Saturday, February 20, 2010

We Are the World and Losing Our Voice

Sometimes I don’t want a Big Mac.

The greatest thing about chain stores is that you know exactly what you’re going to get every time you walk in the door. Whether you are in Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, London, or Moscow, a Big Mac is a Big Mac. It’s still my favorite burger from a fast food franchise. And there hardly is a place anywhere in America or the world where you can’t see the golden arches. It’s comforting, to some degree. But it also can get monotonous. Since every suburb has a Mickey D’s, a Chili’s, an Applebee’s, etc., it genericizes the American landscape. Gone are many of the local burger joints. Yeah, it’s just the way of business but it’s still sad that it’s more difficult to find a unique burger joint. My wife calls it Generic America, the amalgamation of different elements into a pangea of commonality. I go for the combo word: GenerAmerica.

Last weekend, when I heard the new version of “We Are the World,” I come to the conclusion that, to some extent, the same thing has happened in our music.

The original version, released in the spring of 1985, was a milestone in the lives of many a teenager, like myself. All that talent, in one room, singing an immediately memorable chorus, it was (and still is) magical. I can remember there was a time where the song was simulcasted across multiple radio stations, including the classical station here in Houston. Who’d have thought Willie Nelson and Mozart would be heard on the same station?

We are the World: 25 for Haiti” was recorded a few weeks ago by many of today’s famous singers. The catastrophe that prompted the remake was the earthquake in Haiti. The new version is good and I very much appreciate and enjoy the rap section added in. My biggest criticism of the effort is that it tried to mimic too closely the original. When Cyndi Lauper does her thing in the original, it was unique and thrilling. When Celine Dion sings the same part, it comes across as karaoke (despite her very powerful and beautiful voice; she’s the only one who could have done it).

Here’s my observation: Back in 1985, I *heard* the original before I saw the video but I could identify every single vocalist. Not so the new one. I realized, as I watched the video for 25 for Haiti, I *needed* the video to identify the singers. Sure, some I know and can identify them right off the bat: Streisand, Jennifer Nettles, Josh Groban, LL Cool J, Adam Levine. But the others, to my ears, sounded similar to each other. As good as Jennifer Hudson and Mary J. Blige are, I can’t tell them apart. Yeah, I know that Kenny Loggins and James Ingram (original) sound pretty darn close but the new version doesn’t have a Springsteen, a Steve Perry, a Bob Dylan, a Tina Turner to take a vocal cue and soar.

It got me to wondering: have we lost our uniqueness? In the age of globalization and mass music, have we created a generic voice?


John McFetridge said...

The forces of marketing are certainly doing their best to create a generic world. Really what they're after is a generic market where it's easy to sell the same stuff to everyone.

But people resist.

One thing that I'll point to is the diversity of the characters and stories in the Wal-Mart flash fiction challenge (or maybe even the website that started it, People of Wal-Mart).

Still, I've had this idea for a horror novel about a guy who passes out and wakes up in a different big box mall in a different city everyday and can't find his way home...

Jay Stringer said...

That would be horror, John.

Hmmm...maybe someone should do a collection of crime/horror hybrid stories....

Anonymous said...

You lost me when you said the Big Mac was your favourite burger from any franchise operation. Lost, as in baffled.

Like... wow. Big mac? Seriously?


I know you said a bunch of other stuff, that I have to absorb for work. But Big Mac? Seriously?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I ended up reading everything and you're crazy. If you can't tell those artistes apart by ear then you need a hearing aid. I'm ancient but even I can't help but hear all of them on the radio and I recognise all their unique voices, however irritating they may be.

Can't tell the difference between Jennifer Hudson and Mary J. Blige? Puhlease. That's ridiculous. You need a hearing aid, or a blog filter set to "dumb".

I appreciate your sentiment but your post is ridiculous, and borderline offensive.

Mike Dennis said...

Welcome to Generica