Popular music has lost its soul. I don’t mean that it’s no longer good or appealing; I simply mean it’s lost its sense of revelation.Modern radio has successfully emasculated the heart and soul from a song. The few times I do feel that apocalyptic sense of danger in popular music is when one of the greats from the past, such as Bob Dylan with his new album, “Modern Times,” reminds us of what has been missing.
Nowadays, however, hearing an entire album of heart-revealing music is becoming just as rare as hearing such a song on the radio.
One of the earliest examples of soul-revealing musical expression in popular music was Nat “King” Cole’s version of “Lush Life.” The song revealed the inner heartache of a man whose blissful hope of love failed him. “Lush Life” resonated with such Hollywood stars as Ava Gardner and Lana Turner because it related so much to their own heartbreak.
Several years later in 1955, Frank Sinatra’s album “In the Wee Small Hours” was released. It was the first “concept” album, a record with a common theme or story that connected all the songs. The album is a melancholy diary of the soul of a man who longed for a love he could never attain.
Like Cole, Sinatra was able to communicate his soul so clearly that the listener could not help but sense his inner turmoil. The writer David Halberstam, according to the Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan book “Sinatra: The Life,” says “Sinatra’s attraction was that he seemed to feel the same pain (as us).”
If the 1950s saw the genesis of such heart-rending fare in popular music, the 1960s broke all the barriers. Albums such as Sam Cooke’s “Night Beat” and James Brown’s “Live at the Apollo” set a new standard in communicating heart and soul to an audience. What was essentially a black innovation became the popular music of the 1960s. Bob Dylan’s blues and protest songs, along with the Beatles mid-60s masterpieces “Eleanor Rigby” and “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” among others, revealed the heart and soul of a generation tired of hypocrisy and conventionalism.
The early 1970s brought to light the uncomfortable, but soul-rending musical torment of John Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band,” as well as the poignant social commentary of Marvin Gaye in his classic album “What’s Going On.”
Then something happened. Whether the disco craze of the late ’70s made radio programmers weary of such honest, confessional music or the artists themselves just got tired of singing them, I don’t know. I do know, aside from a few artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, U2, Nirvana and The Clash, the era of empathetic communication in music was a thing of the past.
Perhaps the fear of exposing the reality of our hearts is the reason such “soul” music receives scant airplay. Have we as a society become so satisfied with superficial living that we are afraid of anything that may remind us of our true condition? Modern popular music is like a drug an addict continually takes to his or her detriment. It postpones, for one more moment, the reality of his life. Thus the existential moment of a song isn’t one of revelatory introspection, but of blissful numbness.
The enduring popularity of the artists I mentioned is testament to the fact that people do enjoy passionate music. Unfortunately, it is no longer qualified as popular by the radio DJs and music video programmers. Too often, one must rely upon word-of-mouth rumors about a new artist because of the timidity of modern radio to play such provocative art. Perhaps the potentially brutal honesty of the lyrics is too much of a risk for a business that thrives more on fanciful delusion than on reality.
Erick Raven is a first-year graduate student in the School of Education from Grand Prairie. His column appears every Friday.