Good Musicians Evade Labels

What do Ashlee Simpson on Saturday Night Live, Lindsay Lohan on Good Morning America, and most performers at the MTV Video Music Awards have in common? They all lip-synched their performances; in the cases of Simpson and Lohan, lip-synched quite badly.

Lip-synching isn’t anything new; you could go back to the New Kids on the Block or Milli Vanilli in the late 80s and early 90s to see other examples. Milli Vanilli didn’t even perform their own music. Nevertheless, lip synching is becoming increasingly common.

Back in the day, it used to be that those who did not right their own music were shunned (remember the Monkees?) but now those that write their own music are the minority. Producers take raw recording are turn them into something unrecognizable. Computers contribute almost as much as the artists themselves.

It seems our definition of talent has changed – the ability of the fat, balding producer to ‘refine’ the music and the attractiveness of the artists overwhelms those who truly perform their own music. The pop charts are dominated by slickly produced, mind-numbing music from artists who either got their careers from reality TV (Kelly Clarkson), or are on reality TV (Jessica Simpson). The charts feature artists who are better known for their dancing (Usher), or their ability to say “Yeah!” (Lil’ John or well, Usher). Now, actresses are releasing albums (Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff) and even socialites whose 15 minutes of fame came from a release sex tape are cutting tracks (Paris Hilton, who else?).

I feel and sound really old saying this, but what happened to real artists? I miss the days when you could hear the eccentricities in music, when you didn’t need a polished, perfect-sounding voice to be successful – Neil Young, or Geddy Lee, anyone? I miss the days of the loose-sounding guitar solo,, the wild and crazy beats of the synthesizer.

What I miss most of all, however, is originality; when artists used to experience with both drugs and music, and weird sounds that emerged from this mix. Think of the music that’s considered classic to us (or to our parents) and a certain distinctness unseen in today’s society can be appreciated. It was this distinctness that led the way to new genres being formed, and new styles being pioneered within these genres. Music split apart into many different variations, and for awhile, we were happy with that.

At some point, major record labels decided that music had the potential for commoditization. While one could argue that it already was, new-found greed and blind ambition led to those such as Lou Pearlman, the “founder” of the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC. These groups were formed with nothing in mind but to sell records and draw screaming girls to concerts. This transformed the music industry, and suddenly if you were attractive, and could speak, you could be signed to a deal. Sometimes you didn’t even need both of these characteristics, as William Hung painfully taught us.

Mainstream music is in turmoil; originality has disappeared from the formulaic nature of current-day pop and rock. The market is over saturated with albums I wouldn’t even use as coasters.

And yet, through this some artists have managed to persevere and be musicians first and foremost. Some of my favourite music of 2004 includes EPs from piano-rockin’ Ben Folds, one of the most hyped indie bands ever, Canadian and British hip-hop, and even Star Trek has-been William Shatner! Each of these groups (with the exception of Mr. Shatner) write their own original music, perform live without any lip-synching, and generally frown upon the crap thrown at us by most major labels. They all survive despite the desire for higher margins and lower talent (and, hence, lower costs) in the profit-centered industry, and even inadvertently bring in the desired profits.

The alienation of listeners from the mainstream actually serves to develop true musicians, as they become discovered and loved by those who wish to hear authentic music. This appreciation means quantifiably much more to society than how many records the next pop princess can sell or how much ‘bling’ the next ‘gangsta rap’ album brings in. I just wonder how long it’ll take for the music industry to realize this, and go back to contributing to society.