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Era of Throwaway Lyrics
By Austin Akalanze
Era of Throwaway Lyrics
I often thought it was the generation gap or perhaps the evolutionary cycle or simply a sign of the end times. But, whatever it is, one thing is certain: that music has changed immensely in the 20th century.
For brevity, my focus shall be on the sixties and seventies, when the nations seemed to have come alive with the and rhythm of the time and the nineties, when they seem to have lost that rhythm change that drove the sixties.
While music has grown in other times, the sixties saw an explosion in the industry. It did not only grow in size, but also in quality. Performers elevated the art to a new high, using their talents to address the needs and concerns of society.
In Africa, artists turned out hit after hit. This was especially true in central and western Africa. The folkloric songs of the fifties were replaced by the more vibrant, more up beat rhythm of the sixties. In Zaire, Franco in his hit song "Trezempoli," which translates "very impolite," criticized those who smoke in offices where they do not like smoke. Also in Zaire, Tabuley in his song "Sara" talked about the problem of divorce.
In his philosophy divorce is unthinkable. Nigeria’s, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, in his massive hit "Zombie", done in Nigeria's unofficial lingua franca, Broken English, berates the military government of then General Olusegun Obasanjo for its lack of vision and the soldiers for their blind obedience. "Zombie no go think unless you tell am to think…" he lamented.
In the Caribbean, the Ska was polished and elevated to the richer, more balanced Rocksteady, with a lot of infusion of the African drum, and finally to the internationally acclaimed Reggae beat. Joe Higgs, Desmond Decker, and Bob Marley were some of the early apostles. In his hit song "War," Bob Marley reechoed a speech made by Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia at the United Nations in the 1960's. "Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior, is finally and permanently, discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war." Also from the Caribbean, Jimmy Cliff, in his classic “Vietnam” lent a credible voice to the opposition against America’s carnage in that country. "Yesterday I got a letter from my friend, fighting in Vietnam… Tell all my friends that I will be coming home soon, my time will be up sometime in June. But Mrs. Brown your son is dead.” Yet, in another hit he lamented the widening divide between the rich and the poor. “It’s a pain to see we are in a sad situation, suffering in the land. The rich is getting richer and the poor…”
The story was the same in America. Descendants of Negro slaves turned the beats and experiences of White America's cotton fields into new forms, imbuing them with new spirituality and new energy that gave added impetus to their struggle. Candy Staton, in "In the Ghetto," captured the mood and spirit of Negroes trapped in the ghettoes of North America. "If there is anything she don't need, it’s another little hungry mouth to feed in the ghetto… and his mama cried." James Brown, in "I am Black and Proud," sought to bring pride back to blackness, which hitherto had been a burden and a badge of dishonor and scorn to those who wore it. “Say it loud, I am black and proud,” he implored. Cart Stevens, “Wild World”- now that I have lost everything to you …but if you wanna leave take good
care, hope you make a lot of nice friends out there but just remember a lot of nice things turn bad out there…”
It was a global phenomenon. There was cross grafting of genre across national boundaries. The world was on the move, driven by the rhythms and the beats of the time. But what was driving the rhythms and the beats and the people behind them? - The turmoil of the time.
The sixties were a period of great upheavals. Freedom movements in Africa, liberation struggles in South America, civil rights marches in North America, labor movements in Europe, political emancipation struggles in the Caribbean, - all provided the impetus for the rhythm change and the performers were in the vanguard. Using their creativity and artistry and the circumstances of their time they created classics that elevated the spirit. Whether it was about war or politics or love, there was an element of subtlety that gave the listeners the opportunity to dream. They were limited only by their imagination.
The sonorous sixties were an era redolent of a great musical renaissance. And regardless of the culture or the geographical location of the songs, there seemed to be a common thread running through them, -- the were not throwaway words. They were words that aroused your humanity and agitated your conscience. They were evergreens, destined to stand the tests and rigors of time.
But that was as it should be. Good music must, regardless of culture or era, stand the test of time. It should elevate the mouth that sings and the ear that hears. It should be a vehicle for positive change and above all appeal to the higher self.
Anchored on that premise, what shall we then say of the nineties and the present? With due respect, with the exception of a few, not much except that it was an era that ushered in a gang of hollow and lackluster musicians. It was an era when the clean of the sixties were smeared with obscenity. There seemed to be a preoccupation among musicians on lewdness and vulgarity. This is self-evident in some of their and videos.
How did this happen? The answer is simple. Although the issues-- poverty, inequality, injustice, war, death, love, etc-- that inspired and impelled the revolutions of the sixties are still very much alive, modern musicians took the easy way, assaulting undiscriminating ears and eyes with baseness.
How have they done this? Through music videos. Whereas the artists of the sixties had no medium other than sound, today’s artists have the added advantage of visual images.
Hiding behind seductive graphics, they pass off trash and mediocre songs as hits. The artists of the sixties did not have that privilege. They understood that the distance between success and failure was as far as the distance between the ears and the brain and they worked hard to reduce it. Today’s artists do not have to work that hard. There is always the video for a cheap bail out.
While today’s artists may win Oscars and Grammies, it is doubtful whether many of those award winners can stand the tests and rigors of time. When it comes to the performing arts, time is the best judge. One thing though is certain: that this truly is an era of throwaway lyrics.
Austin Akalanze is an Educator, Poet and Freelance writer and webmaster at www.power-profit-systems.com/pips.html He writes in from Dallas Texas.
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