Culture of Pop

Sonny Says … Music is in the Ear (and Eye) of the Beholder

Prince and Bruno

Brad – “I agree with you thinking Prince is the GOAT. Given Bruno Mars’ age and trajectory, can he ever be possibly seen in the same light as Michael Jackson and Prince?”  

Annie – “What decade do you believe had the most talented musical artists?”  

Over the past two weeks I’ve been pondering each of these two fantastic questions so deeply and so often throughout my day that somewhere along the line they managed to blend together and become one delightfully challenging multi-part question. I’ve made it a priority to answer each question individually (the two questioners deserve that for sending in two of my favorite questions I’ve ever received for a Sonny Says mailbag), but the prompts ended up being so similar in nature — at least in my mind, anyway — that it was impossible to keep ideas that were related to one question from intersecting with ideas related to the other. I want to take this time to warn readers: I weave back and forth from question to question/answer to answer frequently in the paragraphs that follow. I swear it all makes sense. I think.

Developing an answer for the first question was probably easier than answering the second. If I were content with providing a straightforward “Yes or No” response then it would have been much simpler, no doubt. No, Bruno Mars will never be seen in the same light as Michael Jackson or Prince. It’s a pretty cut and dry answer, in my opinion. I can’t envision a scenario where Bruno Mars is as highly regarded as either Prince or MJ. See, that’s straightforward and simple, right?

(This is where the two questions begin to blend together.)

However, I think this might have less to do with how talented any of the three individuals mentioned in the question are than it does the situational factors that existed that were beyond any of their control. Allow me to explain (and to explain, I briefly need to jump to the second of the two questions, so stay with me):

For the most part, it’s really difficult to get a grasp on who mattered in music based on accolades — the awards that were won, the total number of albums sold, the number of songs that topped the Billboard charts. In theory it’s the easiest, and ideally the most effective way of determining who was successful, but it doesn’t really tell you who was the most talented. Allow me to crossover to the NBA for a moment … The fact that Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics won eleven NBA titles is outrageous. It’s a feat that will almost certainly never be accomplished again. I suspect that in my lifetime no NBA player will come within three titles of Russell.

Here’s the thing … eleven NBA Titles in the 1950’s and 1960’s have different meaning than eleven titles in the 21st Century would. The league has basically tripled in size. There are a greater number of talented players; players who are bigger/stronger/faster/more athletic/more skilled. The game of basketball has changed so drastically that’s it’s almost like watching two different sports. But here’s the thing: thanks to these two things called ‘eyeballs’ we can watch old tape and see how a startlingly percentage of players who excelled in 1963 wouldn’t come close to being able to cut it in the NBA today. The talent gap is just astounding. It fascinated me so much that I was compelled to write a Flashback Friday column about it three years ago.

With music, there is no noticeable talent gap between musicians from different decades, and it’s way harder to distinguish “talent,” mostly because ears are much less critical than eyes. My interpretation of what makes music, or what makes a musician “good” has everything to do with what my ears find pleasant, and we usually only consider artists “talented” if we enjoy their music. It just so happens that my taste in music is comically diverse. The eight CD’s that are currently sliding around in the backseat of my car are works by Prince, Justin Timberlake, Kendrick Lamar, Owl City, Panic at the Disco, Eminem, Phil Collins and a compilation of artists whose songs were featured in the Netflix series Stranger Things. See, that’s stupid eclectic.

Here’s the even trickier part of answering this question: it involves having to look at all genres separately, and on top of that, you have to monitor how each genre of music has changed over time. Take rock music for example. We can argue about whether Heavy Metal of the 1980’s (Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen, Motley Crue) or Grunge Rock of the 1990’s (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots) or Indie Rock of the 2000’s (The White Stripes, The Killers, The Strokes) was the best, but the truth is, there really isn’t a right answer. I would argue for 00’s Indie Rock, but that could have everything to do with what resonates with me or the fact that it was made in the era where I started caring about music. I wouldn’t go as far as saying The White Stripes the most “talented” of the nine bands mentioned above (though I may believe this), they are just who my ears like best.

I don’t know what my response would end up being if I spent the time to really investigate all genres to the length that I’d like to. I think I would end up having different answers for different types of music. The history of music really fascinates me though, and I’m bouncing around the idea of authoring a large writing project focused on that topic this Summer. Hopefully if things work out I’ll get around to answering this question even further then. But until that point, I’ll just say this … I imagine that if we asked 1,000 people of all different ages this question, the two most common responses would be the 1980’s and 1960’s, and here’s why:

(I’m about to wind back into an answer for Brad’s question now, so hold tight.)

In my last Sonny Says mailbag I was asked a question about the legacy of the 1992 Dream Team, and I made a point about The Beatles that I’d like to recycle here since it’s perfectly relevant since this time around I’m actually talking about music:

“The ability to make a profound and long lasting pop culture impact is rare. It requires a number of external components to be working in ones favor. This is the reason why there will never be a musical act as important as The Beatles. The Beatles are a perfect example of what happens when transcendent talent comes along and enters the national consciousness at the ideal time. The Beatles are not The Beatles if they come together ten years earlier or ten years later. Their success was just as dependent on situational factors that were outside of John, Paul, Ringo and George’s control as it was how pleasing or innovative their music was at the time.” 

Music began exploding in the United States in the late 1940’s thanks to the all-time high influence of radio airplay. By the early 50’s individuals like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin and many others became superstars partly because they came along at a pretty good time to be a musician. In 1947 there were 40 million radios in the United States, a figure that represents roughly one-third of the country’s population at the time. Without much else to do in terms of attractions or common activities, listening to the radio was the premiere form of in-home entertainment. It wasn’t until the late 1950’s that television’s had made their way into half of American homes.

And now I’ve finally arrived at my perfectly ironic main point. It’s my belief that the most notable musicians in history only achieved such distinction because of the rapid rise in access and ownership of televisions. Yes, mid-20th century musicians needed to be seen, not just heard, in order to become truly iconic. Need some proof?

After making their first TV appearances, Elvis Presley and The Beatles both skyrocketed to a level of stardom and universal appreciation that was previously unknown. It’s easy to understand why: both acts were very good looking, charismatic, different from their peers and yes, incredibly talented. With that said, it seems almost impossible to argue that if Elvis and The Beatles weren’t able to broadcast their acts in a visual manner they would’ve still been as meaningful or as fondly remembered. As I said before, their respective rises were the perfect storm of skill and circumstance. They were pioneers of music and they delivered fantastic live performances that millions of viewers were able to watch and listen to.

About a decade Beatlemania had fizzled out and following Elvis Presley’s death, a similar sort of music revolution took place when Music Television (better known as MTV) launched on August 1st, 1981. MTV gave musicians a chance to star in choreographed music video performances that ran on a 24/7 loop on the channel, thus giving them the opportunity to expand their outreach to millions of Americans in a way that had been virtually untapped previously. The biggest stars of the decade saw their popularity rise in a way that would’ve been unlikely if their exposure to the masses were limited to radio and the occasional live performance on a late night talk show or Saturday Night Live. As would be expected, the most talented, forward-thinking musicians took advantage of this new medium in a major way.

Bruno Mars and other current musicians have to contend with more competition than ever before. You can listen to the entire catalogs of thousands of different musicians, both past on present, on YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, iTunes and however many other music streaming services there are out there. Not to mention, there all a never-ending amount of additional technological distractions in the form of TV, video games, smart phones, social media, etc. that artists didn’t need to beat out in 1984.

It doesn’t matter that at 32 years old, Bruno Mars has more Grammy’s than Prince did at age 32, or just as many platinum albums as 32 year old MJ. It doesn’t matter how talented he is, or how talented/iconic Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Adele, Ed Sheeran and all of the other big names of the 2010’s have been … they are going up against a stacked deck in this legacy game. The only way I could imagine any artist of the present or future approaching the level of popularity and reverence of The Beatles or Elvis or MJ or Prince is if they are able to do these four things:

1: They need to be talented … whatever that means.

2: They need to have the same sort of non-musical “it factor” as those aforementioned acts. It’s a look. It’s a swagger. It’s a tangible transcendence.

3: They need to be able to create a type of music that exists in it’s own lane. It needs to be something that you listen to and think to yourself, I can’t imagine anybody doing this type of music better than them, nor do I remember anybody doing this in the past. Props to you if you actually use the word “nor” in your internal dialogue.

4: They need to be able to utilize whatever new innovations in Augmented or Virtual Reality are on the way in a manner in which no other musicians are, at least for a few months, so that this innovation itself is intrinsically associated with the musician. I obviously can’t prove that this is essential, but look at what TV did for Elvis and The Beatles.

Gabriella – “In several of Kim Kardashian’s latest Instagram posts she has posed nude for the camera. Although, we all know it’s really nothing new. I believe the Kardashian’s truly became famous because of the sex tape. What do you think of her posting these photos, especially since she is a Mom?” 

The 2010 version of Sonny Giuliano would’ve answered this question a whole lot differently than the version of Sonny that exists today would. 2010 Sonny had a Kim Kardashian poster on his dorm room wall, and would’ve downloaded the Instagram app immediately after receiving this question just to check these pictures out. 2018 Sonny is tired of everything having to do with the Kardashian’s. I haven’t watched or thought about Kim Kardashian’s sex tape with Ray J in at least five years ever and the only time I think about the Kardashian’s/Jenner’s at all now is when they get mentioned or shown during a sporting event that I’m watching on TV because their athlete boyfriend is playing.

Much like the Ball and Trump families, I just wish we’d stop giving these people a platform for their nonsense.

Alta – “If you could choose any five pieces of memorabilia from any TV shows from the year 2000 until now, which objects would you pick?” 

To come up with an answer to this question I first needed to figure out what TV shows have been truly important to me over the last 17 years. To start, I logged nearly every show I’ve watched regularly in that time and after careful consideration, I whittled my list down to an elite group of five programs. Among the shows that missed the cut were Big Brother, Amazing Race, The Challenge, The Bachelor, The Real World (on the second tier of reality competition programs I’ve watched) …  How I Met Your Mother and King of Queens (the first two sitcoms I loved and watched regularly) … Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy (an underrated hour of television every weeknight) … House of Cards and Friday Night Lights (very good shows that I enjoyed watching, but not great shows that I loved watching) … Better Call Saul, Ozark and Stranger Things (I feel like I need a bigger body of work to make a judgment) … Lost, Dexter and This Is Us (the three toughest cuts, only out because I couldn’t identify a single object I would want more from those shows than my five choices).

Ultimately, the five shows left standing at decision time were Breaking Bad, ER, Survivor, The Office, and The Sopranos. I’ve cared more about the characters and stories and legacies of these five shows than any others. As stupid as it might sound, they’ve each played a major role in my life over the last 17 years, and as much as I’d love to spend several hundred more words justifying my choices, we’re already approaching 2,500 words and if you haven’t seen the shows, my explanations won’t mean much. Just know that I made it a priority to pick items that were either integral to the story/history of the show, easily identifiable as being from that specific show, or ideally both.

So presented without any further explanation:

The Tabletop Jukebox from Holsten’s Diner, The Sopranos 

Michael Scott’s “World’s Best Boss” Mug, The Office 

First Immunity Idol, Survivor: Borneo 

Mark Greene’s (then John Carter’s) Stethoscope, ER 

Walter White’s Heisenberg Hat, Breaking Bad 

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