Tuesday, 16 June 2009

California Dreamin'


The Susan Boyle saga has just underlined how utterly obsessed we all are with image these days. If she was an absolute stunner in her late twenties, no one would’ve been the least surprised that she could sing, but as it is we were - and we’re all guilty. In fact we probably wouldn’t have noticed if she could sing or not as image is everything. If someone looks like a star then they are 90% there.

It wasn’t always like this. Younger readers may be surprised to learn that, back in the primeval days of popular culture, music tended to be made by musicians, no matter what their appearance, rather than image conscious wannabes. I know this is a concept that is difficult to grasp, but just run with it. I watched a documentary about the Mamas and Papas recently which just about proves this contention. I mean, just look at them: a six-foot plus beanpole with a ridiculous fur hat, a hippy boy with a equally ridiculous beard, an overweight badly dressed woman who can’t dance and an impossibly beautiful one who seems hopelessly out of place. Who, these days, would take them on? Yet when they open their mouths a special kind of magic is produced. If anyone tells me that ‘California Dreamin’ is not a classic pop anthem then I will be forced to stab them with a sharp stick.

During this period of pop, no one really cared what people looked like as long as they had talent – which was just as well for some of them. The bug-eyed drummer with Manfred Mann haunts me to this day. But I can’t help thinking that if Girls Aloud were a bunch of ill-dressed plain janes we wouldn’t be giving them a second look, singing talent or no and this is where it has all gone wrong. Most bands that were forged during the 60s and 70s and subsequently became universal megastars were hardly model material. Have a good look at the members of Led Zeppelin, Who, Pink Floyd etc and tell me truthfully they’d make through today’s talent shows on looks alone. Perhaps I’m being a little unkind but compared to say, Take That and the previously mentioned Girls Aloud, they wouldn’t’ve got a look in. But as they were mainly heard and not seen, image didn’t really matter.

What we need is a return to musicianship and a bit less of the image obsessed culture the MTV generation has foisted upon us. Then perhaps music would dredge itself out of the mire it is currently drowning in.

10 comments:

Charlie said...

You can keep your sharp stick to yourself because The Mamas & The Papas were simply one of the best vocal groups of all time, and you are right, today their looks would have gotten them nowhere. In fact, even back in 1966 their apperance was a turn off for some people. That is why their debut LP was called If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Your Ears.

musicobsessive said...

You're absolutely right, Charlie. Perhaps we should start a search for the ugliest, yet most successful band of all time? Lol:)

Alan said...

I think your memory may be getting selective.

Yes there have always been musicians playing serious music with only a nod towards image. However, there has always been those who have been manufactured and pushed forward based on their looks. I guess you have blocked out memories of such "acts" as the Bay City Rollers or David Cassidy who fit that bill. Even David Bowie relied as much (or more) on image than the muisc to capture the public's attention.

The Monkees were a totally manufactured group whose members were chosen for their looks. Stephen Stills failed the audition because it would cost too much to make him look presentable on TV. The Monkess turned out to have minds and some talent of their own - which makes them an exception rather than the rule.

I have not heard Susan Boyle sing but I am aware of her existence due to the huge media hype behind her. Part of the hype is the fact that she would look out of place in Girls Aloud. I seem to recall similar hype behind the Sex Pistols, where much of the promotion was based on their "anti-establishment views" and looks, rather than the quality of their music. Most of their music was pretty bad.

The Mamas & The Papas had the advantage of being very good at their craft. I think I will go listen to one of their albums now.

Anonymous said...

Great points. As someone who has made a living in the music industry, I always find it annoying that some people make it just because they are attractive, at least according to the label heads and fans. We also get told who is attractvie and who isn't, and the public believes it. I once had a guy ask me to join his band. When I told him he'd never even heard me sing, he said, "No, but you LOOK like you can sing." This is why we have people like Faith Hill making billions of dollars, when in fact, at the start of her career, they had to use pitch correction on her even in live performances. She has improved since then, but still, if she wasn't "beautiful" she would never have made it in this town (I live in Nashville). I've seen plenty of singers who were better singers than Faith (or any number of others - I'm just using her as an example) who didn't get signed because they needed to lose 20 lbs. It's a sad world.
-S

musicobsessive said...

Alan - yes my memory is getting selective. That's what growing old is all about! :) I was aware of The Monkees but feel that at the time they were the exception rather than the rule. In the primordal soup that was the 50s and 60s image only really applied to a few people (Elvis!).

It rather gathered pace in the 70s and I think we have the hated glam period to thank for the seeds of image conciousness as the industry smelt big bucks. MTV was just the icing on the cake.

musicobsessive said...

S - Hi, thanks for stopping by and leaving a fascinating comment. It just adds to the proof really and as a consumer I'm saddened that what is my own supposition is underpinned by the facts as you have laid bare. Like you say, it's a sad world...

Jayne said...

I don't watch any of these shows as I find them a little creepy, but I guess talent shows are one of the ways people find to make their mark - what was that 1970's one for comedians? I think Lenny Henry came through that way and he's done alright (grins). But then again I don't think Saturday Superstore's 'Search for a Superstar' actually produced any superstars... As for image over content... although I think selling an image has always been part of our culture, MTV brought all the stars straight into our living room and suddenly we could see who needed dental work. Dire Straits once sang 'I want my MTV' - I wonder if they'd still sing that knowing what it unleashed?!

musicobsessive said...

Jayne - yes, 'creepy' - that's the word. These talent shows are just that and I feel very uncomfortable warching them which is why I don't anymore. I saw the Boyle bit on YouTube.

MTV has a lot to answer for (and Dire Straits, come to that:)

Jennifer K said...

Great post, MO. I think image has always been a part of the entertainment world, but today it seems to take precedence over actual talent. I keep wondering if people like Janis Joplin or Ella Fitzgerald or Barbra Streisand would make it today despite their less than supermodel looks. I'm afraid the answer is "no."

musicobsessive said...

Hi Jen - And I'd think you'd be right. As I pointed out in my post about the band 'Client', they tried to hide their identity and let the music speak for itself but that sort of ploy just doesn't work these days due to terrier-like media who won't desist until the secret is out. You can't win. Image is God and we must all bow down.