By Hans Ebert
It was a pleasant enough cover of “Blackbird” by Dave Grohl at the Oscars, also known as the Chris Rock Show, but listening to it, one couldn’t help wondering why the Academy hadn’t invited the song’s writer and original singer- Paul McCartney- to perform it?
As someone said, perhaps they had, and he’d refused. Maybe. For me, it made me fear that music today is becoming a bit of a closed shop where there are those with the star power and those without, and whether those with it know how and when and where best to use this power. Or is this power actually with them or their back room teams?
Leading the star power category are Taylor Swift, Adele, Lady Gaga in yet another new incarnation after a brief recent flirtation to channel David Bowie, Beyonce, Rihanna, Jay Z, Kanye West. and the ubiquitous Dave Grohl. Dave Grohl seems sincere enough in his respect for the great Rock musicians who have come before him, and is a hard working guy, who has a brilliant rapport with his audiences and won’t even let a broken leg stop him performing.
Love the dedication, but when and how did David Grohl, who played a very secondary role to Kurt Cobain in Nirvana, become the Go To guy whenever the entertainment industry needs someone to represent the Rock world? The Foo Fighters are good, but hardly great, whereas Grohl’s solo work has not exactly been of Dylanesque proportions.
These handful of artists have somehow transcended the role of being mere singers and musicians. Apart from Grohl, they are, first and foremost, brands. Are they, however, brands with any substance? Time will tell. And now many of these brands are being marketed as the voices for their generation.
Dylan, the Beatles, George Harrison, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Buffy Saint Marie, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and so many more, were all voices for their generation with their songs championing every cause worth championing. And that’s the word missing today about so many of today’s voices in music for THEIR generation: the songs- the songs to give whatever they’re championing real substance.
While one applauds Lady Gaga for the sentiments behind the song she co-wrote with Diane Warren and performed with great gusto at the Oscars, which songs by Adele, Taylor Swift etc carry any semblance of a message other than one of “love doesn’t live here anymore”? Hello? Rolling In The Deep? Blank Space? Shake It Off?
Sorry, but the more these few artists become spokesmen and spokeswomen for causes- many causes- they start looking like new versions of old Bono- but without the songs. At least Bono flogged his anthemic song “One” for all its worth at every awards show, and at all those stepchildren of Live Aid, while seeming at times to be in the running to be the next Pope. Overkill? Perhaps. But Bono has written some songs that, along with U2’s “Joshua Tree”, can make it into the Great category.
Often, musicians embracing causes without truly understanding them result in an embarrassing naïveté that have all kinds of repercussions, especially in this social media-driven world, where, sometimes, the court of public opinion can get it very wrong. Or because of the sheer volume of daily information, too many get away way too easily, or in the case of Kanye West, way too Yeezyly with regular bouts of lunacy.
When John Lennon remarked at the height of Beatlemania that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, a witch hunt began in America. Records by the Beatles were burnt, radio stations banned their music, and a confused John Lennon was made to “repent for his sins.” Manager Brian Epstein made sure that he did. Millions of dollars in business opportunities were at stake.
Kanye West sets himself up to be a misunderstood and tortured Christ-like figure while going off on almost daily rants on Twitter against Taylor Swift, Mark Zuckerberg, hugely respected record producer Bob Ezrin, his detractors, his bank balance, SNL etc etc and he gets a free pass. “It’s just Kanye being Kanye” is the excuse. He absolutely murders “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and he’s forgiven. Why? Star power? Because it’s Kanye West and he’s famous? Is he a musician or a showman? Or a self-styled genius? Or a shaman? Does anyone know? Does even Kanye West know?
Has this chillaxed attitude towards accepting anything and everything these celebrities- are they really musicians?- say have to do with the public- not music fans-adding to the con-fusion of Information Overload, and music being pushed so far back that it doesn’t matter anymore? Is this why Adele can sing in the wrong key at the Grammys, laugh about it with Ellen, and everything is okay? Really? Is that how it works today? Is this how much music has been devalued?
Right now, the topic de jour on social media is the very sordid, and very serious allegations of rape, control and power levelled at record producer Dr Luke by his one-time protege Kesha, formerly Kei$ha. She wants nothing to do with her former Svengali, but, for this to happen, needs to get out of her contract with him. Enter Sony Music that has its own contract with Dr Luke and his various companies. To cut through all the legalese, Kesha lost her case, and is currently shackled by a binding contract.
Could she not like Prince, when he was a “slave” to Warner Music, simply fulfil her contractual obligations by recording some rubbish and say this is the best music she can produce at this particular time in her life? Don’t know.
Using their star power, Taylor Swift, Adele and Lady Gaga have all come to her support. Many others have followed though, somewhat surprisingly, not Rihanna, despite her own highly publicised case against Chris Brown for physical abuse. Kelly Clarkson, a stablemate of Kesha and who has worked with Dr Luke, is said to have come out in support of the “Tik Tok” singer, but this story gets eerily confusing and troubling. With the names who have worked with and still work with Dr Luke. including his hit making mentor Max Martin, there appears to be far more at stake than the career of Kesha.
There’s everything right in showing support about a subject that has for so long been hidden from view. Bill Cosby, Rolf Harris, Gary Glitter, the late Sir Jimmy Saville have all been exposed as vile predators- but way too long after the crimes were committed. Why these cases have taken so long to surface is open to debate- and could open up many cans of worms along with disrupting carefully managed family legacies.
As for the Kesha/Dr Luke case, if this is going to go anywhere, it must be resolved- and now. The more it’s dragged through the courts, the less relevance it will have with that other court- the very fickle and “trending” court of public opinion.
While it is honourable that Taylor Swift has donated $250,000 to help Kesha out of her financial problems, one can only hope that the most powerful person in the entire entertainment world uses similar weapons and tactics that quickly brought Apple Music to its knees. But wait: That fight was all about business and control and the further building of a brand.
Then again, on many levels, so is the Kesha/Dr Luke/Sony Music case- but without the branding part. If anything, with all the players and companies and contracts involved, this case can actually ruin many brands. Perhaps this is why there seem to be so many dead ends. The truth is out there, but it seems to be filed under The X Files.
If- and everyone is still innocent until proven guilty- the allegations made against Dr Luke are found to be true, it could change the contracts between artists and management and music companies forever. Many wouldn’t want to see this happen. The legal action suits could be never ending, which will leave artists with too much room to manoeuvre.
Here, however, is a fight worth fighting for and against. It’s a cause- and case- that goes beyond music though Lady Gaga did address the subject in song at the Oscars to maximum dramatic effect.
Here’s the opportunity for those in music today to make a much-needed difference to an industry that needs a complete rehaul without fear of reprisals. Here is the chance to show star power really at work and that no one is beyond the law- and don’t have the same Get Out Of Jail Free cards played by Bill Cosby and Sir Jimmy Saville, a friend of many in the British government- and even amongst the Royal family.
It certainly makes one think what other dirty secrets have been swept under the carpet over the years through collusion and protecting the sacred cows.
Stay out of the Kesha/Dr Luke saga, Kanye. Don’t make it about you. Again. It’s messy and confusing enough without you weighing in with something ridiculous and turning something serious into a gimmick and circus that will be here today and gone with the gypsies and fairies tomorrow.