POP IS DEAD?: DEFENDING THE STATUS QUO OF MODERN MUSICALITY – Omari I.O. Kenyatta

This post is a guest blog from Kamehameha student Omari Kenyatta, who I think could become a new voice on the music (and perhaps music criticism) scene. 

During the 80s, in the time of extravagant musical experimentation swarming the studios of Sunset Boulevard, my father worked as a producer and audio engineer for RCA Records. He worked down the hall from Diane Warren, conjuring a similar arsenal of R&B-infused hip-hop, reggae and pop records.

Today, my dad’s work is far less flashy and sensational, but he insists that his new career is far more fulfilling.

Reducing his full collection of studio furnishings to a single Squier Strat and a copy of Cubase Pro housed on a hard drive proved to be a major challenge during my dad’s move from L.A. to Oʻahu. But as far as I can remember, he always made time to sit himself down and hold a late-night jam session for one.

Naturally, as I grew older, I would learn a few tidbits of general music knowledge in passing if we weren’t talking about it together. He would always tell me that all good music has some soul about it. Being that my dad is predominately African-American and raised in a Black environment, I always assumed it meant that he preferred R&B and soul music because it sounded better. One night, when I was around 12 or 13, he made it clear that he thought of “soul music” as a concept, not a genre. He explained that making music that is original and inspired transcends all genres, and most importantly, all racial identities.

A prominent difference you’ll notice right away between my father and I is that he, unlike me, is not a rock music kind of guy. I found my first personal tastes in the primal shouts and wails of Bad Brains and Black Flag and the punching fuzz guitars of Metallica and Marilyn Manson. Meanwhile, you’ll find my dad deep in the groove of a Parliament record or nodding his head contently to his Bob Marley: Legend cassette. But being that both of us seek and study talent, musicality, and inexplicable soul anywhere it would happen to exist, you’ll also find my dad’s back collection of Green Day CDs, and the giant Maggot Brain poster hanging just above my desk.

Observing this phenomenon in my own home granted me with a unique perspective to offer when older, self-proclaimed music aficionados of yesteryear began to accuse my generation of producing an ever-growing string of cheap music, completely devoid of any thought, talent or soul. Usually these critics stand behind the generalized assumption that “pop is dead”, or, assuming that it still somewhat alive, that “today’s pop music sucks”. For me and my dad, it was simple to point out that if you were to look beyond the surface of pop music that is so obviously written to sell, you’ll find that there are big-time acts out right now who write and play with the same quality and musicianship as those who have come before.

My dad and I first came to this sort of agreement listening to a live recording of the John Mayer Trio in an attempt to stay awake through a bout of heinous H-1 evening traffic. “Gravity” booms through the compact, but surprisingly powerful subwoofer in the cab of our F-150.

Drummer Steve Jordan rocks the song slowly into full swing with a deceptively simple 4/4 backbeat. We both marvel at Jordan’s masterful inclusion of a ghost triplet on the one that seemed to warm up the entire atmosphere of the track. And then, John picks out all of six notes in a subtle blues riff, and the rest of the band fills in the rhythm groove in the back. Each note flows into the next and speaks to an intangible feeling of ecstatic melancholia that is yet to be explored by the song’s lyricism. My dad observes that the entire song is built on small, modest nuances that anyone could play in an hour, but it is the control and phrasing of these nuances that propels the song forward into soulful territory.

Mayer croons:

Gravity

Is working against me

He lets individual syllables ring out and register in the mind of the listener, and sets up a powerful extended metaphor, no more than eight words at a time. His guitar chimes in its higher register in the silence between line breaks. Pino Palladino’s bass accentuates the root chord of the progression and brings the chord circle home just in time for a new musing from the narrator of the song.

Absent a chorus, a bridge-of-sorts builds tension in each new verse:

Twice as much

Ain’t twice as good

And can’t sustain

Like one half could

It’s wanting more

Itʻs gonna send me to

My knees

Leading up to a point of both maximum and tension and minimal relief during the vibrant, flighty guitar solo.

Then another verse, holding back just a bit.

And then an explosive coda that dimly brightens an otherwise completely blue auditory landscape, with just five simple words:

(Keep me)

Home where the light is

Home where the light is

Home where the light is

Home where the light is

Repeating itself, gradually losing intensity, until everything returns to the silence from which it came.

Five minutes, five chords, one simple idea, infinitely open to personal interpretation-otherwise known as a basic formula for a fast-selling pop song. How can a few simple music theory tricks and guitar licks evolve the idea so drastically?

This can be found almost anywhere a listener dare venture, from Young the Giant to Lukas Graham. While guys like these may be far from the levels of success and viral fame enjoyed by mumble rappers and autotuned preteens, any listener with an open ear that can hear these miniscule differences can find something good within their own personal preference, including modern pop music.

Of course, at the end of the day, appreciation for any form of art is entirely personal. What separates good art from bad art is individual at its core. And what do I know? Iʻm just a kid. But if you choose to categorize an entire group, genre, or subdivision based on a few outliers that misrepresent their alignments, one could also choose to generalize a group based on their principles of good art and creativity.

Just like finding a few bad acts can easily result from actively seeking them out, finding these hidden gems can be just as easy.

Omari I.O. Kenyatta is a third-year student at Kamehameha Schools Kapālama High School, living Nānakuli, Hawaiʻi. He is the frontman and founder of alternative music project King Cave, and is currently developing a stage adaptation for Radiohead’s OK COMPUTER. 

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2 Comments

Filed under Education

2 responses to “POP IS DEAD?: DEFENDING THE STATUS QUO OF MODERN MUSICALITY – Omari I.O. Kenyatta

  1. Dr. Michael Meli, Kamehameha Schools

    Brilliant article, Omari! Your writing voice continues to serve as a trumpet to our society. This article is wonderful insight to your extraordinary mind and talent both as a writer and as a musician. The ‘ike you possess and share is valuable to musicians, listeners, and readers alike. I am ecstatic to read more of your work, and I am just as grateful for Kumu Perkins for posting this article.

    Like

  2. S. Avery

    Wow, a young critic in the making. Talented writer

    Like

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