Thursday, June 30, 2011

Melody of Mars

"By 2006, [as a side effect of the No Child Left Behind Act], 71 percent of school districts had narrowed their elementary-school curricula in order to make up the [core subjects gap]... between 1999 and 2004, the number of students enrolled in music courses fell by nearly half..."

- Alex Ross, "Learning the Score", anthologized in Listen to This.

"Music educators have continually observed the existence of male and 
female stereotypes ...  Vocal music, in particular, is often deemed a female instrument...  The 
fear of being feminized by peers often outweighs the joy of singing.  Researchers agree that older 
boys who choose to join choir are taking a risk with their symbolic masculinity."

- Jennifer M. Boss, Concordia University Portland, "Effects of Older Male Role Models on the Participation in Music Class
Of Male Students in Kindergarten, First and Second Grades "

It's no news flash that popular music has the imprint of black Americans from Louis Armstrong to Michael Jackson and beyond. Although many of the students in my high school were unaware that Elvis liked Willie Mae Thornton and the Beatles were fans of Blind Lemon Jefferson, they had a strong grasp of the styles, so the blues of Cream and Jimi Hendrix seemed a natural progression from those starting places. And those who sang in plays or choruses always had in mind the cool factor associated with sounding like Jack Bruce or John Lennon.

What happened in the intervening years moved inexorably away from melody on the male side of the Top Ten. "Wild Thing", the atmospheric talk-rock summer hit of 1966, was a specialty tune, as were even Dylan's talking blues hits like "Rainy Day Women" with their non-sung choruses. More normal were hummable melodies, typically harmonized, from We Five, Simon and Garfunkel, The Hollies, and The Byrds. In 2001, Nick Hornby wrote in the New Yorker about his experience listening to the Billboard Top 10:

"The Alicia Keys disk really isn't bad, however, and is certainly the only album in the Top Ten that I might contemplate playing again one day in the not too distant future, when the memory of this whole Billboard experience is a little less . . . vivid. ..Anyone who has lived through Deep Purple, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Cramps, Grandmaster Flash, and Nirvana could be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing out there with the potential to alienate in the way that our music antagonized our parents... Despite all this, an hour in the company of P. Diddy (formerly Puff Daddy, or Puffy, or Sean Combs) is a dismal, sordid experience." 

- and one involving no melody. The current list perhaps make a few inroads: Pitbull's "Give Me Everything" involves melody and harmony, at least in the choruses; "E.T." by Katy Perry has the 90's-classic pattern of guy-raps (Kanye West), girl-sings, in this case very predictably; Lupe Fiasco's "The Show Goes On" repeats the "Give Me Everything" pattern; Bruno Mars changes the pattern by keeping with melody the whole time in "The Lazy Song" - with even whistling. The rest of the list is pretty much female. The main element missing from ten years ago is the Metallica-style angry metal shout, where melody is only suggested.

Could it be there is an element of homophobia in this trend too? Is it possible that an environment of a calm "Dude, just don't hit on me, ok?" vs. the "OMG, I know a pervert!" rejection could take the negative charge off singing? We can perhaps look to New York for a heartening trend.

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