How Much More MOR Could I Be?

by Russell Fox

Sometimes people say things about pop music (like this guy) that rub me the wrong way. And I’m embarrassed by that fact. What’s the big deal if I happen to like a fair mount of Sir Elton John’s oeuvre, however unhip it may be? I don’t need to haul out some huge populist analysis of the complex problem(s) of pursuing expensive, elite tastes in the context of popular entertainment in order to defend myself, do I? Of course not. (Thank heavens, the readers sigh audibly.) Let it go.

I think it’s my personal pop music history which does this to me. I grew up in a nice, medium-size, mostly agricultural city–Spokane, Washington–in a nice, big, religious family. I’ve nothing but praise for both of them. However, one consequence of this environment (which wasn’t especially sheltered or restrictive, just…well, not in the mainstream of things, shall we say) was that I didn’t get much of an education in popular music. I played the violin, listened to classical and church music and my mom’s beloved Hollywood musical soundtracks. It was with great excitement that I discovered, sometime around when I was twelve, Casey Kasem and the existence of a "Top 40" on the radio (which, up until that time, I had mostly surreptitiously utilized to listen to late-night mystery dramas hosted by E.G. Marshall). I suppose my level of cultural awareness during my junior high and high school years weren’t that different from that of your typical Napoleon Dynamite-type nerd, but still: the lack of exposure to anything remotely hip or alternative (there was no "college radio" station in Spokane) was painful, to me at least, once I left for college in 1987. (And yes, I attended BYU; but the Salt Lake City area, as those familiar with it can well attest, is one of the better and more diverse radio markets in the U.S.) The embarrassments of my freshman year, as I struggled in vain to pretend to my far more worldly peers that I too had ridden the New Wave, were legion. I attempted to speak knowingly about that hot new band from Australia, "Inks" (oddly spelled "I-N-X-S"). I mortified myself by reciting the chorus of ‘Til Tuesday’s big hit as "let’s go downtown; it’s so scary." I could go on. Suffice to say, I ended up spending most of that year in a defensive crouch when it comes to popular music.

I’ve managed to straighten up a fair amount since then. For one thing, I realized that a lot of people couldn’t give a damn about pop music anyway, and I spent several years learning from them all about jazz, the blues, a cappella, folk, and classic rock and roll. And it gradually dawned on me that pop music itself isn’t a single stream, and I found myself digging all sorts of stuff from the 60s and especially the 70s (an unfairly maligned decade, culturally speaking) that weren’t even remotely on the average white American’s radar back when I came of age. I’d like to think that Melissa and I have managed to develop for our family a pretty broad and eclectic taste in music. But then I read something from Berube about the great old days of WNEW-FM in New York, and I get reminded just how middle-of-the-road my everyday pop tastes have become. The evidence? I own, and enjoy, Elton John’s Greatest HitsVols. I and II and III. Or how about this? I have, in my office right at this moment, every single album James Taylor has ever released. Yep, I unapologetically (but perhaps not entirely undefensively) decided on a James Taylor marathon this week, beginning with James Taylor, continuing on through Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon and JT, all the way up to New Moon Shine and October Road. (My favorite album? Flag, of course.) Am I enjoying myself? Well, seeing as it’s spring break and no other faculty are around to observe me grooving in my seat to "Sun on the Moon" or "Lighthouse"…yeah, I am.

But I promise: tonight, at Chez Fox, it’ll be The Chieftains! It is St. Patrick’s Day, after all.

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25 thoughts on “How Much More MOR Could I Be?

  1. Elton John and James Taylor rule.

    I don’t really consider them pop music, though. When someone says pop music, I think Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, Green Day.

    I saw Motley Crue video yesterday. A new one. They used to be considered heavy metal, but they are so pop.

    One thing I think is really awesome about popular music today is how there are so many genres now. You’ve got hip hop, R&B, country, rock, pop, etc, all very popular. And I think of all of the genres, the one with the most quality stuff becoming popular is hip hop.

  2. Thank you, Russell, for your eloquently written post. We’re all critics in one way or another. Certain music gets “popular” and we decide if we should participate or be cool by knowing all there is to know about those not-as-popular underground bands.

    The more I listen to music, the more I realize how much that has influenced me in the past and how much I hope it doesn’t influence me in the future.

    In other words, I came to the conclusion that I actually like Britney’s first album even if that’s a social faux pas among this crowd.

  3. Russell, I too have struggled with the INXS pronunciation. But it wasn’t long after that discovery that I too could mock music newbies who thought that Bizarre Love Triangle was some 90’s hit.

    No shame in liking James Taylor. He’s on the iPod right now. As for Elton John, well, no shame there either, except for anything he’s done since the 80’s. Like a lot of artists (Mellencamp, Rod Stewart, etc.), he’s lost his real edge and is now just a lounge singer. Getting knighted really did him in.

  4. I don’t think there’s any shame in liking anything you like, period. There’s a lot to like in Britney Spears music, and the Backstreet Boys, too. There’s also no shame in not liking famously “cool” things. I don’t like most rock at all, certainly not Brian Eno, and I’ve never been able to listen with pleasure to Bob Dylan.

    I take it as a sign of maturity to be able say, in all seriousness, that My Fair Lady and Sondheim’s oeuvre are far more sophisticated and beautiful projects than most popular recorded music.

    As for the 70s, I like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Linda Ronstadt’s recordings the best. For rock, I listen to Springsteen’s records, and also The Who. A little later, I liked The Police.

    I was never into Elton John, partly because I think I play better piano than he does. But really, whatever floats your boat.

  5. “I don’t think there’s any shame in liking anything you like, period.”

    I’ve always felt this way too. But then that must be obvious by now. Did I mention my Cher albums?

    (Where did the Brian Eno thing come from, D? It was weird cuz I was actually listening to him when I read your post.)

  6. Oh, sorry Susan, Eno was mentioned by that snobby guy in his article, as being sort of the anti-Elton.

  7. I feel I must stick up for all us music elitists in the world–as it is, I agree with (nearly) everything that guy said in the article. (Exceptions being his distaste for Bowie’s “It Ain’t Easy” and his love for Eno.)

    It’d be too long to explain here (perhaps I’ll write a post on it) but I do believe that there is such a thing as “good” music. Of course, I agree that there is no shame in liking anything you like — but I don’t think people should confuse “liking” with “good” (and music elitists are just as guilty of this–and usually more so than music non-elitists). My personal belief is that one should be able to defend their choices if they claim they are “good” but that no defense is needed if they are just “liked”.

    Personally, I can’t stand James Taylor except for “Fire and Rain”. (There’s a joke among my friends: if James Taylor did that much coke and made that music, he must have been doing it wrong.) Same goes for Elton John (with the exception of a few songs). I like Billy Joel (it’s almost all nostalgic)–but I think one would be hard pressed to make a convincing argument that most of his work is ‘good’, though.

    There’s this famous quote (by Leter Bangs, perhaps?) that claims that no musician has ever betrayed his talent as much as Rod Stewart. I think it’s hard to disagree with this.

  8. You’re gonna have to defend yourself, Pris. What’s “good” music, after all? Is Brian Eno automatically “good” and Elton John automatically “bad?” By what definition? It’s all pretty high school to me — that guy in that article has chosen artists he thinks are cool, so he can be appealing to other people who like that music. It’s high school.

    Why has Rod Stewart betrayed his talent? What’s wrong with singing standards? if that’s what you want to do, and you’re good at it. Those standards are called that for a reason. They’re great.

  9. I’m with D. on this one. I feel no need to walk around reassuring myself that it’s ok to “like” all that “bad” music.

    Perhaps my liking music is part of what makes it good [for me]. In any event, this is extremely subjective. It’s impossible to define measurements by which all music must be held accountable.

  10. Why has Rod Stewart betrayed his talent? D., with all due respect that’s a silly question. He’s gone from genuine rock n’ roll with rebellious attitude and a unique stance to being a commonplace lounge singer. As for singing standards, sure there’s nothing wrong with doing that, but Rod’s not particularly good at it, and it’s a waste of what used to be some great songs. His work with the Jeff Beck Group was great, heavy blues-rock, and from 1975-76 he had some fantastic hits.

    Now, all he does is polished tunes that others have already done better. Did “Downtown Train” need to be remade? Does Rod’s version of “Have I Told You Lately” even come close to Van Morrison’s? It’s a shame, I tell ya.

  11. But this is exactly what I’m talking about, Steve. You are suggesting that there’s something “genuine” about rock ‘n’ roll with a rebellious attitude. Why? And if it is genuine, does that make it good? There’s something pretty genuine about John Denver’s songs. Maybe Rod isn’t as good as others at singing standards, but why not let him try it anyway? Maybe he doesn’t want to be “rebellious” anymore.

    Everyone in life wants to be cool, and it doesn’t end with high school. It seems to end only with some middle-aged maturity. Some artists tap into “coolness” better than others.

    I guess I find snobby elitism everywhere, and it annoys me. I feel like I ought to buy Rod’s standards album just to put you elitists to shame.

    P.S. Right in the New York Times today is an article about a pianist performing the Rachmaninoff 2nd Piano Concerto, a work pretty much loathed by the classical music cognescenti as being low-brow. Guess what? Now they’re saying it’s great music. Trends come, trends go, artists are cool, and then uncool. I think we should let them alone.

  12. It’s OK with me to dislike an artist, any artist, just as it’s OK to like them. What’s not OK with me is when we put down other people for liking whom they like. We want to be cool, and make sure all those other people aren’t.

    I think it’s pretty hard to determine which artists are “genuine” and which aren’t. The ones that are just in it for the money, eh? Which ones would those be, exactly?

    P.S. There’s an old quote said in every interview by Emmy Lou Harris (someone whose music I like a lot), “There’s the blues, and then there’s Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” It’s a gross oversimplification, but I also think it’s reprehensible to dump on a song like that. If you don’t like the blues, I guess you’re not cool (is what she’s saying).

  13. James Taylor, for instance, sings a mean blues. He’s firmly grounded that way (and so is Bonnie Raitt, WOW!). For every “FIre and Rain,” there’s “Steamroller.” I love James — I saw him in concert in 1971, and I’ve seen him live at least 4 times since.

    The Eagles have a sound like no other band, that whiny electric guitar. I like them a lot, actually.

  14. D: I’ve been working on a long response for 90 minutes now and have yet to find a good way of expressing what I want to say. I will continue on it, but I will offer up three factors that I believe to comprise much of “good” (in descending importance):

    1) The ethos, pathos, logos of the music.
    2) The music’s place in the history of music (influence, difference, skill, etc.)
    3) The music’s place in culture (how well does it tap into the common collectiveness).

    In short, I’m advocating a cultural (not personal) subjectivity.

  15. I recognize your analysis, Pris, and I think it’s worthy. However, I think this kind of analysis can only be understood after the fact. Way after the fact. In fact, the artists probably need to be dead.

    The fact is, Brian Eno has never had the career of Elton John, either in success or duration. Wouldn’t this suggest that Sir Elton “connected” to a common collectiveness more? Doesn’t his music “sound” like the 70s? And don’t suggest that Eno’s music will last longer either, because we don’t know that. Certainly a number of Elton’s songs from the early 70s are still with us.

    I think it’s easier to dismiss bad music than it is to determine good music. Bad music is neither complexly drawn, nor accessible/popular. It appeals to no one.

    But good music might be different to different people. I would hope to make everyone approach criticism from the standpoint of, “it didn’t hit me as it did other people.” No judgments on someone else’s taste.

  16. I grew up listening to WNEW-FM in New York. Good times.

    I have to agree with Berube on Elton John, though. He’s been putting out variations on a not-so-original theme for decades now.

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