Sunday, June 28, 2015

Yeezy's New Clothes

So a funny thing happened on the way to Glastonbury this fine weekend:

It would be a little too fish-in-a-barrel to simply pronounce Kanye West as a talentless twat who needs to stop trying to punch above his meager weight. He has no business being at Glastonbury, any more than he had being at Bonnaroo. And he sure as hell has no business trying to perform Bohemian Rhapsody, a difficult song even for people who can actually sing.

(And I'll even give him credit for the sample from 21st Century Schizoid Man in his song Power. There is no upside for him to do that for money or popularity; I'd wager my salary for the next five years that very few of West's fans have even heard of King Crimson. I think he did it because he thought it was cool. I can respect that, whether or not I like the song.)

But this....Jesus Christ, is he completely deaf? Bad enough that he's simply swaying on an empty stage to a recording of the song, bathed in lights, letting the audience do most of the work. But when he does finally start vocalizing, it's the sort of karaoke croaking you generally hear from random drunks at the airport lounge, despondently hoping some wayward stewardess or bored milf will spot them and impulsively blow them right after their master performance.

I have to wonder what West's fans and followers think about this, no doubt they'll have their excuses and demurrals. He's a genius because he attempted to perform an iconic rock song in front of a couple hundred thousand people, without apparently learning or rehearsing it at all beforehand. Something like that. If anything, it should make them wonder the obvious -- if this is really what he sounds like "live", then just how much sugarcoating and backing tracks are they paying for when they see him?

It's a truism these days that since music is for the most part free, musicians have to perform and sell swag to cover their nut. This applies less to established people (I hesitate to refer to him as an "artist") like West, but it still applies to some degree. He's not some indie group cobbling together their demo with Pro Tools on the drummer's laptop; he probably dumps money into his magna opera, from licensing samples to paying producers to hobbit wax.

Going to a concert as a fan, especially a large stadium or festival, is obviously about more than just the music, it's about the event. But there has historically been at least the implicit agreement that there would be some spontaneity to the music, that you would get something special in return for paying through the nose for tickets and swag and refreshments, and battling traffic and a gigantic mob for a glimpse at your musical wampeter.

But for musicians to provide that truly live experience, they actually have to be able to do something musical, to sing or play an instrument with at least some competence, to improvise, to be spontaneous.

[Side note:  That last link is a terrific example of what I'm talking about, in a good way. I first heard Suit Fugue at least fifteen years ago, have listened to it countless times since, and it still makes the hair on my neck rise. In barely two minutes of running time, Kevin Gilbert took Bach's canon principles of composition and counterpoint, and used them to accurately eviscerate the shithead music industry. It's an outstanding piece of music, and qualitatively superior by itself to West's entire catalog put together. If you've got an hour to spare, check out Gilbert's live performance of Genesis' Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It's fucking amazing, and captures the magic of what live music used to be about, those fleeting moments that will never happen quite the same way again, but happen anyway because of work, skill, and genuine passion. It's a refreshing contrast to today's canned, pre-recorded, choreographed pseudo-performances, each the same as the last and the next.]

One of the worst things about West is his utter dependence on AutoTune. Here is an instance where you quickly find yourself wishing he'd used it.

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