The Singer-Songwriter: Capturing the Zeitgeist


Features, Music | by — June 20, 2006


by Liz Melia

When you look back at why a certain type of music has blossomed into mainstream pop music at a particular time, you can usually spot the sort of socio-political trends that inspired its progression. Take the Fifties, the decade that was stuffed full of post-war and Cold War carpe diem spirit and which unleashed a cathartic outpouring of black and black-influenced rock n’ roll. This new pop music was only made possible because record companies like Elvis’s Sun Records were able to cash in on the wave of unprecedented affluence that rolled right across the Western world from the mid-1950s, and gave more people more money to spend on luxuries like record players and records than ever before. When this new wealth coincided with the post-war baby boom, the teenager was suddenly invented and a new consumer was born – a consumer with enough spending power to push aside the old trad jazz and lounge music and launch rock n’ roll.

Similarly, the hippy swinging melodies of the summer of love in 1967 were a counter culture to the Vietnam War; the Smiths and others in the 1980s were dripping with the dispirited mood of the Thatcher years; and Britpop was full of the puppyish excitement of leaving all that behind. Anyone else remember Noel Gallagher beaming on the steps of No. 10 in 1997? Political and social culture cannot help but filter down into pop music.

So. I’m interested in why the bland singer-songwriter is capturing the zeitgeist. I’m talking about how suddenly the most drab residuum of society are at once investing in a Yamaha electro-acoustic, writing some colourless clichés about their personal life (agghhh) or sycophantic, embarrassing crawling blurge of the ‘You’re Beautiful’ variety (nooo pleeease), confessing it to a crowd (NO! Stop!) and – this is the most painful part – getting to the TOP OF THE CHARTS!

Why, the question begs, are so many people listening to that dreadful Katie Melua? James Blunt? KT Tunstall even? She’s not distressingly awful like the others but has nothing on the old chartbusters like Joni Mitchell or even today’s Beth Orton. I’d talk about Jack Johnson but I’d be asleep by the end of the sentence. BORING. BORING. Rudimentary guitar playing, embarrassing Year 8 Valentine’s card lyrics, and a paltry grey-coloured amount of charisma. If Damien Rice sang about something tangible then I’d forgive him his four chords. Some of Dylan’s best stuff is very simple musically, and the antifolk lot today are lo-fi above all. But they are compelling because they stick to folk music’s central storytelling theme, they have imagination, and inventive and real things to talk about. They are convincing. These pop singer-songwriters are not.

I know chart music has always been a bit bland. It’s oft-quoted that in 1967, for example, Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Release Me’ kept the Beatles ‘Penny Lane’/’Strawberry Fields Forever’ double A-side off the top spot. But these new singer-songwriters are infiltrating everywhere, not just the charts. Every pub suddenly has an open mic night. Why?

Here’s my proposal. Firstly I wonder whether many people have abandoned synthesized music in an urgent recoil from the modern, opting to play acoustic music that sounds timeless, even if it is produced to fuck on a computer behind closed doors. I’d also suggest that Brown’s economic surface successes have stabilized a middle class rocked by the 1992 recession, leaving a mostly apathetic singer-songwriter population. They are incapable on the whole of writing honestly and effectively about their real experiences because our target-based education system has stifled any creative flair to write engagingly and intelligently. They also feel a need to unburden themselves of often phantom relationship problems in a copycat reflex of the daytime sitcoms and talkshows that promote endless self-analysis. We also live in a neo-liberal age where society is becoming more atomistic, individualistic, more preoccupied with the self. The new pop singer-songwriters have no Weltanshauung; they ignore the outside world and collapse in cloying introspection. Forgetting the outside world is something that old folk never entirely gave way to, and this is why this new lot are so profoundly depressing.

For this reason, my skin pinches with discomfort when reviewers talk of an old folk ‘legacy’ in this new lot. If Dylan and that lot have any legacy at all, it is in people like Jeff Lewis, Mike Skinner, anyone who has real stories to tell – and who don’t cling to intangible, meaningless piffle like ‘float like a cannonball.’

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