The Emptiness of Influencing

I’m becoming a good middle-aged soldier. I know this because the main indicator of that status just appeared: switching my regular car radio station from the “best hits” station to the “music of the 80s and 90s.” I’m finding my way back to the soundtrack of my life which, in all observable ways, is much better than the weirdness of today’s music, if that’s what we’re going to call it. I’m not here to pick a fight; I know I’m right and there’s nothing to fight about.

So anyway, as I was listening to David Bowie (rip, Starman) sing/speak his iconic Under Pressure (sidebar: I had NO IDEA that he co-wrote this with/for QUEEN…which only proves my conclusion above…just better) and it gave me a moment of fascination.

I always consider David Bowie and other greats of his era (Queen definitely included) as artists. It’s their point of view apparent in the music but also their personae. It’s their boundary pushing and innovation. They were not always icons but they became icons because of their qualities that set them apart from what would’ve been considered “main stream.” They held distinct social agenda (which is in fact a plural, so…don’t fight with me here either…I happen to be a latin scholar and the singular is agendum) woven throughout their artistic output. In some ways, the very form of the music itself suggested innovation and progress.

They were artists who became well-known on the shoulders of their art. And they did exist alongside all of the pop(ular) artists of the time who were one-hit wonders or we just don’t remember them, either because what they brought to the table wasn’t art or it fulfilled such a niche for that moment that it came and went, along with their relevance. Those who survive the test of time do so because they tapped into something more universal either in the music itself or in the courage to push beyond the norms of the day.

Jump cut to the music created today, in the age of the influencer. I think about people like Selena Gomez, is there a Vanessa somebody?, Justin Bieber, BTS…I could go on but I don’t remember most of their names which is relevant to my point. This class of influencer we’ve generously given the name “artist” but are they? I’m not convinced. They are a class of performer raised in the age in which fame, and not artistic innovation, drives the music industry. It’s not the art we’re sold anymore, with fame as a coincidence. Instead, it’s the person we’re sold based on a pre-established name who then goes on to open their mouth and produce some degree of notes strung together–it’s the fame that sells their albums and not the other way around. I mean, have you heard Selena Gomez? Very few females sing in that range and with that level of robotic. Auto-tune much? It’s not her fault. It’s just that she’s too damn famous.

It’s this very issue that makes me wonder if the teens and tweens of today will, in their mid-40s, turn their car radios to best hits of the 2020s. What will there be to listen to except for samples of coincidence of fame first? What will be saluted in those years–their former ability to be known? There is little art there and what does exist is not really created by them. It’s only rendered by them. It all feels very empty.

Before I leave this topic and move on to other pressing realities that are probably more pressing than Selena Gomez in 20 years, I will say that there are innovators and boundary-pushers from this generation that will be (and some already are) icons. And they will hold that status in years to come: Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, John Legend to name just a few…(and before you cry Kanye, I want you to prove to me how he’s an artistic innovator and not just someone who’s famous for being out there.)

Then again, maybe this is exactly the way the 80s played out…and I just see it so differently now. But I’m willing to die on the mountain of Selena Gomez’s fame because seriously…she seems like a nice girl.

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