2015-10-07

Musical Existential Crisis - Part Two

Part One here.

Lady Gaga has a lot of musical integrity. We used to know this because she ripped off Bjork's award ceremony wardrobe. Bjork has artistic integrity, and Lady Gaga is doing the same kind of stuff, so it stands to reason that if Lady Gaga is dressed in the trappings of a great artist, she must be a great artist, too.

But these days, Lady Gaga isn't wearing food. Instead, she's all dolled-up in throwback glam and making records with Tony Bennett, and this is what tells us she has musical integrity.

The pairing of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett isn't lost on me, but unless you keep up with these things, you probably haven't considered how bad this new, third flavor of the old grift really is. The record companies can only survive by insisting that there is no musical existential crisis. What they don't realize is that the very fact that Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett would un-ironically record an album together is all the proof anyone needs of the existential crisis.

Tony Bennett: A Primer

The success of this marketing campaign hinges on the audience's belief that Tony Bennett is a "jazz singer." No one who happens to know otherwise is young enough to care about popular music anymore, except for weirdos like me, and Wikipedia, which states (emphasis added):
...Bennett began his career as a crooner of commercial pop tunes. His first big hit was "Because of You", a ballad produced by Miller with a lush orchestral arrangement from Percy Faith. It started out gaining popularity on jukeboxes, then reached number one on the pop charts in 1951 and stayed there for ten weeks,[31] selling over a million copies.[30] This was followed to the top of the charts later that year[31] by a similarly-styled rendition of Hank Williams's "Cold, Cold Heart", which helped introduce Williams and country music in general to a wider, more national audience.[32] The Miller and Faith tandem continued to work on all of Bennett's early hits. Bennett's recording of "Blue Velvet" was also very popular and attracted screaming teenaged fans at concerts at the famed Paramount Theater in New York (Bennett did seven shows a day, starting at 10:30 a.m.)[33] and elsewhere.
It wasn't until later that Bennett got into jazz, evidently because his musical director didn't think his [Bennett's] career would last long otherwise. What happened next?
The result was the 1957 album The Beat of My Heart. It used well-known jazz musicians such as Herbie Mann and Nat Adderley, with a strong emphasis on percussion from the likes of Art Blakey, Jo Jones, Latin star Candido Camero, and Chico Hamilton. The album was both popular and critically praised.[8][44] Bennett followed this by working with the Count Basie Orchestra, becoming the first male pop vocalist to sing with Basie's band.[8] The albums Basie Swings, Bennett Sings (1958) and In Person! (1959) were the well-regarded fruits of this collaboration, with "Chicago" being one of the standout songs.[8][10]
In other words, in order to establish his reputation as a "jazz singer," Tony Bennett didn't actually decide to play some jazz. Instead, he simply hired a bunch of real jazz artists to play on his albums - to dress himself up in the trappings of jazz integrity - in order to lend him the reputation of having played with a bunch of jazz greats while merely churning out another couple of albums of pop standards.

What followed was a series of disappointing decades for Bennett, but in the 1990s he was able to capitalize on the New York club scene's brief fascination with swing dancing (probably fueled by the success of Harry Connick, Jr.). Remember "Jump, Jive, and Wail?" This was very good luck for Bennett, and he made a good PR move by booking a performance on that TV show that used to be big with the grunge crowd, MTV Unplugged, during which he sang duets with a bunch of then-popular artists like K.D. Lang and Elvis Costello.

When his career again started to slow down, guess what Bennett did. If you guessed, "He released an album of duets with then-popular singers," you're absolutely correct. He released the aptly named Duets album. Five years later, he followed-up with another aptly named album: Duets II.

Lady Gaga appeared on Duets II. We can consider Cheek to Cheek to be, essentially Duets III. No word yet on Duets IV, but don't count him out yet.

At this point, I hope you are sensing a pattern. The most obvious pattern here is that Bennett has a tendency to latch onto popular contemporary artists and use their popularity to boost his own ticket sales. This is not the mark of a musical innovator. This is also not the mark of a jazz singer. It's the mark of someone whose music career is based on adorning the trappings of great musicianship.

Now, I'm not going to say that Bennett is a terrible singer. He has a nice voice. But "having a nice voice" is not really the same thing as "being a jazz singer." Bennett doesn't write his material, he sings essentially a list of cover songs called "the great American songbook." These songs, however much you might enjoy them, are not representative of jazz as a genre. They're basically old pop songs, like "Camptown Races."

Or "Born This Way."

The Grifters

Lady Gaga could have recorded an album with Rosie Gaines or Lalah Hathaway, but she didn't. There is no shortage of famous jazz singers out there, many of them absolutely brilliant. But if Lady Gaga recorded an album with Lalah Hathaway, it would have lacked something important: the widely held opinion, based mostly on a marketing deception, that Tony Bennett is a jazz singer.

In other words, even though there are a lot of great jazz singers out there who genuinely could have helped Lady Gaga establish her artistic credibility (and from whom she could have actually learned something), none of those singers are "famous for being jazz singers." I mean, they're famous among jazz fans, but the public doesn't really know who they are.

The public does know who Tony Bennett is, and the public has been told - mostly by Tony Bennett - that he is a jazz singer. So that's what they believe. And if Lady Gaga does an album with someone who we're told is a jazz singer, then that gives her the reputation boost she's looking for.

What exposes the existential crisis here is that Lady Gaga's attempt at establishing artistic credibility isn't a genuine attempt to gain some, but simply an attempt to capture the trappings of artistic credibility. It's more important to Lady Gaga that you think Tony Bennett is a jazz singer than the veracity of that claim. The Last Psychiatrist might suggest that this is a narcissistic move. But he's not blogging anymore, so I can't know for sure.

The press for this album was full of quotes like this one, from NPR: "Frere-Jones also points out that Lady Gaga is more than pop spectacle; she can really play piano and sing." Think about that. One of the most important elements propping up Lady Gaga's claim to musical integrity is the fact that she, a professional musician, can "really" play an instrument and sing.

And in case there were any doubt, she recorded an album with Tony "I'm-a-jazz-singer-honest!" Bennett to prove it.

Behold, The Existential Crisis

None of this would matter in a world in which people understood that this was just a couple of saccharine pop artists putting on big-kid clothes and pretending to be real artists. That's not new - remember when The Moody Blues released Days of Future Past and tried to shock the world into believing that they were more than just a pop group? 

No, of course you don't remember. The Moody Blues aren't part of Rolling Stone Magazine's official anthology of rock and roll. The record companies, Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, and the part of your soul that secretly needs you to believe that "it's all subjective" are all counting on the fact that you don't remember any of the many past instances of pop stars trying to pretend to be artistically credible. The moment you realize that you fell for the same cheap trick - again - is the moment the existential vacuum opens and gobbles you up.

Wait, think about it for a second. If it all really were subjective, then why the hell would Lady Gaga need to convince you of her artistic credibility? If it were all a matter of personal taste, then what's with all of those Duets albums that Bennett keeps pumping out? Why is Rob Thomas' biggest hit the same as Carlos Santana's biggest hit?

The secret part of your music fandom really wants musical integrity to matter, it needs that in order to function properly. You need your music to be more than a matter of personal taste because, to you, it really.

And all I'm saying is that there's nothing wrong with the fact that you want your music to have real integrity; but that you need a theory of aesthetics if you want that musical integrity to be real.

But, piece-by-piece, your sense of aesthetics has been picked apart by calculated marketing propaganda... Tony Bennett is a jazz singer... The Beatles were not a boy band... The Moody Blues were such good writers that they could score symphonies.. The Strokes are "amazing"... Elvis Presley invented rock and roll... no one had ever played guitar like Jimi Hendrix until Jimi Hendrix... and so on, and so forth, until now you're forced to actually believe all this crap because the integrity of your own personal music collection depends on it.

...And yet, if I subject your music to my (personal, private, individualized) theory of aesthetics - thereby threatening its integrity - the only response you can muster is, "It's all subjective!!!"

Which, by the way, is the one thing the record industry needed you to believe in order to convince you buy whatever the hell they wanted to sell you today.