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The Great Music Hoax

MTV has infected us with a disease. One that Napster has nurtured and forced to spread like a cancer through the human spirit. We need the hit single, and we need to play it on the radio until it sounds like the headache you never wanted. The pop single is a hoax, and I'm not buying it.

by Craig A. Platt
Illustration by Aaron Masonek

March.21st.2001

A jukebox playing an obscure Bruce Springsteen song was the inspiration for this piece.

I was on a date with a Phish head. She had never considered one song that Phish had written in judging Phish as a band overall. There was no one tune she could name that really came to mind when she thought of Phish. To her, Bruce was passé because of three songs she had heard on the radio -- pop mid '80s "Born in the USA" hardly a good representation of his work.

It turned out she had just become a Phish head because of a need to belong. She was guilty of the single. She liked Phish because it was her vehicle to get away from the mainstream, and now she was reverting back. "Bruce sucks with all that hokey "Born in the USA" crap." If I could only have played "The River" for her, maybe she would have changed her tune. Hell, I wanted to sing her the lyrics, and that is when I realized it was my duty to reveal the record companies' littlest secret.

The pop single is a hoax.

I know this because I listen to complete albums and complete bodies of work -- meaning I not only listen but also study the album sleeve, look up the band, and read articles about them. I do everything short of calling the band themselves and saying, "What was going on when you wrote "The E Street Shuffle" cause that mother was off the tracks and into the stratosphere like a space shuttle gone terribly awry!"

Unfortunately today album sleeves are full of models and letters about vegetarianism. Most people don't even buy the album; they buy the single or download it instead. When they do buy it, they just shove the disc in their carrying case and never read the sleeve. Bottom line is there is nothing to know about a band from the single. Led Zeppelin never released "A Stairway To Heaven" as a single, and it's the band's biggest hit. Can you really get to know a band by listening to the single? Not unless eight or nine songs from an album are singles. That has happened with bands like The Beatles, REM, and U2. But they are rarities, bolts of lightning, once a decade if we are lucky.

MTV has infected us with a disease. One that Napster has nurtured and forced to spread like a cancer through the human spirit. We need the hit single, and we need to play it on the radio until it sounds like the headache you never wanted. The perfect example is the song "Smooth," written by Rob Thomas and performed with Santana. It is the culmination of radio's inability to know when to flip the switch, to scan the CD, mix things up, and promote variety. And right now our culture has as much variety as a crying baby.

When the opening riff to "Smooth" is played I skip it. Carlos Santana is a fine musician and songwriter as is Rob Thomas, but I think they would both agree the song needs to be retired for ten years or so, reemerging as an actual good song.

I have fallen guilty to the single before. It is a great introduction to a band. In the past, when you liked the single you usually bought the album, and you listened to the entire thing whether it was good or bad. I found some of my favorite bands because of the single on the radio. If you didn't like it, you cut your losses and sold it to a record store. If you liked the other songs, you kept it and had rights to say you owned it way back when.

Further proof is that traditionally the band with one hit single rarely makes it to a second album. At least in the past that is true. In the late 1990s and today we have seen bands remain on countdowns for a year with one song. Play that song over and over in large venues and then disappear after the final chords. These are the musicians signing multi-album deals. What we need now is Tom Waits, a bottle of whiskey, and a gun.

There is no fun in going to a concert where the single is the only song you want to hear and then realizing that each and every song other than that single is completely different in sound and style. What is fun is seeing a band whose entire body of work is as good if not better than the songs you have heard on the radio.

But even bands supporting albums by touring are a dying breed. The best part of music to me is the interpretation of it on stage. A live song is like a snowflake, each time you see a band perform it is a new and unique experience. Why do you think so many people followed the Dead or Phish or Widespread Panic? I bet those bands have never played the same set list twice. MTV has created a venue where the live performance is always studio like. Whether lip-syncing or performing with the album in the PA, it is ridiculous.

I want live music. The kind where guitar strings break, drumsticks snap, and vocalists sweat and breathe heavy. Where you are dancing, flailing, and singing along with a terrible view of the stage -- but it really doesn't matter because the lead singer walked over to your side and pointed at you. The kind of experience when the world becomes a backdrop to something much more satisfying and much more important.

Live unadulterated rock and roll is not dying, it is on hiatus. Sooner or later those bands that are fighting it out on the road, missing their friends and families, practicing on the tour bus, writing songs, and living on a meager allowance will reemerge. They are out there and they believe the most important part of music is being on stage performing. Making everyone there feel like, "Hey they are talking about me, they are looking at me, I relate with this band." But today's rock and roll is on too huge a stage, in too huge a venue for fans to be a part of it all.

The music industry today is a hoax. All of these little tight three-minute-twenty-second performances that sound like the album. My favorite thing is how the acts feel it necessary to say something not on the CD to prove they are not lip-syncing even if they are. The microphone is on for ten seconds during a break in the dance routine so you hear the singers breathing heavy and saying something clever and witty. That is a lie. Live music is unpolished; it is heavy breathing and flat voices. It is mistakes and working from those mistakes. It is the exploration of the song's possibilities and the errors one makes. It is the search for just how far you can stretch the boundaries of a particular song. That is what is exciting about music and live performances, being a part of that exploration.

MTV and music companies have robbed people of the joy of seeing someone perform and improve upon their craft. The hoax is that single might have a hook, it might be catchy, but anyone can play the album version. You'll be hard-pressed to find many that can get on stage and perform live like Zeppelin or Springsteen in front of 50,000 screaming fans.

That is the thrill of live music. The hoax is that most of today's bands are studio acts -- three-minute wonderboys and girls selling out arenas and convincing us it is a rock and roll show. What we really should be watching are bands like U2, The Who, and all those hard acts still emerging each day from local bars, clubs, and taverns. They are building their reputations on the stage not the sound stage, and we should reward them for it.




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