Posts Tagged ‘Usher’

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90s baby.

August 27, 2009

Okay, I confess, I was born in the 1980s.  But apart from a few songs, the majority of what I grew up with was 90s music.  As you know, Mariah Carey is a massive influence on me, and my mother bought her very first single, “Vision Of Love”, on vinyl back in 1990.  Right through “Dreamlover”, “Without You” and “Fantasy” to the  Butterfly and Rainbow albums which closed the 90s, she was an epic atom bomb dropped on my life.  But if you know me, or you’ve read certain previous entries, you already know that and I’m not going to delve into it further here.

As a preteen and young teenager bearing the combined musical influence of my mother and my school friends, I would listen to songs by the Honeyz, En Vogue, Shola Ama, Backstreet Boys, No Doubt, Solid Harmonie, Peter Andre, Blur *shudder*, Aqua *cringe*, Aaliyah, Monica, Brandy and Usher, to name but a very select few.  The magazines I read (Smash Hits, TVHits, Top Of The Pops) were aimed squarely at teenagers who were of a sunny pop disposition, and although I was much more aware of the charts then than I am now, I still felt a little bit like there had to be something more.  Beyond straightforward manufactured pop (however good a product it may be), I started to lean towards more urban music.  I discovered garage (2-step) music, R&B, rap and hip hop.  Ms. Dynamite, Shola Ama (and the remixes), Honeyz and Kele Le Roc represented British R&B to me, while the American singers such as Toni Braxton, Aaliyah, Brandy, Usher, Monica, TLC and Jennifer Lopez were an emblem of something smoother, sexier and edgier.  Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope opened my eyes to how well an album could be constructed, seguing effortlessly between different moods, concepts and tempos.  Missy Elliott’s Da Real World smacked me upside the head with a combination of weird bassy dark production and super-explicit lyrics that I wasn’t familiar with.  Jennifer Lopez’s video for “If You Had My Love” left me with the undeniable impression that a star was born, from her ridiculous beautiful looks to her insanely polished and expressive dancing.  Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” ended up on my cd player before it dawned on me just how much of a classic that song was going to be.  TLC’s Fanmail sounded like the future.  Aaliyah’s One In A Million album sounded like effortless sexuality, and sounded like nothing and nobody else.

All the aforementioned artists, albums and songs still hold that exact same resonance for me.  Perhaps it’s just the fact that I was growing up and those singers played an integral part in my adolescence, but music just isn’t the same anymore.  Show me a singer as effortlessly sexy and sophisticated as Aaliyah.  Show me a group as fiercely cool as TLC.  Find me a singer with a voice, body and songwriting skills like Mariah’s.  A rapper as off the wall as Busta Rhymes, as influential as 2pac or Notorious BIG.  I mean no disrespect to all the musicians and artists in the game today, because they have a hard job living up to these stars, who to me represent the golden age of urban music.  Ciara, Beyoncé, The-Dream, Electrik Red, Robin Thicke, Pitbull, Lil’ Wayne, Black Eyed Peas all hold down the front line.  Perhaps it’s just that I’m older, but despite their best efforts, I can’t help reminiscing.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because I’ve found music in the last 3-4 years to be somewhat dry, I’ve discovered music from that golden age that passed me by the first time round.  Unbelievably, until 2 years ago, I had never listened to a Jodeci song.  Obviously I’d heard of them and their songs must have played very occasionally on the radio or tv, but I’d never really listened. Now I know where Dru Hill got their ideas from!  R. Kelly and his protégée Sparkle crafted some classic 90s R&B.  SWV and Total were some bad-ass girl groups!  Listening to the Notorious BIG’s albums and Puff Daddy’s older output allows me to see where Diddy, Lil’ Kim and Bad Boy Entertainment stand today and plot the journey and progress in between.  The joy of this has been that it is an entirely personal quest, because nobody else, in my past or present, is into the exact same music as me.  I’ve managed to convert some of my friends to some urban music, but I don’t really know anyone in person who’s into in the same depth.  The people who seem to understand most where I come from musically are on the internet, in forums and on urban music blogs.  Quite often, different posts educate me.

And that’s why I get so frustrated at the state of music today.  For one, every song seems to be a recycle of something else.  Beyoncé’s “Halo” = Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” = Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone” = Jordin Sparks’ “Battlefield”.  Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face” = Britney Spears’ “Gimme More” = Eva Simons’ “Silly Boy” = Rihanna’s “Shut Up And Drive” + “Umbrella” = a large part of The-Dream’s subsequent output = Electrik Red.  LeToya’s “Not Anymore” = Ciara’s “Never Ever” = Monica’s “Still Standing” = Nicole Scherzinger’s “Happily Never After” = Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” = Rihanna & Ne-Yo’s “Hate That I Love You” = Ne-Yo’s “Because Of You” = Ne-Yo’s “Sexy Love” = Ne-Yo’s “Mad”.  So damn formulaic.  And as Jay-Z has finally noticed, auto-tune is everywhere.

Another thing: why does music being released right now sound like it is 20 years old?  Aaliyah’s self-titled album sounds like an edgy, modern masterclass nearly 10 years on.  TLC’s Fanmail sounds more futuristic than Keri Hilson’s In A Perfect World…despite the former being released in 1999 and the latter released in 2009.  Whitney Houston’s latest “greatest” “comeback” album I Look To You is an utter mess, because instead of a graceful attempt to keep up with the times as on My Love Is Your Love (a burnished masterpiece) and even Just Whitney (which has held up surprisingly well), she decides to go time-travelling.  The ballads fare well, with “Call You Tonight” a classy modern song, while “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” and “I Look To You” are classic ballads which are strong, even without the power of Whitney’s old voice.  “Salute” is the best song on the album for me, because it is pure timeless R&B.  But the uptempos…. oh no.  “Million Dollar Bill” revisits old-school R&B and falls asleep, “Nothin’ But Love” presses the 90s synth button repeatedly, “Like I Never Left” should be titled “Like I Never Left The 80s”.  The major disaster is “A Song For You”, which was performed sublimely by Herbie Hancock and Christina Aguilera a couple of years ago.  Here, the first half of the song is typically piano led, but Whitney seems to jump through the hoops a little bit.  No matter, it’s not a problem compared to what happens at 1:30.  Hex Hector and Peter Rauhofer must have cried a river when they heard this tepid 90s-dance mess. I listened to this and had to skip to the next track, because Whitney was done a pure disservice with this song.  Words fail me…

Whitney Houston is not the only victim of this dated-modern fad… even on Trey Songz’ fantastic third album Ready, the melodically lovely “Love Lost” boasts a musical backing that sounds like it was created in 1987.  And Monica’s latest leaked song “Betcha She Don’t Love You” sounds like Missy Elliott vomited up an old record and told Monica to sing over it.  (Aaliyah would never have stood for it, I’m sure.) I have no problem with being inspired by the past and appreciating heritage and history.  You can honour the classics in a tasteful way. But when it seems that it’s so difficult for artists to be forward thinking that they recycle old songs and pass them off as ‘new’ or ‘retro-cool’ when in reality they are just lazy, that really pisses me off and makes me rifle through my older CDs, listening to music that is forward thinking, doesn’t sound at all dated, but is timeless.  There’s a big difference between the two that a lot of today’s music industry (both A&R honchos and artists alike) would do very well to learn.

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secrets and lies.

July 8, 2009

Last Saturday I was sat in Starbucks reading my book, and a woman (maybe 5-10 years older than me?) asked if she could sit in the seat opposite me (because I had claimed the comfy chairs hehe).  I said “yes” and she sat herself down, with 2 piles of books.  There must have been 8 altogether, and between pages of my own book, I surreptitiously looked at what she was reading.  I don’t know if she was a book reviewer for some newspaper or magazine (I was tempted to ask, but I already sparked up a conversation in the very same cafe the previous week, with a guy who was reading Ayn Rand and piqued my curiosity) but she would take one book, leaf through the first few pages, jot something down on a pink piece of paper, then put the book down and repeat the process with the next one.  Anyways, I noticed that the titles of these books (from the pink, floral covers and bouncy fonts, I’m guessing chick-lit) had a running theme: they involved the word “secret”, or otherwise “private diary of someone-or-other”.  And it got me thinking about something that I have noticed for a while now…

In the music world, a couple of years ago there was a running theme of the idea of confessions.  Madonna had Confessions On A Dance Floor and her Confessions Tour.  Usher had his mega-successful Confessions album and accompanying single.  Lindsay Lohan had a stellar but underappreciated album called A Little More Personal (Raw), which is the most mature and heartbreaking (and thus depressing – you have been warned! but I thoroughly recommend picking up the album) exploration of disillusionment with love, fame and her father in particular. The lead-off single from that collection was “Confessions Of A Broken Heart (Daughter To Father)”, and had an uncomfortable video which all too closely reflects the parental rows of my childhood.  Anyways, the theme of confessions and having secrets and wanting to reveal all of that through your music or your art or whatever form of self-expression is your forte was kinda slapping me around the face during that period, and I even wrote my own album called Secrets, which was the first one that I completed (Quiet Storm is due to be my third).  Ironic that for somebody interested in the idea of secrets, I’d like nothing more than to be a legitimately famous person…

I was, and still am, intrigued by the facet of human nature not to keep secrets (that seems pretty natural to me; privacy is a luxury and being able to keep something for yourself makes that extremely special, whatever it may be), but to want to reveal them and confess.  I think that the Catholic idea of confessing your sins in the booth to the priest is a good one in practice, and has some sense because a sin is something that can weigh heavily on your conscience, though I doubt whether anonymity was really preserved because the priest would blatantly know 99% of the voices in his booth.  What makes less sense to me is the culture of the self-exposé, where you reveal more about yourself to get people to be more interested in you and feel closer to you.  Obviously that is the logic behind the idea, but how much of yourself are you willing to give away before you draw the line?  In programmes such as Big Brother, the contestants willingly surrender all privacy in pursuit of 15 minutes of fame, except in its 9th series, barely anyone watches because we’ve seen it all before.  And because we’ve seen it all before, the tasks that the housemates have to do now are beyond ridiculous, e.g. two of them changing their names by deed poll to Dogface and Halfwit.  It lacks class, and this may be the root of my issue with revealing too much of yourself – it just looks desperate.

There is a need the majority of human beings have, I believe, to draw others closer to them.  But I don’t know, in the media-obsessed climate of today (which is a climate I have been brought up in and totally subscribe to, because that is natural to me), where the line is drawn because I don’t need to see pictures of Britney Spears’ vagina to believe that she has one; I don’t need to know absolutely everything about Michael Jackson’s funeral and what may or may not have been the cause of his death to make me a fan or a supporter of him (I always preferred Janet and that hasn’t changed).  Our curiosity has becoming something crass and invasive, and the media and paparazzi feed it to us so that every time we become a little less shocked and a little more blasé, thus causing them to try and go one step further to keep us interested.  Before the Michael Jackson memorial (which I didn’t watch) started yesterday evening, a newsreader said more than once “The show is about to start”.  To me (and my mother), this was pretty sick – it’s not a show, it’s a funeral.  Mariah Carey was in the trending topics on Twitter not because of her new single, but because she sang at the memorial and her voice may or may not have cracked (I thought she sounded fine) and her dress was not fitting for a funeral (it was black, it was floor-length, her breasts were covered and her hair covered her shoulders – she looked totally appropriate).  For an industry I have always wanted to be a part of, I am now finally wondering whether I really want to subject myself to that much scrutiny and take part in such tasteless events in order to “make it” – maybe I am really happier just making my music and sharing it with friends who care to listen.  Maybe not… there will always be that dream.  We’ll see…

But back to the sentiment of “It’s not a show, it’s a funeral.” …Or is it?  Is everything for show these days?  I don’t know what is real and what is fake, and we blur the lines in the realm of the rich and famous, but increasingly more so in our own personal lives.  Who are we, what do we have to keep to ourselves that keeps us human, and how much do we give away to the public domain?  And once we give it away, can we ever reclaim it for ourselves and get it back?