Saturday, March 5, 2011

Music and "Relevance"

Okay, so I've been trying to hammer this post out for a while now, so here goes.

I have noticed something when it comes to talking about music. Especially people who write articles about music for various publications. It is the word relevance.

Relevance: having significant and demonstrable bearing on facts or issues. Synonyms: applicable, germane, apposite, appropriate, suitable, fitting (from, as my physical dictionary is currently AWOL).

I keep seeing this word pop up in musical articles and I have always wondered about this particular choice of wording. For some reason the phrasing of such statements always put me off, and not just because it usually implied that the newest flash in the pan was more "relevant" than older, well-established acts, or not in a comparison but still implying that said older, well-established acts were not "relevant". Up until now I've just sort of taken this position on the whole thing.

Then I read this article talking about the Superbowl Halftime show from this year, where the Black Eyed Peas were the headlining act. This was the line that started this whole thing:

Sure, the band's music is aimed at "mindless partying," and Fergie's glittery top was "absurd and somewhat laughable," but the Peas had more relevance than previous baby boomer acts..."

My reaction to this was as follows:

What? The show put on by the Black Eyed Peas was panned almost across the board as underwhelming, stale, inane, and just more of the same with nothing new and interesting added to the act (TRON costumes notwithstanding) to their regular show repertoire.

Why? Why are the Black Eyed Peas more "relevant" than past performers? Let's look at the halftime shows for the five years previous to this one.
2010: The Who
2009: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
2008: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
2007: Prince, Florida A&M Marching Band
2006: The Rolling Stones
2005: Paul McCartney
2004 was of course the famous "Nipplegate" show with Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. Now then, all of these previous five shows were performed by famous and well-established acts, and that's putting it mildly (I mean really, The Who, The Stones, and a Beatle?). These are big names, that have not only had hugely successful careers of their own, but have influenced countless acts that have followed. And it isn't as if the songs by these artists aren't well known. Anyone who watches CSI knows at least as many songs by the Who as incarnations of the show that they watch, for example. Either way, these are some of rock's biggest acts. Ever. That is not an exaggeration.

And, how do you qualify this? What really bothers me about these statements about how "relevant" a band/artist is is that there is never any kind of qualifier for this. These statements are made without ANY context at all. What is the criteria for determining the "relevance" of a musical act? The number of hit songs? If so, according to what charts; Top 40? I-Tunes? Billboard? Something else? Does relevance have to do with how popular an act is at that specific moment in time? And again, how is that measured? Is it how fast a concert sells out? Because in the past two years or so both Metallica and AC/DC stopped in our area and the tickets sold out in 10 and 30 minutes respectively. Did I mention that the 30 minutes to sell out AC/DC was because the played the football stadium instead of the arena
, and so had almost three times as many seats?

Anyways, what it really comes down to is this; what is the basis for the statement of one artist/band being more "relevant" than another? Can you back this up somehow? As someone who's chosen field of study deals a lot with context and where citing and having sources for one's information is very important, I cannot stand having someone throw out something like this with nothing behind it. So please, tell me why The Black Eyed Peas, or Ke$ha, or Justin Bieber are more relevant than bands like The Beatles, Judas Priest, or Black Sabbath. Tell me why you refer to an act with a career longer than the lives of these "relevant" acts, in this way? Explain your reasoning behind the idea that a band or artist who has been an inspiration to countless others is not relevant. Is Judas Priest less relevant because they were one of Pantera's influences? Or Metallica because of bands like Trivium? On the pop side, Lady Gaga lifts tons of stuff from Queen, Madonna, and David Bowie. I argue that they will ALWAYS be relevant for the two reasons I have stated; for the accomplishments of their own careers, and for the inspiration they provide to younger acts. They are well within the definition of relevance; as
having significant and demonstrable bearing on facts or issues. The acts of today would not be what they are without those that came before them. Therefore you cannot classify an a band or an artist as nonrelevant*, except in the context of specific genres or in talking about a specific artist (Beyonce was probably not influenced by Ozzy Osbourne, for instance). But that is the key, there MUST be context.

I apologize that this has become a big wall o' text post, but I have found myself greatly irritated by this, and not just because they are usually referring to bands I like compared to ones I don't. No, I don't like the Black Eyed Peas, or Ke$ha, or Taylor Swift, or Justin Bieber. But other people do, and that's awesome that they found artists that they like. Just like not everyone is going to like Def Leppard, Disturbed, Judas Priest, and Rammstein because I like them. That is totally cool, it's individual taste. What does irritate me is when artists are labeled as nonrelevant by journalists simply because they aren't on the Top 40, or the latest tween/teen craze. Just because an artist doesn't factor into your little bubble of oh-so-knowledgable pop-scene journalistic sense, doesn't mean they aren't relevant to someone else, or to a whole other genre you haven't considered. I say pop-scene because this is where I most frequently see this type of thing. Then again, these are the people that at one time, Vanilla Ice was relevant, and Rick Astley (twice!).

I must now bring this rant to a close, or I'll lose my cool it will be a big, never-ending mess. If you've made it all the way through, then congratulations and thank you for slogging through with me. I hope that I've made myself clear in my argument, but feel free to leave a comment here if I haven't, or if you have thoughts on the subject. I will leave you all with a song about the awesomeness of music (despite how crappy the rest of the world might be) from an awesome artist. Yes, it's a pop song (shock! I know!), from the one pop artist I love. Enjoy all and we'll see you next time!

*I know I should use "irrelevant", but it doesn't fit as well. Sue me.
Regarding the date on this post, the date reflects when I started writing this. It was actually posted March 6th at 1:47 am.

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