A really lively and frustratingly interesting topic happened on my Facebook wall today. A friend of mine posted the news that Sam Smith was coming to the Bell Centre in the new year. (He’s a wonderful artist from the UK that is pretty much on the edge of being “the next big thing” in music). Comments following this ranged from excitement, to wondering what date he’s coming and to how much tickets cost (ahem..that was me).
The topic got a little on a different course when a comment that followed was around the longevity of Sam Smith’s career.
“Let me know when Sam Smith (or whoever he or she is) is around in fifty years.” is basically what it said.
The topic then went into how music is such a fickle thing these days (I agree), and that “flavors of the month” really are just that and perhaps Sam Smith falls into this category. Then it got into the choice of venue for his show, and how artists from earlier years had to work the club circuit before getting the opportunity to perform at such a large venue as the Bell Centre. Fair enough. I watched the thread of conversation go from happiness around an emerging artist, to a defense around who the artist was, his authenticity and whether his success was justified.
When I was a kid, I was a melting pot of music. Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson may have adorned my walls, but sometimes you’d find me listening to ABBA, to Barenaked Ladies and Guns N Roses and Nirvana when I was older.
You can spot someone (or a group) who is true to their art from the very first moment. Those early years when I was listening to Janet Jackson, I knew that this was someone trying to do interesting things through R&B music. Was I thinking about her longevity as an artist? Or course not. I was thinking about right then and there – and the music was good.
I’ve been lucky where music is concerned because I feel that the groups and artists that I’ve been loyal to from early on have managed to continue doing what they do 20 + years now. Are they as successful as they once were? Definitely not. But there still plugging away at their craft and creating. That’s saying something.
I’m used to being judged for my musical tastes. When Alanis Morissette emerged with her Jagged Little Pill record and the ensuing craziness that came with it, I rode that wave throughout. It’s probably the most “obsessive” I’ve ever been with an artist in my life. Did people make fun of that? Of course they did. Did they think she was going to be a flash in the pan? A fluke? Absolutely. Did I take it personally? Well, probably. 🙂 But again, if there is truth to what an artist is doing, then longevity will come. You just have to take the time to see it. And now, Alanis will have been doing her thing in earnest for over 20 years as of next year. Who would have thought?
Think about The Beatles. Be honest with yourself: do you think back in 1963 when they came out with songs like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or “Love Me Do”, you thought they were going to be the band they ended up being? They were (for lack of better words in that era) a boy band, who made girls squeal. What about The Doors or The Rolling Stones? Don’t lie now…
What about Madonna? Aha – she sets a real divide with people – you have the haters and the lovers. I’m in the latter camp. When she emerged in 1982 singing about a Holiday, did you think she was still going to be around making music 25 + years later? Did you think she would make such confessional albums like Like A Prayer or Ray Of Light? I don’t care what you believe: one can’t have a long career musically based on just marketing savvy alone. Truth and art has to play into it for people to continue to connect and see. You can argue that point about her until one is blue in the face – I’ll stick to my opinion.
The thing is though – authenticity is part truth and part sheer luck. The universe was aligned at the right moment at the right time when these bands emerged.
The musical landscape is immensely different from those days – even way different from 1995. I too am now in a different demographic now, as much as I would like to think I’m still a youngster (on some days). Music acts these days are a dime a dozen – I acknowledge that. Anyone can record a song and it can be heard. Anyone remember “Friday” by Rebecca Black? Let’s hope not…
My daughter keeps me in the loop with the Top Ten these days. I’ve always been a Top Ten kind of music guy, with diversions here and there. I look at the Top Ten these days and it’s sometimes a succession of sex songs, quite frankly. But, I remain open to it. I don’t want my daughter listening to Nicki Minaj but I want her to be comfortable to enjoy a song openly without getting any judgement from me. So, yeah, you may catch me singing to Ariana Grande at the top of my lungs with her.
So, back to Sam Smith….
When you have a music climate that is filled with transparent pop, and then someone who dares to sing from a different point of view comes along and manages to connect with a wide audience…you know that you’re witnessing something tidal wave-esque happening. Sam Smith is that person right now in mainstream pop. Who is he most compared to right now?
Another example of someone who is in it for the long haul. Her disappearing act at the moment is very valid and normal but like her or not, you know that she is someone sticking around….hopefully.
It’s unfair to think that EVERYONE who emerges these days in music is a passing fancy. Are we to say that there weren’t any passing fancies in the past? Of course there were. But I think social media makes us more prone to vocalize and judge quicker and louder more than before. A friend once alluded to Twitter (I Love Twitter) as the equivalent of opening your front window and yelling out comments for someone to hear. I think you can say that for social media in general.
My advice: if you don’t know who an artist is, explore them! Find out who they are, before you decide they’re going to disappear in two seconds. You may be right, or you may be wrong.
Take Gotye for example – he had massive success with his genius (in my opinion) song “Somebody That I Used To Know”. Is he sticking around? I’d like to think he is because you can hear the art and truth happening in that song. ( And for the record, his album is excellent.)
But that’s best case scenario. Then you have an artist like Lauryn Hill, who released one of the greatest albums of the late 90s with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and who was then plagued by money problems, fame problems and a whole bunch of other things. If she makes another album, she’ll be scrutinized for it. I know that I thought she’d be around for years and years making music. I used to judge her a lot for her missteps. But, then I changed my mind. Because Miseducation is a gift to the ears and heart – and maybe for some artists that’s just enough.
Getting back to Sam Smith again…
The comment about venue changing and speeding to the big stadiums is true. This is what happens now. There is a crazy level of immediacy between fans and artists that is unprecedented and didn’t exist then. It’s a weird, exciting and scary world we live in now with platform sharing and phones! I’m not saying it’s the perfect mode – it’s not. But if someone is getting a speeding ticket to big success, I don’t think this is necessarily because the artist is unworthy of it. I think it’s about connection. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of artists (I’m looking at you, Pitbull!) who have a big fan bases and who are not substantially great in my opinion. But you can spot the Pitbulls from the Gotyes, the Nicki Minajs from the Janelle Monaes…if you looks closely.
I don’t know whether Sam Smith will have the luck of being around for 50 years. But, I can say that I do hope that he does.
Sometimes my heart thinks about the days of record stores and how things were simpler. And a part of me does want that simplicity again.
And then I think about how people who grew up with the radio as their outlet must have felt when television entered the world – they must have wanted things simpler, must have wanted things to remain the way they are because it was reliable and there was heart to it.
Or how people felt when records got shelved for CDs,
Or how VHS got evolved to DVDs.
Or how books are being replaced by e-readers (I’m still working on this one..)
And now we’re at an age where music and movies exist digitally. You don’t need an actual thing in your hands – you can access it whenever, wherever and share it with whomever you want. There’s something really beautiful about that.
U2 is currently getting ridden over the coals for their ballsy move to have their latest album “Songs of Innocence” automatically given for free to every iTunes user. Is the album any good? It’s sub-par – definitely not from the days of Achtung Baby or The Joshua Tree or even All That You Can’t Leave Behind. But I thought the move was genius. I agree – if you don’t like U2 (or if you don’t like to be force-fed music), having their album in your library is annoying. I get it. But, despite the band lacking relevance for a really long time (sniff), I gotta give them points for trying something different, for taking a risk in this fickle music climate and trying something no one had done before.
Beyoncé released the greatest album of her career and year (yes I said it) by also taking advantage of the climate and using the element of surprise to release her music. Sometimes it just works really well. And it’s another example of an artist choosing not to stick to familiar measures but trying something risky and new. It’s a good thing!
The bottom line is that the world is changing constantly. It’s better to be a critical thinker about it, rather than judgmental and close minded. Because the world isn’t going to wait for you to catch up. So, why not join the party and be an active participant, I say.
In The Lonely Hour by Sam Smith. Check it out. Seriously. 🙂