The New Yorker recently ran an article about American Idol in which its (very perceptive) rock critic, Sasha Frere-Jones, observes that “pop is too old to have a single, collective memory anymore.” He saw evidence of this during the show’s Beatles weeks, where it was clear that many of the (young) contestants didn’t know the original songs at all and had to learn them literally from scratch, something that for most people over, say, 30, would be incomprehensible.
This led me down a path of thought regarding my own Gen X musical journey, and how I’m able to see parallels where others may not.
Much of pop today seems self-consciously ‘retro’ in some way; in fact, that may be its main mode right now. Uniqueness today stems from an act’s ability to differentiate itself from the morass of other vaguely, or not-so-vaguely, retro acts. What makes Franz Ferdinand stand out from all the other British ‘indie’ bands, for example? They’re good musicians and songwriters. How about Arcade Fire? They’re a wacky Montreal troupe with grand ambitions and a big sound (and you can hear them inch, album after album, closer and closer to U2 circa Rattle and Hum).
But it’s more exciting to discover an unexpected parallel; a moment of intersection that isn’t planned or intentional, and therefore not self-conscious. When somebody does something not in order to be like somebody else, but when it ends up being similar anyway.
Genuine parallel developments often happen in history. Malcolm Gladwell‘s New Yorker piece ‘In the Air‘ points out that the history of science is littered with ‘multiples’ – simultaneous discoveries of new technologies, for example, by different people and in different geographic locations. Often, it’s commerce (or chance) that determines which of the equivalent inventions makes it, and which does not.
Music is very far from science in this way. I think it’s reasonable to say that there are few truly parallel developments in music where two different geographies create the same sound at the same time. Music travels, is heard, musicians are influenced. There’s always a fascinating ‘travel’ story at the heart of unexpectedly great musical discoveries: for example, Senegal’s own version of Cuban son/salsa, which was brought to Africa by seamen in the 1960s.
I like the more ’roundabout’ musical parallels I sometimes discover. For example, Sting’s Bring On the Night and the Dave Matthews Band’s Live at Piedmont Park. It’s all there even if it’s 20 years apart: the extended jams, the long, long tracks, the jazzy improvisations that painstakingly make sure their rhythmic footing remains rock not jazz, etc.
In terms of instrumentation, Dave Matthews Band is the least guitar-focused band of the big stadium touring bands. Dave’s guitar is always acoustic, mostly used for rhythm purposes, and never in the foreground. Sting, on Bring On the Night, played guitar for the first time (or at least in recorded history), having been a bass player throughout his tenure in The Police. As a result of doing double-duty on vocals and guitar, his playing is subdued, rhythm-focused, and not in the foreground.
Another striking point of similarity is the extended piano improvisations by Kenny Kirkland (for Sting) and Butch Taylor (for DMB). Decades apart, the stylistic similarities are too eerie to be ‘planned’ and Taylor is too independent a musician to have deliberately chosen to sound like Kirkland. But as the piano element became more and more pronounced on DMB live recordings during the 2000s, the overall sonic impact of DMB live – to me – became more and more like Sting’s circa 1986.
I’m wondering what other accidental musical parallels you may know about similar to this. Leave a comment if you like.