Friday, May 28, 2010

The Limits of Labels

I hosted my first "house concert" a couple of weeks ago. This is an event where your home becomes the concert stage or coffeehouse. You sell the "tickets" and guarantee the recording artist a minimum fee. My maiden voyage was taken with Sara Hickman.

I've been a fan of Sara's over the course of her twenty + years in the music business. She's based in Austin, Texas and I live in Boston. Given that almost everyone I was inviting to the show didn't know of her, my first challenge was describing her music.

"Well," I'd say, "she's classified as a folksinger, but that label doesn't do her justice." (I wished to immediately dispel the idea that the concert would be a quiet, deeply pensive, potentially depressing experience.) "No, she does a little bit of everything," I continued. "She sings gospel, blues, jazz and--oh my!--she can rock like crazy!" (I felt like my pitch was weakening here.)

"I guess if I had to put a label on it," I concluded, "I'd call her a pop singer." (Instantly I would then check myself from launching into a discourse on that label!)

My pitch worked best when it was short and I simply infused it with my enthusiasm about Sara Hickman. I mean, who is going to walk away saying, "Yeah, I'm a pop music fan! Definitely coming!" But if I spoke from the heart about her music, it usually was persuasive.

I stitched together an invitation with song and YouTube clips to also communicate what Sara's music was like. Promoting her concert sure got me more in touch with how difficult it is to carve your niche in the music business. I must admit, just discussing labels makes my chin instantly sink into my hand. I've spent a lifetime loving musicians who circumvent them, at sometimes great commercial risk.

Of course, you need labels to buy and sell. I would hate to step into a commercial environment that lacked them. I bristle, though, at the limitations they impose. Much of my music can be neatly classified into folk, jazz, and rock, but there are many artists within these categories who wear the mantle lightly.

In my mind these artists are dismissed when they're given the code word "Pop" or "Easy Listening" or "Vocals". To me, these labels are no crime, but I know what many listeners think. It takes me right back to college. I recall telling people how I loved singers like James Taylor, Paul Simon, and John Denver. The response I'd inevitably receive was, "Oh, you like mellow music."

Mellow? That's it? Well, that's the way they processed it! I decided early on to give my love to the singer/songwriter. (By the way, that label didn't seem to gain currency until the late '80s/early '90s). I carved out my niche and stuck to it. Let others blast their rock music out those dorm windows! I was going beyond the obvious, being esoteric--but not in a snarky, rock-critic kind of way.

No, my favorites were often in plain sight. Just hanging out there, unforgivably uncool. In a way, loving Gilbert O'Sullivan like I do is truly loving underground music. Heck, I defined "alt" before that moniker came into style! I won't even call them guilty pleasures. It's just good music. Really--try out Tony Orlando and Dawn's New Ragtime Follies. It has aged so well and is still a terrific encapsulation of their smooth and winning style!

Many singers that I love are pigeon-holed into categories like "Pop" or "Easy Listening" or "Vocals". Most critics dismiss them because they lack a certain purity: not rootsy enough, not challenging enough--as if trying to appeal to listeners should not be a way of assuring any musician's livelihood!

Sometimes I simply cannot bear the snootiness of music critics. I rely on their counsel, but I tire of their attitude.

So, what is Sara Hickman like? Let's see if I can re-create my pitch.

"She is this simply fabulous singer who jumps boundaries. I am attracted most of all to her positive energy. She lifts my spirits when I hear her. She has folk songs in her repetoire, sure, but she's all over the map musically. There's nothing that she can't do: rock hard, lead a chorus on a spiritual with gusto, or improvise vocally on a jazz-inflected tune. Sara is a very funny person, and I admire her stagecraft. A real pro!"

Let me know if that had any effect on you!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The History of Popular Song

My lifelong avocation has been studying what's commonly referred to as the Great American Songbook. I am passionate about what constitutes a great song, and wrapped up in the mystery of what makes it memorable.

May I recommend a tremendous DVD on this subject? It was made 7 years ago. The host for the nearly 3-hour presentation is Michael Feinstein. Perfect choice! When he was a young man, he worked with Ira Gershwin on the latter's archives. There is no doubting Feinstein's erudition on the subject. Put that together with the fact that he's a fine pianist and interpreter, and you know you're in good hands.

The DVD takes you all the way through the history of popular song, from Stephen Foster to Stephen Sondheim. There are rare clips of performers such as Bessie Smith, as well as complete presentations of songs, such as Dorthy Dandridge and the Nicolas Brothers performing "Chattanooga Choo-Choo". Looking back, I was pleased to remember that the only "talking head" in the movie was Feinstein, and he was narrating, not commenting. It is an exceedingly pleasant ride for the viewer.

I was struck by how popular music has a strong sentimental strain in it. It always seems to be referring to a more innocent time--perhaps I shouldn't be surprised because much of music is wishing and dreaming, isn't it? Anyway, this thought occurred to me especially when the film chronicled the music of the 1940s and 1950s--which was basically recycling songs from the previous 30 years.

Of course, what does that say about my musical passion for the Songbook? What time am I longing for? Perhaps I'm emotionally journeying back to my parents' time. I feel closer to them when I listen to the Songbook. I also feel closer to my own feelings, more sensitive and alive.

Yep, that's all part of what make a great song!