Wednesday 11 December 2019

Sorry, Elton, modern pop is not rubbish

The piano man's complaint about today's music shows he needs to open his ears, says John Meagher

John Meagher

John Meagher

Never one to withhold an opinion, Elton John has been shooting his mouth off again. He reckons modern pop music is in dire straits.

"Songwriters today are pretty awful, which is why everything sounds the same," he says. "Contemporary pop isn't very inspiring." The implication is clear -- compared to his own halcyon days in the 1970s, today's music fans have to put up with all manner of dross.

Much of his ire is directed at "boring, brain-crippling" reality TV shows such as X Factor. "TV vaults you to superstardom and then you have to back it up, which is hard."

Few would dispute that, especially now that last year's winner Joe McElderry is trying to hawk his mediocre debut album, but Elton is looking in the wrong place for great new music, even if such TV shows do, occasionally, produce pop gold: Girls Aloud have delivered some great pop music, much of it written by one of Britain's most astute songsmiths, Brian Higgens of the Xenomania pop factory.

I accept that today's pop chart is, by and large, not nearly as daring as the one that would have featured a young Elton John almost 40 years ago, but then most of the great music released today never gets close to the charts.

More music is released right now than ever before and technology has ensured that just about anyone can make music themselves. Expensive studios, producers and sound engineers just aren't necessary any more.

One of the greatest albums of the past few years, For Emma, Forever Ago, by the Vermont singer-songwriter Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, was partly recorded in a remote log cabin. He made a magical, slow-burning album using only a few instruments and his own lovely, delicate vocals. It's a collection of songs that sounded like a classic when I first heard it, and in 20 years' time I don't think it will have lost any of its potency.

Elton John hit the big time when he was embraced by the US arena circuit 35 years ago, and were he to keep a close ear to American music today he might be surprised by its strength and breadth.

How about the dizzying inventiveness of Animal Collective or the genre-hopping experimentalism of Grizzly Bear?

Has he listened to The Blueprint 3, the stellar latest album from rap superstar Jay-Z, a record worth buying purely for the wonderful duet with Alicia Keys on 'Empire State of Mind'? And one would be very foolish indeed if they could not accept that Beyonce and the ubiquitous Lady Gaga have given the world some fantastic songs that will stand the test of time.

Had Elton attended this year's Electric Picnic he may have come away with a new-found appreciation for contemporary music. Perhaps he would have been taken with the dark electropop of Sweden's Fever Ray, or the impassioned, erudite rock of Brooklyn band The National, or the otherworldly atmospheric music created by Iceland's Jonsi, and sought out their recordings.

Each of those three are songwriters of the highest standing, they are not afraid to experiment and they see no compromise in writing songs that could grace any radio playlist, if only the radio playlisters weren't such a dull, conservative bunch.

When Elton plays Dublin's O2 on December 15, perhaps someone could give him a mixtape of contemporary Irish music and he will see that even in a country as tiny as this one, there are some outstanding songwriters here.

And, no, we're not just talking about Bono.

In what's been a bumper year on the domestic scene, he may yet appreciate the talents of Two Door Cinema Club, Imelda May, Villagers, Shit Robot, Cathy Davey, Strands and Halves. Ireland has moved on from the days of U2 clones and dreary singer-songwriters -- this lot run the gamut from rockabilly, to synth-pop, to ambient electronica and lots more in between.

So while there's no doubt, Elton, that some songwriters are "pretty awful" -- including yourself, in your less productive moments -- there are very many indeed whose work refutes such a glib generalisation. Open your ears.

You'll be glad you did.

Irish Independent

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