It seems like these days everyone is in a rush to be taken seriously as an artist. You can hardly bat an eye before the next pop star is making his or her "serious artistic leap." Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and Kesha have all done this in their own way in the past few years, but one particular example stands out to me.
Lana Del Rey has never been your average pop star. Her rise to fame and the subsequent backlash have led her on a strange roller-coaster ride. Either way, she's at the peak of her popularity now, and definitely a mainstream artist. While she's never made "fun" music per se, Del Rey has decided with her latest, Ultraviolence, that she wants to be taken seriously as an artist.
Unfortunately, apparently that means making boring music. It also forces us to ask ourselves: Does being serious as an artist really mean being boring?
Of course, the truth is that it doesn't necessarily. The only reason it seems this way is that apparently our pop stars are exceptionally bad at making the leap to artistry these days. It wasn't always like this, though, and they maybe could learn something from taking a look at the past.
Where Ultraviolence is bogged down by numerous mid-tempo slogs punctuated only by the occasional interesting riff or vocal delivery, our earlier great pop stars knew when to inject a sense of urgency, intrigue or even whimsy into their pop artistry.
Phil Collins may be loathed by many, but his solo career is beloved by so many pop stars today and his influence over the past decade has only grown. One need only look at his album But Seriously... to see some of the blueprint for being serious without being boring.
That album wasn't perfect, by any means, and nowhere near as good as his preceding three records, but it allowed Collins to delve into serious subject matter and more serious musical territory while also retaining the sense of slick, fun pop he had traded in throughout the '80s.
Collins's erstwhile Genesis bandmate Peter Gabriel did much the same on his own records. So is definitively a pop record, but deals in serious tones quite frequently without ever stopping the entertainment.
Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna, the holy triumvirate of '80s pop stars, all at some point or another decided to be artists first and foremost. Sign o' the Times may be the greatest example ever of how to make a "serious" pop record.
Even though Jackson's critical acclaim started to wane when he got serious in the '90s, it didn't diminish the music's quality at all in retrospect. HIStory is as strong as any record Jackson ever made that isn't Thriller. As for Madonna, her early work and later dance material may be her best-received, but I know I'm not alone in feeling that "Take a Bow" may be the best song she ever recorded.
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Where Del Rey and so many others seem to trip up in writing serious, artistic material is that they spend too much time fussing over how serious and artistic they are and lose all sense of fun and wonder in their music. They forget that pop music, even serious pop music, is ultimately a "for fun" genre.
Rock musicians do it, too, though. All it takes is for an aging punk to decide he needs to make grown-up music, and suddenly you start hearing boring, asinine folk songs in the name of securing artistic credibility.
Eddie Vedder's ukulele fetish may be the most egregious example of this. Pearl Jam can still kick out the jams, but my God, I'd be happy if I never had to hear Vedder warbling with his uke or even an acoustic guitar again.
The instrumentation isn't the problem. It just clearly lacks the passion that went into a song like "Once" or even "Immortality," a similarly down-tempo number.
Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence ultimately has the same problem. In attempting a leap to artistic credibility, she stumbles over her lack of passion or intrigue for the material. The laconic deliveries and the lackluster instrumentation all reveal a distinct lack of interest. This is boring music for boring people made by a bored person.
Being serious doesn't have to mean being boring, it's just the unfortunate result of people trying to make a certain kind of music instead of making the music they truly feel. Eddie Vedder is a rocker, and Lana Del Rey is a pop star. They should make whatever the hell kind of music they want to, but they should also make music that pleases them. That is ultimately what will please an audience.
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