Sunday, December 14, 2008

What Is A Classic?

"They don't write them like that anymore."

That's a phrase usually tossed out after somebody posts a long and forgotten moldy (but goodie) oldie Christmas song online. Granted, they don't really record songs like "Kitty Ate the Tinsel on the Christmas Tree" anymore, or like any of the countless dusted off Christmas treasures I've shared here and elsewhere on the blogosphere.

And this is a topic I've been discussing elsewhere on the 'net...what makes a Christmas song "classic." What songs of today will be classics in years to come? What Christmas songs being churned out today will have the staying power of "Silent Night" or even "Do They Know It's Christmas?" I don't know...people tell me they don't write them like they used to.

But then again, they don't write songs like they used to anymore. Take, for example, the song writing team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. (And if those names are unfamiliar to you, then you have some homework to do!) One of my favorite songs by them is "Save the Last Dance for Me." Awesome, beautiful track. Compare that to the new popular songs by the likes of Jay-Z and tell me they don't write them like they used to and I will agree, absolutely. I can't wrap my brain around why stuff like Jay-Z is popular...I tried to listen to some of his stuff when he's performed on TV and give him a chance because I consider myself opened minded and open to new styles of music as the next guy. I felt like my brain was being assaulted when I heard him sing. And I can't imagine those types of angry sounding songs and ferocious sounds having the same standing power of a Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman composition.

But then I hear stuff by Gnarles Barkley and TV on the Radio and I feel all hope is not lost. But they don't write their songs like they used to either. I think that's a good thing. We can't continue to expect new acts to churn out music like we had in the years gone by. But I believe the music of Gnarles Barkley and TV on the Radio stands a better chance of surviving time and circumstance more than Jay-Z. At least I know I would rather be listening to Gnarles Barkley and TV on the Radio 20 years from now than I would want to hear a Jay-Z song 20 years from now, but I can only speak for myself. Maybe I will be wrong...maybe Jay-Z will rise to produce the classics of tomorrow. I honestly don't know.

But that's just one example...I could spend a few more paragraphs talking about whether or not Britney, Miley, Justin Timberlake, the Jonas Brothers, or any of the popular acts today will have the standing power of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, REM, and others in the future. But I am not that smart, I don't have a crystal ball to tell me what will be a classic of tomorrow, and I certainly don't subscribe to the whole "instant classic" mindset that people try to attribute to popular media today. But if I were a betting man, I would place my bets on new comers like Duffy, Adele, and the sort to have more of a staying power than Miley Cyrus or Hillary Duff, and more able to churn out some songs that may be getting attention 20 years from now.

But back to Christmas music, as this is a Christmas music blog... I like the fact that Christmas music is progressing forward and that we have such an incredible variety of Christmas music to choose from today. I am glad it is NOT like how they used to write them. I would be ashamed, saddened and bored if new Christmas songs sounded like the classics of the past. But "Silent Night" doesn't sound like "Frosty the Snowman" and "Frosty the Snowman" doesn't sound like "Do they Know It's Christmas." I think the best Christmas songs are the best examples of the era they were born in, and I think great music is being produced today on a whole that embraces the time they were born in. I used Gnarles Barkley and TV on the Radio as two examples that give me hope that great music can still be produced today. While not Christmas music, it just goes to show me that great music today does NOT have to sound like great music of the past to be great. It can take elements of the past but put a new twist on those styles and churn out something new and exciting. And I think Christmas classics of tomorrow will be created in the same way.

To examine what makes a classic recording, let's go to one of the more famous modern classics, "Silent Night." Or "Silent Night, Holy Night." Or "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht." That song was far from an instant classic. The lyrics were written in 1816 and a melody wasn't put to those words until 1818 and it wasn't even until 1863 that we got the song translated to English. it took 55 years for a song to even start it's path to become a classic? Of course, that was before the Internet and radio...perhaps if they had You Tube or MySpace back then the song would have caught on faster. But I think the principle of what creates a classic are two fundamental elements: time and circumstance. For some reason, people prefer to listen to songs about Frosty and Rudolph this time of year, but there are dozens upon dozens of songs that were great in their own right that were about other characters that, for one reason or another (I guess Rankin Bass didn't do an animated special about the characters), just didn't catch on. Time and circumstance. It took time for the melodies of "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" to become ingrained on the minds of millions upon millions of people world wide. And it took circumstances such as TV specials and the commercialization of those songs to make them popular standards. There are many songs that fell by the wayside that are treasured by a few online but not remembered by a whole on a mass media level because they didn't get the same circumstances over time to become ingrained on the minds of people world wide as the sounds associated with Christmas.

So, what will be the classics of tomorrow? What do you get if you cross an elephant with a rhino? Well, the answer to the latter is my answer to the former. I don't know what circumstances will shape the next 20 years. Maybe corporate owned radio will continue to play the same four hour blocks of Christmas music over and over and over again each year during their 24 hours of Christmas music, and NOTHING from today will become a classic of tomorrow. But I don't believe for one instant that doesn't mean there aren't songs being produced today that should be heard 20 years from now. However, I don't think they are coming off of the staples of Christmas radio today, nor are they likely to come off the place holders popular recording artists put out to have a presence on the shelves at Christmas time. But though we have the Disney kids rehashing old Christmas standards for the upteenthgazillionth time I see Ingrid Michaelson on the horizon with some great original songs. I see a handful of independent compilations come out each year...compilations that you aren't going to find in Wal-Mart or Target or Best Buy...with awesome music on them that I love to hear every year. Songs I would love to see get air play, but they don't have a corporate record label behind them buying time for them on the corporate owned radio stations.

But then we get back to time and circumstance. The circumstances of the recording industry as a whole is a shifting paradigm. People predict hard physical copies of music will go the way of the Edsel. I don't know...I think even young people who are compressing all the music they can to get 8 months worth of music on one portable device are finding uncompressed music with the highs and lows present is much more preferable. Blu-Ray DVD uses uncompressed audio, and is creating a new generation of audiofiles. And that new generation of audiofiles will find a way to get their music in the best possible means necessary. For now, vinyl sales are rising again becuase of this, and I don't believe baby boomers are the only reason behind it. I believe young people are finding the value of music that's NOT in MP3 format. What goes around comes around. Now, whether or not the CD format will rise in popularity again remains to be seen. Maybe the new generation of audiofiles will create something better and more convenient and durable. Who knows. Time and circumstance.

Wait...what does this have to do with Christmas music again? Because I believe you can't have one without the other. If music as a whole fades away into kbit files compressed and compressed until it sounds like a cheap AM radio then Christmas music will also suffer as a result, and not be as popular and labels and corporations won't promote it like they once did. And tomorrows classics may never get a chance to survive. But I have hope that the new generation of audiofiles aren't just finding good music out there they want to hear preserved, but they are finding their own Christmas music out there they will want preserved. And, yes, I think time will produce more classics in the future.

As for what I personally would like to be listening to 20 years from now...well, I guess I could find a handful of examples and post them here for you. But music is such an individual experience. And I think any music I put up on this post would be a let down to some. So I will let the past year of this blog stand as an example of songs I think should be noticed 20 years from now. Granted, I try to pick out the songs that are not getting the attention on mainstream radio, so maybe they won't go on to be classics of tomorrow. But then again I don't know what circumstances we face over time. With the state of the economy and the world in what it is right now, I would say anything can happen, and I think those of you who decry that they don't write them like they used to anymore just may be surprised. At least I hope we are.

And if you read through all that text, then give yourself a Kudos bar.

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