"How many A&R guys does it take to change a light bulb? I don't know, what do you think?" Unfortunately, if you take an honest look at the musical successes of this past year, you'll see that this bad joke, sadly, still applies.
No, everything didn't suck and there were some great releases. But let's face it. There were no groundbreaking albums in any genre, no musical paradigm shifts due to new technologies or talent, and virtually nothing dared to challenge our apparently delicate or easily offended ears and minds. Sure, there were many albums, singles, videos, concerts, and cultural spectacles that were enjoyable, many even illustrating a modicom of evolution of the act or artist's music which always is to be applauded. But in a year when American Idol and Disney-sounding albums continued to dominate the new release schedule, more interesting catalog projects, such as those based on Ella Fitzgerald, The Beatles and, to a degree, Woodstock, were what really connected with fans and appreciative audiences. In the end, The Beatles boxes won out, obliterating most front line products while capturing not only our dollars, but also our hearts in the process.
Unlike the music business, the film industry seemingly understood that although you can spend a small nation's annual budget on production, unless there is something that links the audience to the work in a deeper, more personal way, in the long run, you're wasting your time and bucks. This year, amazingly, substance ruled. The Hurt Locker? Not a big grosser, but based on how remarkably real the characters and plot were, it's worthy of an Oscar in its sleep. Up In The Air? Unless you just hate George Clooney on principle, it's incredible mostly because it boldly touched on our anxieties of becoming unemployed, and all of the characters were either you, me, or someone we know. (500) Days Of Summer? It's the most uplifting-yet-heartbreaking movie of the year with a 2009 take on a non-love story Annie Hall-style. Avatar? 3D absolutely never will be the same (thanks James Cameron), but who would have cared if the film or Pandora's residents had no soul? Inglorious Basterds? Quentin Tarantino dared to hook us up with a WWII fantasy that, in its authentic, depraved way, was almost as irreverent as Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Mel Brooks' The Producers. Up? That opening, tear-inducing montage was worth the price of our admission tickets. Precious? Its center was the student/mentor bond more than any of young Precious' unfortunate life circumstances.
Admittedly, the overly-brain-dead Transformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen scored big, hooray for our teens having more disposable income than us. However, it was the reboot of Star Trek that not only made oodles of cash, but also rebuilt a franchise, not because of its over-the-top villain, Leonard Nimoy's ten or so minutes of screen time, or any sci-fi effects that dazzled us. It was the bond we felt with the flick's very "real" characters, and the bonding we witnessed between the young Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the crew. At the film's end (spoiler alert), when fratboy Kirk relieved Captain Pike of his Enterprise role as he assumed the spot himself, his former mentor cleverly replied, "I am relieved" as were the rest of us.
Sure, when all the senses are involved, information gets stored in our whiddle heads easier than when it enters through just one sense, say, our ears. And as movies have tried to get more cozy with audiences, downloading has rewired our personal processing of music, it all but destroying any tactile or visual relationship with an album or single's pesky artwork and lyrics/information-ridden packaging. Trading a deeper appreciation and assimilation of an artist's work for convenience, we have distanced ourselves from it, and have created a virtual, lazier musical experience that has become increasingly more impersonal. Taking this a bit further, why sing or play in tune when a pitch corrector can do the hard work for you (kind of like sequencing with less dignity)? For that matter, why learn an instrument when you can play Rock Band or Guitar Hero? Hey, these are phenomenal innovations and amazingly detailed games, but come on already, the time one puts into "playing" guitar actually can be put into learning the instrument proficiently. (Amazing, right?)
It's been a safe, saccharine path that mostly has been chosen by today's not-so-brave music caretakers, and the result is our getting bombarded mercilessly by Miley Cyrus and David Cook clones (okay, not exactly, but it sure seems that way). What's equally annoying is producers are emulating those artists' productions and mixes in order to have hits with their own acts which isn't a new concept, but it's now been thoroughly maxed-out. Apparently unbeknownst to these corporate geniuses, totally fabricated American Idol and Disney stars will flow from our culture's consciousness as quickly as the group Aqua. In contrast, practically none of the aforementioned movies will. The question is can the music business take a page from the movie industry's playbook and figure out how to reconnect people to music in a more personal way.
Just as Cameron's latest broke down the barrier that separated the audience from its art, the music biz might want to present a vision that's not so one-dimensional. That means addressing issues on many levels, from creating larger interactive experiences (no, not just by voting for one's favorite American Idol) to allowing the artist or act to have a non-bullsquitter-y, non-pitch- or character-corrected identity while emphasizing what's at the heart of their works, not merely superficial aspects. It also means treating older demos like they matter, even when marketing recordings beyond Susan Boyle or Michael Bublé's. An oldster's money spends just as rapidly as a hip twenty-year-old's when offered something truly desirable. And iTunes needs to get a life, literally. It surprisingly still is the most dead experience one can have involving music, and predictably, every label's goose-stepping regurgitation of that lifeless approach keeps music subjugated by other more lively entertainment like video games, movies, and TV. So, in 2010, will A&R gurus keep repeating the punchline, "I don't know, what do you think?" or will they bravely change their tunes and ours as well, turning 2010 into a year filled with music with which we can really make contact.
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008