Music and the sound barrier

2009-10-30 08:01

Mediocre. Adjective: 1. indifferent in quality 2. second-rate. Synonyms include: average, fair, commonplace, ordinary, passable, pedestrian, run-of-the-mill, undistinguished, unexciting, uninspired, unexceptional. This is according to my trusty, slightly worn, Oxford Paperback Dictionary & Thesaurus.

For some reason, this word is cropping up during conversation, as I sit and watch television or listen to music. It has me worried. Am I becoming my father and as the years add up are they manipulating my perspectives?

I grew up surrounded by music. Every Sunday morning, I would blast my father’s records as I washed his car. Before starting my task, I would go through his record collection to determine the theme of the day. It is there that I acquired my broad taste in music: Reggae, jazz, soul, rock, classical. Reader’s Digest used to have these record box-sets with a collection of records centred on a particular theme or artist, for example, The Big Band Era or music from a particular decade. I went through each one, exploring, embracing and being inspired.

Also, I listened to radio, watched music videos and embraced the music of my generation. The 1980s were a colourful hodgepodge of styles and artists across genres. The 1990s were the global explosion of hip-hop, with its potpourri of sounds and colour that mirrored our lives. I evolved with it from 1983 and continued to find a home for myself in its essence.

And then it happened. Somewhere along the way, I was left behind. Somewhere along the way, I stopped hearing innovation and creativity and fun and inspiration and started hearing mediocrity. I sit with my father and listen to him talk about the music he grew up with, music that also birthed me, and am enthralled by the spirit of it. When I think of Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Fela Kuti, Osibisa, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder and the like, I think of them and their music in the same breath as greatness.
When I think Outkast, D’Angelo, Maxwell, Public Enemy, Lenny Kravitz, Prince, Seal, Jodeci, Cypress Hill, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, I know I will be listening to them for years to come. In the same way that I still play Hugh Masekela, Curtis Mayfield or Jonas Gwangwa, I know I will still play Mos Def, Common, Erykah Badu, John Legend, Lupe Fiasco or Zubz, even if they never release albums again. The work these contemporary artists have produced has enough substance to stay relevant for me.

Yet, these current artists are not at the top of playlists on radio stations or on MTV. Every day, I am bombarded by music that, at best, is mediocre. It feels like we consider certain artists and albums above average because what we are comparing them with is unexceptional. I listen to ‘Lil Wayne, Drake, Flo-rida and so on and don’t get the hype. It is the same misogynous, uncreative, materialistic dribble that is out of place in a world facing a painful economic reality. I really don’t see myself in 10 years going “oh, where’s my ‘Lil Wayne CD”.

Content is important to me. I like to be told stories. I like to be taken somewhere. It doesn’t have to be ‘deep’, or intellectual, or serious. I play music to reflect my state of mind and circumstance. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince entertained me with adolescent stories when I was making sense of my teens. Public Enemy taught me to look beneath the surface. Diddy provided me with music to dance to.

I have had many friends try to convince me of the quality of some of these artists and I don’t get it. Perhaps the problem is that I compare them with the music of my youth and I have crossed over into the age bracket that has blocked me to the current reality. I accept that. I accept that I am not the target market. I accept that I have become that older person moaning about the music of this generation. I accept that it is also because my priorities have changed. I’m comfortable with that.

Despite all this, I still feel that, as a friend of mine recently said, “popular music today is characterised by unadulterated mediocrity”.

I’m just sayin’.

?Write to Kojo on

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