "I Don't Wanna Be the One," "Slow Dancing," "Mine Tonight," "What Are You Willing to Lose"

MGMT: "Weekend Wars"

My Morning Jacket: "Lowdown," "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream," "Dancefloors," "It Beats 4 U," "They Ran"

Nirvana: "Scentless Apprentice," "In Bloom," "Sliver"

Otis Redding: "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" (Best of Otis Redding)

Simon & Garfunkel/Paul Simon: "Leaves That Are Green," "Graceland"

Pearl Jam: "Got Some," "Even Flow," "Animal," "Spin the Black Circle," "Hail, Hail," "God's Dice," "World Wide Suicide," "Save You," "Faithful"

Phantom Planet: "Always On My Mind"

Queens of the Stone Age: "I'm Gonna Leave You"

REM: "Try Not to Breathe," "The Great Beyond" (Greatest Hits), "Crush With Eyeliner,"

Radiohead: "Amnesiac/Morning Bell," "The Bends," "Sit Down, Stand Up," "Bodysnatchers," "Kid A," "Paranoid Android"

Rage Against the Machine: "Bulls on Parade"

Robert Johnson: "Kindhearted Woman Blues (Alt. Take)," "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day"

Rolling Stones: "Rip This Joint," "Love In Vain"

Ryan Adams: "Two," "Firecracker," "My Winding Wheel"

Smashing Pumpkins: "Tonight, Tonight"

Stevie Wonder: "I Just Called to Say I Love You," "Ebony and Ivory" (both off Greatest Hits)

STP: "Sex Type Thing," "Vasoline"

Tom Petty: "I Won't Back Down," "You Don't Know How It Feels"

Tom Waits: "I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You"

Tupac Shakur: "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted," "Brenda's Got a Baby"

Uncle Tupelo: "Screen Door" (Anthology)

Van Morrison: "Moondance"

Wallflowers: "6th Avenue Heartache"

Weezer: "No One Else"

White Stripes: "Black Math," "The Nurse," "You Don't Know What Love Is"

Not bad, eh?


What's your nominee for Voice of a Generation? Which track would you bring to the desert island? Hit up the comments and join the fray.

Part 2 of the Mailbag comes Friday...

Until then!


ross k. said...

Maybe you said this and I missed it, but let's be explicit that track 5 was often the first song on the second side of a vinyl LP in the 60s, 70s and 80s. I tend to have this kind of bias in my thinking and people might get tired of it, but I listen to mostly old music and I like vinyl, and I think it's easy to forget in iPOD times that ALL ALBUMS for a long time were made with a Side 1 and a Side 2. It's like giving a book chapters or a play acts. There was a certain pacing and development for a reason, which was well thought out and designed. Not that it isn't thought through today, just that it was once more officialized due to the dominant medium.

Although vinyl distribution had already been largely phased out by the early 90s, I believe that many of the production techniques would have remained during recording. A good many of the producers and engineers who worked on these big-deal gen-X albums would have grown up on vinyl and learned to record on tape, and retained this mindset in their work. Steve Albini is probably the best example.

Chris Milam said...

Yep, I'm glad you said that. I was thinking about where the side split would happen on vinyl without actually knowing or having any experience with it. That definitely informed the CD sequencing among GenXers...thanks Ross!

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