In 1976 British music writer Tony Palmer presented an ambitious 16-part series that strove to trace the history of popular music. Episodes focused on genres, eras and artists, with the final edition seeing Palmer — aided by a cynical Lester Bangs and an optimistic Richard Branson — bravely predicting popular music’s future. The star of that forward-looking episode was one Michael “Tubular Bells” Oldfield, contributors like Branson reasoning that the future of recorded music surely lay in ever more sophisticated, ever more structured, ever more multi-layered grand symphonic productions. A 64-track studio, the reasoning went, naturally called for 64 tracks’ worth of sound. Alas, by the time the series’ final episode aired in the UK, The Sex Pistols and The Damned had properly spearheaded a minimalist musical revolution that made Palmer’s painstakingly-constructed series look… a tad out of touch.
All of which goes to show the fruitless endeavor that is predicting the future of music. Or film. Or just about anything other than the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. Yet, as a new year beckons, predict we must. I could play it safe, by predicting for example that Keith Richards will at some point compare the Stones’ latest recordings to Exile on Main Street. Or a Christmas 2013 single from Chavril. Or the return of jump-up calypso to the charts. But I’d rather go out on a limb.
Such as predicting that in 2013 Rolling Stone will, in a historic move, name auto-tune as its artist of the year.
Auto-tune has taken a beating from music critics since its arrival. And from an artistic level, I concur. However, condemning a vocal style, however artificial, strikes me as at best unfair and at worst curmudgeon-like. Pop music survived the ’90s, when too many female singers resorted to Whitney/Mariah/Celine-inspired histrionics, and every other male vocalist aped the full-throated false emotion of Eddie Vedder. As, indeed, it had survived faddish vocal styles from Rudy Valle’s megaphone to Frankie Valli’s falsetto. Surely, auto-tune is merely the latest development in vocal techniques, not unlike Alvin and the Chipmunks’ or Geddy Lee’s ridiculously high-pitched novelty singing style. Would I like to hear the human voice as nature intended? Yes, but then I’d also like to see western return to country music, Bunny Wailer return to roots reggae music and Barrymore’s return to live music.
It’s not going to happen.
So let’s give auto-tune its due. Time magazine made headlines (in Time magazine, for one) in 1982 when it named the computer its person of the year. Time, I think, to give auto-tune the same distinction. Lord knows, it has worked tirelessly for the honour.
Other predictions? Well, if auto-tune is to drive the vocal world, let’s consider its instrumental accompaniment. Here’s hoping the ubiquitous ukulele has worn out its welcome, as did the cello and the musical saw before it. Nothing wrong with any of the above, necessarily, but for the love of god, people, please do not try this at home. Besides, we’re overdue for a revival of interest in equally-novel instruments of mass embellishment. Guitar groups? It’s been done. What about the ocarina, last heard in pop music on The Troggs’ primal Wild Thing? Or the stylophone, the curious keyboard known to have been used on Space Oddity? Better still, the chainsaw! Yes, the instrument that made Jackyl famous. Remember Jackyl, kids? Sure you do: they were the group with the chainsaw-player. Wasn’t that cool? It can be again, in the right hands. (And, again, if your hands are not right to wield a chainsaw in the name of rock and roll please do not try this at home.)
Right, that’s vocals and instrumentation covered. Beyond that, we need only consider which anniversaries are most deserving of the sort of hype that made 2012 the year of The Rolling Stones, or The Beach Boys, or to a lesser extent The Beatles. Each celebrated a 50th anniversary this year, with the Stones marking the occasion by getting the group together again and The Beach Boys countering by splitting the group apart again. The Beatles, meanwhile, whose first release came 50 years ago, were reborn as Nirvana. Or something.
But the press love an anniversary. And so it is to anniversaries that we should truly look for direction — forward into the past. Next year will, for instance, mark the 100th anniversary of the premiere of The Rite of Spring, the Stravinsky/Nijinsky ballet whose Paris premiere caused rioting in the streets and, at least according to this scribe, essentially gave birth to the punk movement. It’s also the 30th anniversary of Canada’s adoption of the metric system (or, in metric years, the 104th anniversary), the 20th anniversary of Kim Campbell’s arrival (and departure) as Canada’s first female prime minister and the 50th anniversary of the first TV version of The Littlest Hobo. All will be commemorated with the help of the Department of Canadian Heritage. Or not. It’ll also be the FLQ’s 50th anniversary. Perhaps Pauline Marois has something in the works for the occasion. (Likely without the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage.)
And let’s not forget the 200th anniversary of the War of 1813.
Or, hey, as luck would have it 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Tubular Bells, the debut album by one Michael Oldfield. No better time for the multi-instrumentalist to make a comeback, me thinks. And thanks to auto-tune, he wouldn’t even have to rely on guest-vocalists this time around.
Over to you, Mike. The future starts now.