Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Importance of Being Norah Jones

We live in a world changing faster than we can imagine. My children will not figure out one for sorrow, two for joy in a hurry since my calendar doesn’t let me take them to a zoo to see a bird till late next year. Candy Shop is a love song, and It Wasn’t Me is a song of freedom. The harsh geopolitical and sociocultural realities for a species that is obviously overreaching are clear for all of us to see. We have indiscriminately wiped out natural resources, thoughtlessly added to the fragility of our planet’s ecosystem, trod upon the values of gentleness and civility, taken out patents on gene structures that we have not made, and allowed Mammon to reside at the center of our collective being. Most parents today strive to bring their children up to be a string of alphabets offered at the altar of commerce and justifiably so. Struggling poets, singers, or artists are not the winners of today. For a creative artist to become a winner, he or she again has to follow the dictates of the buyer, and more often than not, the promoter or manager who has his own ideas about creativity that sells.

At every point in time, there are those who choose to place creative form above all other considerations. However, never has it been so striking as it is at present, never has the contrast been louder. If one looks at contemporary popular music, it is dominated by two clear trends. The first is the “popular popular,” gangsta, teeny bop, glamour dolls, boy bands, and latino flesh fests. This segment is characterized by catchy tunes, usually beat driven, and surviving on quick turnover, before you forget the last tune, a new g-string is on. The other category is that of “the thinking person’s pop,” and this has two components again, the elder statesmen and the young Turks. Gone are the days when you could play the latest releases from Dylan, Beach Boys and the Jackson Five back to back and not be dissonant. Today, understanding and appreciating the divide between meaningful, relevant artistic expression and the more commodified assembly line kitsch is all the more important in light of the fact that we as a civilization stand at the crossroads.

A turning point in modern music was the coming together of the civil rights movement and the pacifism movement, when song and social change got inextricably linked. This same link was seen earlier in the holler and the blues, but this time around, in the 60s and 70s, it was of “great social and political import.” Down the line however, the me too generation and the gen next with their own ideas about life chose to forge its own new sound. But many of the rockers of the golden era carry on this task of being socially relevant through their music into today, and often with great commercial success too, since the fans of these elder statesmen are now at an age and economic strata where they drive concert ticket and album sales and drive them well all over the world.

Along with aging rockers who throw in a song for their current love into every release, a new breed of women singers are also breathing a different life into the song. The likes of Alanis Morisette, Diana Krall, Madeleine Peyroux, Joss Stone, Alicia Keys, Alison Krauss, Norah Jones are snatching airplay from the j.los and the shakiras. Yet if you look at these artists from the more popular side of the fence, they come across as staid and stuffy. Melodious yes, but what good is a song with no shaking booty or jiggling bust? What good is a song that doesn’t help me feel okay about rampant materialism, institutionalized vandalism, and objectification of women into crack house floozies? Well, record sales and peer recognition say it is good. The common threads include the fact that all of these singers have kept the song at the forefront of their performance, and are fiercely defensive of their creative freedom. All are obviously indifferent to, perhaps even uncomfortable with the trappings of public adulation. Perhaps a large chunk of their attractiveness lies in this ordinariness. And lastly, they have largely defied traditional commercial wisdom and yet continued to have good sales. Their audiences are as appreciative in Canada, US, and UK as they are in China, Ghana and Colombo.

After her very successful debut, it would have been only natural for Norah Jones and her club friends to go after a repeat of the genre. But instead, she did an out and out country album in between collaborations with Willie Nelson and Ray Charles, and came out on top again. On the other hand, the stubbornness and commercial and critical acclaim with which Alanis Morisette has been blending wit, angst and her personal new age worldview defies marketing logic; one may have thought that the listening public will have had enough of it, but no, she does it over, and gets better every time. Diana Krall and Madeleine Peyroux, with their quiet intensity and Alison Krauss with her fiddle toting bluegrass activism keep doing what they are best at and what they believe in. Joss Stone, the white Brit teenage jazz singer (not sure which order that should be in), is the odd one out, doing to the blues what Eminem did to rap, and it is perhaps too early to predict what the labels will do to an obviously and abundantly talented blueswoman. If Peyroux and Krall stand at the more classicist points of the musical scale and Jones and Krauss at the more Romantic, Alicia Keys represent the more urban (since urban is neither classical nor romantic, it is a condemnation entirely of its own) end of this spectrum, with her subtle arrangements emphasizing lyricism, melody and relevance while leaving her rap and hip hop roots intact.

What is noticeable in this trend is also the fact that this segment enjoys high regard within the industry. The industry awards over the last several years (remember Bonnie Rait?) have clearly showed that alongside popular and commercial appeal, there is from the artistic community a growing support for and recognition of efforts at retaining artistic integrity and promoting universal values like love, tolerance for each other, intolerance of militancy, violence, and aggression, concern for the future of humanity, etc. This is important because it tells us that we need to wake up to the fact that the forces that can destroy us are not all powerful and have an antidote. That antidote is an open mind, love and trust, standing up against injustice, sharing and sustaining the sacred and the beautiful. This antidote is being generated worldwide in literature, theater and films, music, and the electronic and cyber media, but perhaps the rate of inoculation is still a little low.

In our times, many have held a gloomy view of the future of our kind, that mankind is on a path that would surely and completely wipe out civility, gentleness, aesthetics and the higher values that many of us believe are what sets us apart from other species. But in light of the “rebel forces” that are standing up against the dehumanizing aspects of commercialization and globalization, it is perhaps time to climb off that perch of pessimism and do our bit to build a society that thrives on respect for the finer and more enduring aspects of human society. We have way too much of history to learn from to be making those mistakes again. And for those of us who are unable to get to the front, let us at least stand behind the Norah Joneses as they strive to bring back all that is beautiful about being human.
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