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?