One of the most fascinating things about teaching music history is encouraging students to experience the past and how they perceive their present—as exploding with sounds that circulate powerful ideas about the world, seen and unseen. For me, the best way to achieve this is to begin the course by showing them that the contemporary scene is brimming with examples that they are already quite capable of analyzing with a little guidance recognizing the signposts.
We eased into our study of colonial American music by considering four currently hot artists: Bruno Mars, Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Owens and Miguel. Each represents four locations in the contemporary American landscape and set the stage for our exercises in “un-Othering” the ridiculously fascinating historical actors we will meet this semester.
As last week’s post states, pop star Bruno Mars came to my lens through the purchase of his newest CD at Starbucks. With corporate media outlets storming through his press kit, Mars is out-of-this world successful, both critically and commercially. His music, particularly the song “Locked Out of Heaven,” toys with contemporary modes of sound production while at the same time relies on tried-and-true pop song form and Mars’ clear and straight-forward tenor delivery. His identity as a mixed-race artist surely helps to provide him with a potentially wide- ranging international demographic. This accessibility is buttressed both sonically and visually.
Jennifer Higdon, an apparently “out” composer in the art/concert tradition enjoys success in her chosen domain as well. The local, independent paper announced in its LGBT “On the Gaydar” column that her works would be featured in an up coming concert, and that she, the Pulitzer Prize winning and in-demand personality would make a rare personal appearance. The brief article lures the wary potential listener by assuring that Higdon’s musical success in the art world has been her “strong sense of melody and brisk rhythms two elements that make her work accessible.” While she hasn’t yet outsold Bruno Mars, Higdon’s calendar is booked for years to come. A listen to her piece String Poetic (2006) for piano and violin reveals her robust, aggressive and generous compositional voice. One reviewer writes about the piece:
“The piano’s bold opening announcement tells us that no time will be wasted on introductory niceties; this music plunges both violin and piano immediately into the middle of Higdon’s fiery furnace where the raw materials of texture and timbre are forged along with some notational wizardry to create a multi-layered, multi-movement work that’s a rare marvel these days: no hint of composer ‘see what I did’ self-indulgence or impenetrable ‘you can’t understand this without a playbook’ construct.”
Women composers have come far since the days when what scholar Judith Tick called “the language of creative musical achievement” was patriarchal. This point was not lost on Mary Carr Moore (1873–1957), a composer and contemporary of the great early twentieth-century composer Charles Ives, when she wrote that “so long as a woman contents herself with writing graceful little songs about springtime and the birdies, no one resents it or thinks her presumptuous; but woe be unto her if she dares attempt the larger forms!” Higdon has clearly knocked down this barrier.
The Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times is always a reliable index for what’s going to be hot. One of the reasons for this “prediction” is easy to understand. Once the editorial board anoints an artist, millions of worldwide readers will have access. It’s difficult to fathom any greater level of visibility in the print media. Thus, the newspaper surely operates as powerful agent of publicity for the lucky ones. Alternative rock artist Christopher Owens got his shot on January 9th, 2013 when his upcoming CD was talked about in a fulsome half-page article. Formerly of the well-known indie group, Girls, Owens is striking out on his debut CD titled Lysandre. The article tells the story of Owen’s inner emotional life, trek to “indie” stardom from his beginnings in the religious cult of his parents, his love of his local park in San Francisco where he’s based and in which he thinks through his songwriting. The music is throwback—part Beach Boys, part Renaissance ensemble. Its formal qualities are simplistic with few chord progressions and absent of today’s lavishly produced, synthed-up pop rock. Indeed, Owens’ blonde and boyish, unpretentious visage serves as the perfect reflection of his anti-“slick rock star” sensibilities. Again, visual and sonic materials work to together to convey, as the writer put it, a “vulnerable earnestness.” One thing Owens learned well from his youthful days in the cult: music has the power to temper or charge the atmosphere. Obviously, he’s a master at manipulating the codes in his music.
There’s no doubt about it: Miguel, the heartthrob of the new R&B, has produced a sophomore CD that is about sex. Or so the Village Voice lead article of the Music Issue states forthrightly. The caption under Miguel’s photo reads “Miguel: The Freak,” a precious mantra meant to alert readers that this is grown-up music. Miguel details how he wrote his hit song “Adorn,” which is nominated for Song of the Year in this year’s Grammys. It came to him on a plane trip, issuing forth in an artistic blur meant to sound like a powerful implosion that left him drained. Within a few paragraphs the writer and Miguel revel in the singer/songwriter’s “darkness” and artistic resemblance to Marvin Gaye. Clearly, the pop machine is working hard to collapse the artistic invention of his songs with the reality of personality, something that is ubiquitous in musical mass culture.
“Adorn” is built on a verse-chorus organization, and the “birds do it, bees do it” lyrics lay down a “love song” supplication: “these lips can’t wait to taste your skin.” He’s begging. Like many hip hop-influenced R&B songs, the same harmonic progression comprises both verse and chorus. A bridge section provides a harmonic shift. The soundscape is saturated with digital gestures, including a low synth patch that obscures the pedal point of the bass. It sounds purposely over produced, in fact. Miguel’s voice possesses three main shadings: a cutting tenor, a falsetto used for occasional affect and a close-throated squall that he uses judiciously. While one wouldn’t call it powerful in the tradition of say, a Bobby Womack or Jeffrey Osbourne, it has a mass appealing expressive quality. He uses what he’s got. And the video to “Adorn” is so hot even Miguel’s guitar amp is dripping sweat (seriously) even before he sings this love song to several beautiful women. A nice touch in the soundscape is the choral, Boyz II Men background singing, which mixes in a sonic cue from the early 1990s. And speaking of mixing, could some of Miguel’s international appeal have something to due with his Mexican and African American background? (The article makes a point to mention his globetrotting schedule).
My budding group of American music scholars easily understood the combination of art and mass culture sensibilities, identity politics, sound organization, and written discourses represented in these four examples. When European conquest settled the New World, the early settlers brought with them clear ideas about their aesthetic, commercial and religious aims in the New World. Yet none of them could have imagined that out of their religious singing traditions would grow an American industry with three main revenue streams—live music, publishing, and recording—and a network of performers, impresarios, teacher, writers, lawyers, managers, agents, theater owners, and so on, that would seek to discipline music’s ability to express all manner of desire and turn such into commercial opportunity.