It probably started with Chris Cornell: Slowing down an uptempo song and giving it a new twist just as he did with his amazing version of “Billie Jean”.
Michael Jackson and producer Quincy Jones had given the world a slice of slick, danceable pop aided by a hugely important music video during those early days of MTV which helped enormously in breaking a black artist into the mainstream consciousness when Sony Chairman at the time- Walter Yetnikoff, below, played hardball with the new music channel: Put “Billie Jean” on Heavy Rotation or else you don’t get any other video by Sony artists- Springsteen, Journey, Billy Joel, Cindi Lauper etc etc.
Walter Yetnikoff made MTV get on the back foot. The channel blinked first. So did the enquiring, persuasive, charmingly direct questioning by David Bowie of MTV’s Mark Goodman.
Musically, meanwhile, what worked years later was Chris Cornell taking Billie Jean, stripping it off its Pop persona and turning the song inside out and into some cathartic plea for forgiveness, maybe, freedom, perhaps, and, now knowing how we lost him, most likely a cry for help which we couldn’t hear at the time.
Michael Jackson owns “Billie Jean” along with Quincy Jones and all those great session players who played on the track. It was very clever, marketing savvy pop produced for an ambitious and hugely talented young black performer hellbent on creating an image for himself as “The Prince Of Pop” or whatever way he wanted to be perceived. Nothing really wrong with that. Maybe.
Chris Cornell approached the song differently. Slowing it down gave him the time to crawl into the song and make it his own. This wasn’t Soundgarden or Seattle grunge. It was all Chris Cornell. And in the video below, it’s all very telling.
Once someone succeeds in turning songs on their head, the copyists jump aboard. And so for about five seasons of “American Idol”, on came the more “indie” contestants with their copycat versions of Chris Cornell renditions of the songs of others and songs not usually part of Idol predictability.
There was one season of “Idol” when because of a contestant named Jason Castro, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” almost became the show’s theme song. Its anthem.
Castro with his dreadlocks and teen appeal- and I was rooting for the kid at a time when “Idol” was water cooler talk- then covered a note for note version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” which the late Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo ‘ole had made his own just as he had done with “What A Wonderful World”.
Again, nothing wrong with any of this. Jason Castro always seemed uneasy on the showbiz platform of the “Idol” franchise. Musically, he always seemed more knowledgeable than most of the other contestants. He wasn’t going to allow some “judge” judge his music. He didn’t belong in American La La Idol Land with all its fakery, which no one knew about at the time- the staged auditions, the “unknowns” who had failed with their independent record releases, pre-selected finalists etc. And then he left. He probably refused to play the game or was happy to bail. Others who had done the supper club circuit and had got nowhere went the distance. For a handful, it’s eventually worked out very well when looking back from where they came .
The interview below with Jason Castro is revealing in that it reveals how many on shows like “Idol”, “X Factor”, “The Voice” et al have their fifteen minutes of fame and end up nowhere- bit players in a far bigger game of business than music. But as long as there are contestants desperate for fame and willing to sign ball busting contracts and Non Disclosure Agreements, nothing will change.
As for slowing down uptempo songs, this was trending on “Idol” for a number of seasons. It was also becoming formulaic, lazy and very old fashioned. Trying to say something new by turning an uptempo song into a ballad continues today. It’s often as if no one knows any better. When all else fails, take something upbeat like a Motown track by the Supremes and sugarcoat it with 100 mgs of Prozac.
This processed music is there wafting through the maudlin piped music in hotel lounges of five star hotels. These days, there might be bossa nova or cha cha versions of Pop or even Rock songs which really isn’t that far removed from actor Telly Savalas narrating David Gates’ “If”. It’s kitsch.
Once in a while, it works- the right song, right voice, perfect sparse arrangement. “Human” by Killers has always been one of my favourite songs- melodic and with some very clever, thought-provoking lyrics. Cut the cord, indeed..,
While trying to fall asleep a few days ago to a Spotify Playlist humming in the background and where most of these playlists come perilously close to being aimless elevator music performed by some unknown musicians, on came a version of “Human” that got into my psyche. I had to check who it was: Clementine Duo.
What makes this folksy, slowed down version different to others who have taken this same A&R route? Simply put, it works. It doesn’t sound contrived. It doesn’t sound lazy and formulaic and something for the audiences of “American Idol” and other television karaoke singing competitions who can only accept what they already know with just a soupçon of difference.
Musically today, we’re lost. Going DIY, social media, producing online shows, Facebook ‘live’, gigging for free, getting a track on Spotify, podcasts, making the iTunes Charts somewhere etc. What’s the point if there’s no pot of gold at the end of the journey? What? It’s about the love of making music? Fine as long as there’s a financial backup plan to keep making music. But if not?
This is a long way from how this post began, but we’re all suffocating and confused by clutter. We’re on Overload. There’s a helluva lot happening in Mainland China- but for very specific market segments. One size doesn’t fit all. There’s also a great deal of bullshit. Ever watched The Voice China? It succeeds despite itself and everything that’s it’s not. Jessie J loses on The Voice- China???
What Mainland China has, and what Indonesia has are many with the funding needed to make things happen. Both countries also have people power. How to break into these markets? Speak with those with the experience and roller decks. If you have what they need, work with them. These are constantly changing markets.
Those days when an unknown Danish band like Michael Learns To Rock can have a million seller are over.
There are formulas and there are formulas. What always works is funding for a strong one-stop multi media business model- and as always music executives with strong A&R skills relevant to these markets. It still comes down to the music. And knowing today’s music fan wherever you are. In China, always expect the unexpected . It’s a lot like chow fan. Here’s a market big enough for everything- but selective in its tastes.
#music #musicindustry #chinamusicmarket #Americanidol #A&R #artists #songs #clementineduo #jasoncastro #JessiJ #TheVoiceChina #chriscornell #michaeljackson #billiejean