New Music: The Death of Grand Ambition?
Will the 21st century bear witness to a song that can rival Bohemian Rhapsody?
I am departing from my (daily) routine of music reviews- due to a variety of different pressures and obstacles. Until I can muster up the fortitude and resolve to reinvigorate some passion for reviewing, I am concerning myself with some personal questions (regarding music)- and this is one that is of the most-urgent concern: what happened to ambition in music? Until as recently as a few weeks ago, I was contented to seek out new music; separate the proverbial wheat aside, and proffer their majesties to those whom were interested (usually just the band/artist themselves). A series of recent (and current) events has soured my disposition and energies. Due to a serious financial funk (debt in fact); health and emotional issues; an welcomed and unsettled home environment; loneliness; creative frustrations, I have had to focus my mind elsewhere- people have ended their own lives, having witnesses fewer set-backs and heartaches. In light of my current burdens, I have changed my ambitious sights; turned my creative energies towards personal preservation- as opposed to assisting others wholeheartedly. There are a few disappointing issues (one faces) when seeking out and reviewing new music. For one thing, it is near-impossible chancing upon great sounds. Most of my ‘leads’ were obtained from the likes of The Girls Are and The Guardian– I probably owe them a wealth of debt. Having had to spend so much time and energy trying to find good music, I asked myself: why the hell is it so difficult?! There are no websites (or music-based ones) that provide connections to new bands and artists in need of reviewing: nothing geared towards the likes of me. As much as I have bemoaned the lack of good music websites (they all have serious flaws to be honest), I have also been trying to get my own music website up-and-running; getting it off of the ground level. As much as there is a difficulty when trying to find (great) new music; it is even harder trying to get assistance with regards to launching a website. If you do not have thousands of pounds and a huge knowledge of web design, it is phenomenally hard to make ambitious web sites a reality. I accept that finance is needed (with regards to building a webpage), but that is not my biggest woe. Recently I have mailed student-based web designers; professional design consultancies- even acquaintances and trusted people in the know. Weeks and months have gone by, and not a single human being has responded to me- not even with a bare-minimum “Thanks but no thanks”. In music; in business and in life a lot of people are incredibly selfish and narrow-minded. Perhaps my standards are high, but if someone like me (whom has a lot of details worked out for my music website) approaches someone- even a Facebook friend- asking for some basic advice, it is common courtesy to respond: why do people feel the need to be so unlikeable and unprofessional? It is not as though my website proposal is unfeasible; nor is it a huge money-maker: it is for the benefit of new musicians, music-lovers and a whole wave of people- and fills a desperate, desperate market need. Between getting angry at people’s lack of manners and help; and the difficulties of finding new music to review, I have gone a bit ‘off’ of the idea of assisting others and making their lives better. It sounds cynical and cruel, but so few people are willing to help out those deserving, I am wondering why I do it so much? I don’t believe in anything as asinine and ridiculously unscientific as karma or fate, but I do believe that there should be some give and take- with some ‘give’ aimed at my shores. As well as personal issues and a lack of wider appreciation, I have been influenced by two others factors. The first thing is that too few people are willing to help out new musicians. Over the course of my reviewing career (so far), there has been few occasions where my work has been shared. Sure, the band and artist is thankful (although in some cases they are not); but few people ‘retweet’, ‘share’ or promote my reviews- meaning it is usually only the artist themselves that read them. I work 4-5 hours a day and write over 2,500 words (on an average review)- is it too much to ask that a few people spend 5 seconds spreading my work wider? It is the lack of common consideration; self-absorption and selfishness that irks me most. I spend as much time as possible helping others raise awareness about their music, charity work, personal needs etc., so it appalls me that there are few genuinely unselfish people out there. In addition to- for want of a better phrase- wasting my time reviewing music, my biggest concern is this: there are not enough great new artists out there.
Everyone I have reviewed does their bit for music- with varying degrees of success and passion. I have examined some Surrey-based solo artists whom are doing the county proud. There are great bands and acts whom have a keen sight for quality and endeavour: willing to rise above the homogenous and predictable core- offering up something truly unique. I am aware of the huge irony at the moment- nobody will read or share this article- but I am raising a genuine concern. We are in 2013, and are fortunate enough to have witnessed the greatest music of all-time; the best bands and solo artists; the most wonderful albums- as well as having experienced a wealth of differing genres and movements. There is all of this resource to hand; we have so much past music to be inspired by; yet by-and-large the aspiration and ambition being offered up is… underwhelming. In the last year I have heard of a small amount of acts whom are actually doing something bold and exciting- most are great but hardly worthy of huge excitement. My bedrock point- and base argument- can be boiled down to this: when was the last time that an ‘all-time classic’ was witnessed (in terms of an individual song)? I have been flicking through music polls and charts; looking at what people consider to be the best songs of all time, and one think occurs: the vast majority of the tracks are older than 15 years. I shall go into more depth below, but I am wondering what is causing a lack of glorious music. There are some brilliant songs to be heard, yet no-one approaches a song (today) and exclaims: “This is one of the best tracks I have ever heard!”. It seems odd, given that you can create whatever sound or song you want- there are endless possibilities available to the truly-ambitious. Financial pressures have been consistent within the music industry- music is comparatively inexpensive to produce. For the new artists there is an acute awareness of how much recording costs: hiring a studio; buying/leasing equipment (if needs be); producing and mastering the final product etc. Even if one has a ‘home studio’ then costs can still be apparent- I know this from talking with a couple of Surrey-based solo artists- yet producing something approaching a masterpiece need not cost much more than producing any other track. I think that the direction that a potential ‘future classic’ is going to emanate from, is the band market. My trouble with bands revolve around the lack of individuality and differentiation. There are still too many Arctic Monkeys-lite groups; too many dull Indie bands; too few great and daring acts: where are the modern idols lurking? Historically some of the all-time best songs (and albums) have been created by bands (if you look at the ‘best of’ polls); so it seems that we should be getting the whiff of a potential all-time great forming: but is that really possible in 2013/’14?
To my opinion, the greatest track- but not my favourite- of all-time is Bohemian Rhapsody. Everything about the song ‘ticks the boxes’. There are epic guitar solos; strange and thought-provoking lyrics; majestic vocal layers- all centred around the wonderful performance given by Freddie Mercury. It was Mercury whom wrote the track, and practically brought the song to the rest of the boys fully-imagined. It is under 6 minutes long, yet covers so much ground; strikes so hard, that nothing else needs to be said. It is a song that is unimpeachably ambitious and flawless- peerless in its sound and emotional effect. It is widely considered to be- if not the greatest song ever- within the top 3 greatest tracks of all-time- it should be in everyone’s top 3! That track was released nearly 40 years ago, and yet few comparable tracks have been created. Bohemian Rhapsody is pretty unique and individual: it is not a track you can try to emulate without ripping it off. Muse have made a few attempts at being a bit Queen-esque: infusing some of their tracks with Bohemian Rhapsody elements- coming off pretty short by comparison. Songs that are not imbued with epic strides and multi-part layers also vie for the top spots (of the ‘all time best’ lists). Imagine is a track which is beautiful and timeless: born with a direct and universal message of peace and hope. Tracks such as Like A Rolling Stone are synonymous with sharp-tongued lyrics and incredible electric fireworks. Even a song such as Life on Mars? are comparatively simple- although it does twist and turn a few times. Between the respective artists’ reputation, ambition and quality, the aforementioned songs are defined thus: they are phenomenal and unique, yet not unbeatable. It seems that the ‘epic’- the 4/5 part multi-segment odyssey- is what is needed when trying to challenge the top spots. Aside from Bohemian Rhapsody; A Day in the Life, Good Vibrations and Stairway to Heaven are consistently considered as the all-time best songs- especially Stairway to Heaven. These ‘epics’ are not considerably long- Stairway to Heaven is a little over 8 minutes long. The reason that these types of songs are unanimously popular and classically timeless, is that they are restless; constantly engaging and emotionally-stirring. Most of the grandest songs ever tend to have originated in the ’60s and ’70s (one or two took place in the ’80s). Imagine was released in 1980, and since then, how many truly stunning songs have been created? Tracks like Live Forever, Smells Like Teen Spirit and One were all created in the (glorious) ’90s, so my question is this: what has happened over the last (15 or so) years? My favourite songs (and ones that will always remain in the memory longest) are the huge epic and sweeping tracks; and the last time that we witnessed such an example was 1997. When Radiohead unleashed Paranoid Android, it was met with open jaws and drooling mouths. It contorts, bites; spits and yells. It is a song which turns direction; takes your breath away and is always unexpected and unpredictable. It is longer (in terms of running time) than Bohemian Rhapsody, yet is considered as the modern-day equivalent to that golden theme: it is the best challenge to the crown since 1975. Yorke and co. had realised what a gem they had created. It is a song which takes years to rehearse (in order to play live), and has never been equalled…but why? Paranoid Android came out 16 years ago, and there has not been a single track since, that has ever ranked alongside Radiohead’s OK Computer stand-out.
Many new acts and bands aim too low: there is too much fear, reservation and hesitation. I have been scratching my head, when trying to theorise why we have not heard a song with the same majesty and fascination as Paranoid Android. Perhaps because of Radiohead’s situation (they had a bit of money; were on their 3rd album; had a weight of public approval to inspire them) that means they were uniquely-placed to write such a track? Is it simply a lack of finance that is holding ambition back? Breaking down that track, one wonders if that is the case. Songs like Bohemian Rhapsody, Paranoid Android and A Day in the Life are synonymous with attention to detail and time-consuming effort- as much as they are huge budgets. The tracks may call for huge orchestration; multitudinous vocal tracks as well as a lot of instruments into the pot, but when you consider Bohemian Rhapsody (in particular); the biggest two truths are this: the talent of its creator, as well as the ambition behind it. If this song has not existed, the cost of theoretically ‘making’ it are not huge compared with your average 6-minute song). If you are a band then the biggest cost is studio time. That said, if you have the song worked out; rehearsed and ‘perfected’ in your heads, then it would not necessarily take more than a few days to record- presuming you worked your arse off and buckled down. Similarly Paranoid Android is ‘obtainable’ as well. These are songs that are not enforced by huge budgets and resources out of the reach of us mere mortals- they are perfectly possible, considering that far more complex tracks have been created since. If it is not cost, then the problem stems from two possibilities: a lack of talent and a fear amongst new talent/media expectations. There are a number of great singers out there at the moment; there are some superb lyricists; there are some great bands with a keen sense of sonic adventure and range: how many acts or bands tie together all of these facets? Radiohead are still existent (although past their prime), and it seems that there is plenty of scope with regards to writing the next grandly-ambitious epic? Since 1997, there have been few songs that have ever troubled critical ‘best of’ lists. In terms of emotional simplicity and directness, as well as all-sweeping majesty, no artist has turned in a single song that has featured on the list. To be able to (realistically) create a truly staggering song you would need a tremendous and attention-grabbing voice; a phenomenal and unexpected composition behind it, as well as a distinct and unique sound. I fear that there are few bands out there (or solo artists) capable of producing such a masterpiece. If you have a wide and varied voice; an agile and ambitious mind, as well as a keen ear for quality then you can come up with the goods- money be damned. There are websites like Kickstarter that means money is not a (huge) issue: the biggest problem is lack of ambition. There is a fear amongst acts- especially brand-new ones- that subjugates ambition. They think that if they crank out an 8-minute huge epic of a track- complete with huge riffs, orchestration and warped and wonderful avenues- that they will be laughed at; written off and buried. The best music this year has been produced by the likes of Queens of the Stone Age and The National. These are established U.S. acts whom are comfortable in their skins- and do their thing better than anyone else. In the solo market as well as the new band core, I have not heard of anyone whom is trying to pen a future epic. It saddens me somewhat; as it would be such a sumptuous and brilliant treat to witness a breath-taking and ‘mind-blowing’ song: something that sucks you in and intoxicates you completely. The media tend to like their acts and artists ‘just so’: they favour bravery and ambition, but are hesitant of anyone whom challenges the established order. 16 years have passed since Paranoid Android came along, and if you consider the greatest tracks of all-time: how many are from the past 15 years? I am going to say 1 at the most (if you know your music then there are in fact 0 that are worthy of a top 10 place). We have more advantages and opportunities now than we ever have. There are more artists; a greater number of potential partners-in-crime, and a growing need for something truly breathtaking: but do you ever think we will live to hear a contender for Bohemian Rhapsody. The modern market is aware that simply ripping off an established epic will win you no points: you have to try something different. I just worry that new music is synonymous with boundaries and predictability. It is fantastic to hear of a great lyricist or a pleasing voice, but damn it to hell: when will we witness a track that is talked about in fervent tones; pulled apart, examined and drooled over (for decades to come)? It may beg one question in your mind: if you know best, why not write one yourself?
The point is valid, but the sentiment is moot. The ‘moot’ part arrives because of my situation. Having no money and no short-term potential for musical collaboration, it is not a realistic prospect; yet there is a ‘but…’. I have not idly been sitting criticising and moaning: I have been writing. I have spent months writing a song which challenges the orthodox order, and is something that differs entirely from the current scene. It is composed of 8 or 9 differing parts; orchestration and multi-layered vocals are in the mix; as well as huge intrigue and augmentation atmosphere. The title is there; the lyrics are in the mix, and all the various components are in place. I know what each vocal section will sound like; what the lyrical themes will consist of and how it will sound. If I claimed what I could do with my voice; what I could write and what the song is capable of, is another case. I wouldn’t bother writing so much and spending so much time on a single song if I did not think I could live up to my ambitions: huge and varied vocal swathes; different and fascinating lyrics and an overall epic and sweeping sound. It is all on paper and in my mind, and just needs some band members to add the colour to the palette. Of course a song such as mine cannot be realised for free: between finding a band, recording and realising the track it may run into £5,000 or so; yet here is the thing: if I have to sell my kidney on the black market I will make it so. I have been writing music since I was 18; dreaming of being in a band since I was 20, and salivating over the possibilities of creating a huge multi-segment epic for years now. If it takes months of trial and error; months of rehearsal or whatever, then that’s what will be done. Even if you don’t win everyone- or even make a mistep- then who cares? How many new artists attempt such a thing? I don’t care that I have written another song; and understand that a few more ‘traditional’ numbers will have to be in the public consciousness beforehand; but that does not mean I am not going to work my heart out to make my realisations so.
I have heard too many simple tracks; too many songs that are impressive but not all-time classics. That is not to say that the song I am working on has the potential to rival any of the greatest songs ever; although there is not empirical proof to the contratry: it is only when it is recorded and released that judgments can be made. My point is this: if I am willing to try- life situations and hardships in consideration- then why are new acts and bands not trying to? If you don’t have the potential or talent then that is fine. If you have even the slightest inkling, ambition or leaning towards creating something monumental then why not go for it? Screw the media; screw expectation and if you can afford the time and money, then why would you not go for it? The best you can do with a new song (in this climate) is having people remember it for a few months or so. If you take a chance- even if it fails- then why would you not take a stab at recording a track that has the potential to be talked about in years (and decades) to come? Musicians need to be braver and more conscious of market needs. There is still too much fear, and a fear of what other people think- as oppossed to what they want and need. The reputation of modern music is not great; and the fact that a worthy rival to Paranoid Android/Bohemian/Stairway etc. has not been created, speaks volumes. With a burgeoning and packed scene, there is too much emphasis on creating songs quickly and cheaply: every artist and act has a disposability; a distinct lifespan and a lack of huge surprise. Maybe it is just me, but I would wait 5 years to hear a song that was truly staggering than listen to dozens of tracks that are unadventuorous by comparison. This is where my depression and lack of motivation has stemmed from: as much as I respect a lot of new acts; I don’t feel that any can blow the market away with a biblical track. Maybe it is alchemy, and in 2017 such a song will be realised, but the hard truth is this: it seems very unlikely. I hope that I am wrong. I hope that a band (or artist) is crafting a meticulous and memorable epic, that will be on the ‘top 10 songs of all-time’ list. I also hope that I can reconcile my drawbacks and ambitions: find a band whom are on my wavelength and will campaign tirelessly to summon up a track with epic- and perhaps underserved credentials. It is 2013 and more risks have to be taken…
This is more of a plea/challenge than it is a derisive mandate. The world has witnessed enough pleasing love songs; we have heard too many Indie 4-minute tracks about love/loss and the like: even though there is some diverse and wonderful other music out there. It is not a coincidence that the likes of Stairway to Heaven, Bohemian Rhapsody and A Day in the Life still are at the tops of the lists (with regards to peerlessness): the public wants to hear something exciting; scary and mind-blowing. I would not be upset if I heard a dozen bands each take a stab at producing a modern masterpiece: as long as they were not rip-offs or soundalikes. In fact if a song as touching or epic as Imagine or Like A Rolling Stone were proffered I would be equally enamoured and relieved. I can only do what I can do (axiomatic and tautological as it seems); so I hope that others take heed and note- but I am aware that the message may never stick or be spread. I think my fears and anxieties stem from the state of modern music. There is a lot of music being produced, yet so few people share great songs and help great artists. I try to do it with as many people as possible; yet your average social media user has little consideration with propagating the best interests of new and worthy musicians. The media promotes fear and limitations; so there needs to be a rebellion against this. Maybe once grassroot issues are ironed out: no truly great music website; selfishness; too much music clouding your thoughts etc, then maybe a resolution and resurgence will be possible. I hope that the huge wave of new music is not burying and burning the potential for a new grand epic: a track that truly stands out because of its ambition and multi-part flair. It only takes one artist/band to do that; to put a track out there that gets people talking. Once you do that, then a wave of inspiration and ambition is created, and- so long as there is not a sheep mentality with regards to creativity then an improved and strengthened scene will be created. As much as I love the ’90s and the music that was offered, I feel that we need to challenge its majesty: it has been 14 years since 1999, and I fear that things will never be as good. We all need to champion a unique voice; a sharp and intelligent lyricist, as well as a unique and quality band. That is all possible and on-going, but at the same time we need to produce a track(s) that confounds and inspires: something that is as ridiculously grand as Bohemian; as epic as Stairway; and as twisted and angry as Paranoid- or maybe a combination of all three.
When this happens- and if it does- the ramifications and results will be spectacular. I hope that I live to see the day, as a huge prize await those willing to take the risk: we need to get out of the homogenised and limited nature of ambition and quality. People should not be intimidated by the all-time great songs- thinking that they cannot be equalled- as the musicians whom created them were human, and the songs were not superhuman. It just takes trial-and-error; effort and a desire to aim that high. If bands don’t have that spirit from the off, then why bother? Every new act should have lofty sights: thinking that they are capable of turning out one of the best songs of modern times. In a market where many come, and few are remembered, the task at hand is clear…