Interviewer: After your first interview, I have a few more questions. Do you have time for a short interview?
KP: Yes, what would you like to know?
Interviewer: I would love to know your thoughts on whether or not you think that music can really progress any more than it has. By this I mean to say, technologically, do you think that we have made almost as many steps as we can to create new or different sounds to be used in music? Many of the genres since the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s are all subgenres or facets of another genre, and since then genres seem to have only progressed in areas concerning technology. It would seem that where genres are concerned, there really can’t be any new ones . . . Thoughts?
KP: Well, let me put it this way: when it comes to fallen human nature, there is an endless supply of wickedness and stupidity. Trust me. Or, at least in regard to your specific question, there can be an endless supply of people who think that they are doing something new and different, “profound” even, but that it is really only the slightest variation on an old theme.
However, I think that you touch upon an important distinction – a peculiarly modern problem – when you use the word “technology.” It’s not just in music, but in many areas of life. Endless amounts of money, for example, are dedicated to getting computers in the schools, free WIFI, etc. as if no one could possibly learn without the latest technology – when, in fact, reading levels, knowledge of culture, etc. among the average high school graduate have sunk to abysmal lows.
We are very much a “surface culture.” I remember when the first computer music printing programs came out in the 1980’s when I was in graduate music school. One of the music theory professors wryly remarked that, while the assignments handed in to him looked unbelievably professional, for the most part, they sounded just as bad as ever. And that is one of the problems with this sort of technology. It can give people the illusion that they don’t have to do the hard work to produce anything of substance, because technology can assure them an easily attainable pretty surface. This isn’t just a problem with students. I definitely see this in popular music today.
Interviewer: Do you see anything positive for the future of popular music?
KP: Oh, yes, at least as a possibility.
Interviewer: And what is that?
KP: The fact that, while people can fool themselves – and technology makes it easier to do that – pendulums do swing. People do get tired of the way things are and, at the very least, are receptive to a change. Plus, there are intelligent people out there who do provide a market for more intelligently written music.
Interviewer: Would you see John Legend’s song “All of Me” as an example of that?
KP: In a sense. I think that what is most striking about the song is that it uses only an acoustic piano as a background – no synthesizers – and has a rather gentle mood which is a bit unusual for the top 10 these days. And John Legend has a beautiful voice. These are what make the song stand out. Still, “All of Me” basically fits into that category of “Four Chord Mysticism” of which I spoke in my last interview. I suppose that it is one of the better examples, but I would still like to hear this generation of songwriters prove to me that they can fill out eight, or even sixteen, measures (as even the Monkeys were able to do 50 years ago) before they cycle back to the first chord.
Interviewer: What about Michael Bublé? Would he be an example of that positive “pendulum swing”?
KP: Oh, I think so. People have been critical of him – especially when he started out – that he was copying very exactly what older performers did. Especially Frank Sinatra. And that is true. You can criticize him on interpretive grounds, calling him “the world’s best wedding singer,” “Sinatra in the age of karaoke and American idol,” or “Sinatra redacted through Bobby Darren.” Still, I’m glad he’s doing what he is doing. If nothing else, it does get the music out there to younger people who might not hear it otherwise.
I do think that Harry Connick, Jr. is a more original interpreter of the Great American Song Book. Even more so, Diana Krall, although she is so good that she doesn’t seem to cross over as well. She tends to be seen more exclusively as a “jazzer.”
Interviewer: I was wondering if you would comment on something intriguing which you said in your first interview about Billy Joel being insulted that he was referred to as a “balladeer”?
KP: I’m glad that you asked that question, because it does tie into what I was saying about Michael Bublé. Like him or not, his influence (though real) is limited because he tends to get shunted off into what is called “Adult Contemporary” – what used to be called “Easy Listening” – the ultimate insult to any Rocker.
Interviewer: Billy Joel, one of the best post-Great American Songbook balladeers, insulted by being called a “balladeer”? What is behind that?
KP: An awful lot. Let me see if I can explain.
This has to do with the shift in the market at which popular music is aimed. Remember that the word “teenager” was created sometime between 1935-1940. In fact, I remember my father telling me that there were lots of articles in the early 1940’s talking about “the teenager” – a new concept. “Seventeen” magazine, which still exists today, was created in 1944 to appeal to this new market. While certainly there were always teenagers around as a part of the pop music audience, the music was not aimed exclusively at them.
It took awhile for there to be a transformation.
Just look at the Billboard Mainstream Top 40 in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s and you will still see Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Perry Como sharing space with Elvis, The Beatles, The Beach Boys. However, with the emergence of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the mid-1950’s there is the beginnings of the teen “takeover” of mainstream pop which pretty much succeeds by about 1970 – at least this is arguable.
Interviewer: So what happened?
KP: In my opinion, as pop music becomes increasingly aimed at teens, teenage male insecurities (among other things) get baked into pop music culture. So when Billy Joel (already in his late 20’s and quite successful) was called a “balladeer” and his music “easy listening” it might indeed have been meant as an insult – and he certainly took it that way. It was an affront to his manhood – and the self-image he had of himself as a “rocker.” He then determined to “rock harder” – presumably to prove himself.
(Now, ironically, I am somewhat grateful for this in that he went on to write a few of the best “hard rock” songs I have ever heard: “I Go to Extremes” and “Matter of Trust.” The man just had a great sense of melody and an ear for harmonic progression, irregardless of the sort of beat attached.)
Still, this whole incident would have been absurd to a popular singer of an earlier generation, say, like Dean Martin. Upon being called a “balladeer,” he probably would have said, “Thanks, buddy, have a drink on me! Now, you’ll have to excuse me, I have a date with the Gold Diggers.”
This isn’t to say that there weren’t differences of opinion in popular music back then. While Martin had the better voice, Sinatra sang much better material. But these differences were about quality of songs, not who could thump louder. Manhood does not seem to have entered into the picture.
Interviewer: Could you expand upon the notion that Billy Joel had “a great sense of melody and an ear for harmonic progression” and why this is lacking in modern pop music?
KP: Certainly. Well, let me say that his family name was probably originally “Joelstein,” if you get my drift. Let me give you some other names: Israel Isidore Beilin (Irving Berlin), George Gershowitz (Gershwin), Hyman Arluck (Harold Arlen). American popular music is often said to be a melding of black and white influences, but those white influences often enough (though not exclusively) were those of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. American popular music at its best owes an awful lot to Jewish mothers who made their boys take classical piano lessons both before and after their Bar Mitzvah’s.
God bless them, they kept alive the wonderful heritage of (a largely Christian) Western art music which then fed, in conjunction with black rhythmic influences, into American popular music. But Western classical music has largely been cut off as both a source and an aspiration for popular music. Both Gershwin and Duke Ellington, tried to write “classical jazz,” they tried to aspire to something higher than ordinary popular music. How well they succeeded (e.g. “Rhapsody in Blue”) is another matter, but that this aspiration was present assured that there was an influence on their “lower” creations as well.
Today, that influence is foreign to most pop musicians today and all they are left with is playing around with technology, making videos, dancing, celebrity and shock value. (and writing shorter and shorter phrases!) I am not saying that we have to return to the Great American Song Book – as great as it was (and is) – but what I am saying is that the way forward is the injection of musical influences of substance into the popular canon. And technology really has no substance to it – it is only a means.