We're not saying all music is a cynical, focus group cash grab. It's just that once a genre shows itself to be profitable, well, it's inevitable that the suits will come swooping in asking, "How can we use proactive synergies to maximize return on content investment?"
This is why by the time a genre becomes popular enough for you to actually hear it, yeah, it's probably already at the cash-grab stage. And no matter how cynical you are, it's still pretty surprising how cold and efficient this supposedly wild and rebellious industry is behind the scenes. For example ...
5A Lot Of Punk Was As Contrived As Corporate Pop Music
We've told you before that the Sex Pistols were as carefully manufactured to be outrageous as the Spice Girls were to be sassy. But, who even cares about the Sex Pistols when you have The Clash? They took the Pistols' empty anarchism and replaced it with some legendarily ass-kicking and politically charged tracks. And it was all because some guy got them to stop writing dopey love songs and join the punk music gravy train.
The Clash had a controlling manager named Bernie Rhodes, which is about as much of an unpunk name as someone can have short of Sir Benedictine Fropmanshire III. Rhodes was friends with the Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren and learned a valuable lesson from him about faking rebellion until you make it commercially. So, he put together a band and ordered them to write about the plight of the working class. He was already managing guitarist Mick Jones, who, at the time, looked like someone who would sell you oolong tea and then try to share his poetry about feelings:
"Forget London, the only thing burning around here is my love for you."
Then he found bassist Paul Simonon, who wasn't even a musician. Simonon had tried out for the job of vocalist, only to have Rhodes slap a bass guitar in his hands, and he was so out of his depth that they had to put stickers on the guitar to help him find the notes.
"Shit, is it 'happy face bear' for A-sharp and 'great job Sun' for D-flat or the other way around?"
Finally, Rhodes found singer Joe Strummer, who was going by the name "Woody" Mellor. John Graham "Joe 'Woody' Strummer" Mellor was the front man of a hippie-ish pub rock band, The 101'ers, which featured a saxophone, a harmonica, a fiddle, a big pile of songs about heartbreak and partying, and a look that was less proto-punk icon and more "What do you mean I'm cut off? I'll cut you off. Aw, wait, I don't mean that. Gimmie a hug."
Julian Leonard Yewdall
If not for his insistence on keeping all of his teeth, he could've been the next Shane MacGowan.
Bernie had the boys cut ties with their past, made them cut and spike their hair, and replaced their frilly blouses with ripped up and safety pin adorned T-shirts. Bernie also provided them with reading lists ranging from philosophy to modern art to fire up their imaginations, because nothing says punk like homework.
So, where Strummer was writing rockabilly love ballads such as "Keys To Your Heart" and "Letsgetabitrockin," and Jones was putting out equally hard-hitting political diatribes such as "1-2 Crush On You" and "I'm So Bored With You," Rhodes had the newly formed Clash rework that last one into the anti-American "I'm So Bored With the USA" and then insisted the ideas were coming from the youngsters and not their old-man manager. For all its grandstanding, punk was constructed and marketed just like pop music, with each "shocking" stunt and song intended to cause outrage. This is why you could go to London and pay to have your picture taken with some of those crazy punk kids.
4Motown Built Their Artists On An Assembly Line
Long before Detroit made Robocop's portrayal of the city look surprisingly optimistic, it was one of America's most important music hubs. That influence was earned almost single-handedly by Berry Gordy, the founder and driving force behind Motown Records (you'll see momentarily why "driving force" is a hilarious pun).
Motown was such a pop music powerhouse in the '60s and '70s that "Motown Sound" became its own genre. Gordy and his team launched the careers of Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and many more. But, the process that birthed one of the most fruitful periods in American music was inspired by the cold and mechanical Ford assembly line (boom, payoff!).
Wayne State University
You know you've got your shit down to a science when you have
the balls to name your estate this and are right.
Before Gordy made the casual decision to change music forever, he worked for Ford, alongside every man, woman, child, and unusually intelligent dog in Michigan. The assembly line gave him an epiphany -- why couldn't a similar division of labor be applied to music, if you ignore the fact that music is a deeply personal art form and not an assembly of standardized parts? So, he began collecting songwriters, producers, session musicians, and sound engineers, like a musical Pokemon Master. The songwriters churned out the hits and then passed them to performers who often learned the new tunes right before entering the studio.
Motown was also the only label to have an in-house finishing school. Everything about Motown's performers -- from their dance moves and on-stage personas right down to their facial expressions -- was meticulously perfected to maximize its appeal. They even had an etiquette coach, who presumably taught them how to sip tea without slurping so concertgoers would be impressed by their high-brow upbringing.
"How can you expect to be taken seriously as an artist with nails this chipped and unshiny?"
Motown's meddling was responsible for inventing some of America's most beloved musicians out of thin air. Marvin Gaye was a drummer with zero interest in R&B -- he wanted to sing jazz standards, which haven't gotten anyone laid since the '20s. Gordy directed him toward R&B, which turned Gaye into a hit-making sex symbol. And then his songs were altered to fit Gaye's Motown designated persona: "Let's Get It On," every hack screenwriter's go-to "the characters start boning" song, was originally about recovering from alcohol abuse. It was changed into the panty dropper we all know and wish we could make love to like Gaye did because he made the song sound sexy, and no one wanted to buy a song about sexy substance abuse unless it was by The Velvet Underground.
The song's "wah, wah, wah" opening was originally just crying.
Gordy also avoided political songs because that made people write racist letters to the editor instead of giving him their money. At best, he would give the heavy stuff to lesser-known artists -- that's why "War," the Vietnam protest song about what war is good for (spoiler alert: it's absolutely nothing), was first recorded by The Temptations before being handed off to the lesser known Edwin Starr. He turned it into a number one single, but can you name a second Edwin Starr song? Probably not, and that's because Berry Gordy was the coldly calculating Ozymandias of music.