5 Origin Stories Of Famous Music That Are Shockingly Creepy
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 ...
A 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:
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.
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."
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.
Motown 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!).
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.
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.
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.
Pop Music Was Weirdly Segregated Until Recently
On the scale of entertainment industries still struggling with racial bias, the music industry is actually looking pretty good. It's certainly come a long way -- just look back to when race was used to officially categorize and segregate artists in the '40s. And, uh, the '80s. And also the '90s. OK, it still happens all the time.
Depending on your level of funkiness, you might know R&B primarily as the radio station you always skip over on your way to NPR's Viola Power Hour, so we'll give our honkier readers a crash course. Today, it's generally considered upbeat and easy to dance to, but, in the '40s, music only needed one thing to be considered R&B -- the artist had to be black. Oh, and it was called race records. And you didn't use it to inspire marathon runners.
Race records was a catch-all referring to literally anything written and performed by a black person. But, to be fair, it was only the official term used by the Billboard Music Charts (being fair in this case means being accurate about how laughably racist it was). Then, in 1949, a Billboard employee realized that saying "race records" was kind of dickish and convinced everyone to call it R&B instead. It was still just code for black people music but, you know, baby steps.
Tragically, this was one dumb baby (the baby in this analogy is the American music industry's consistently terrible attitude toward race). Before MTV devolved into Pregnant Teen & Catfish-o-vision, they played actual music videos. And in the '80s, they didn't play videos by black artists, even the ones by some guy named Michael Jordan or Jackson or whatever. MTV claimed it was because they only played rock, but they also played white artists such as Boy George and Eurythmics, and not even the most out-of-touch grandma would consider "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" a rock anthem. The President of CBS had to issue an ultimatum: Either MTV broke their color barrier, or they would lose all of CBS' music videos and also have their skateboarding privileges taken away. That Jackson guy's career kind of took off after that.
He never forgot, though.
MTV, bolding refusing to learn their lesson, refused to play rap videos just a few years later. They were convinced rap would alienate their suburban white viewers, because white teenagers just can't get into songs that are about feeling alienated by society or getting rich and laid. But, MTV eventually relented, and rap helped the network briefly stave off their slide into complete irrelevance.
The Most Popular Bands Of The British Invasion Are Not Who You Think
In 1964, a disease known as Beatlemania infected millions of American teenagers. Whimsy and bad haircuts were rampant, and the British were effectively invading America for the first time since they burned down the White House. This invasion was also brief, but it radically changed the direction of pop music as legendary bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and The Who dominated the American charts.
Except, aside from The Beatles, those iconic British bands caught on in America about as well as tea time and association football. The real hitmakers were bands such as The Hollies, Herman's Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, and the universally-beloved-by-unhip-parents Gerry And The Pacemakers. The Dave Clark Five, despite fading into obscurity the moment the clock struck 1970 like a band of Cinderellas, were the first British Invasion band to tour America and had a staggering seven top 20 singles before The Who or The Kinks scored one. Also, they look like they were cloned in the "Non-Threatening Boy Band" Lab.
So, while "Beatles or Stones?" is now a debate held in jukebox-owning, middle-age patron targeting dive bars across the land, it was The Dave Clark Five who were the serious rivals to the Fab Four. The Stones were busy playing blues covers and struggling to get a hit on either side of the Atlantic until their manager changed their image from proper posh Londoners to British bad boys. The Kinks had a couple hits, but were then denied permission to tour in America and vanished into obscurity until the '70s. And The Who, whose "My Generation" is used to establish "Hey, this is the '60s" in countless movies, saw their iconic rock anthem peak at #74 on the charts.
It kind of makes you wonder who, 30 years from now, we'll all claim we were listening to back in the 2010s, or if any movies set in this era will have Katy Perry songs in the soundtrack. Oh, speaking of which ...
Every Modern Pop Song Is Written By A Tiny Group Of Obscure People
Artists such as Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber probably don't get enough credit for what they do. We mean, sure, they have millions of fans who would commit mass ritual suicide if instructed to by their idol, but outside of the fandom, most people think of pop stars as figureheads delivering a manufactured product. In reality, these artists are involved with the songwriting process -- just check their album credits.
But, they do have help from a few co-writers. And we mean, it's the same few for virtually every successful pop artist out there.
Tor Hermansen, Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald, Mikkel Eriksen ... you've probably never heard of these men, and if we hadn't just told you that they're men, you might have guessed that they're Ikea floor lamps. But, they've written songs for Rihanna, Selena Gomez, Flo Rida, The Weeknd, NSYNC, Wiz Khalifa, Jessie J, Nicki Minaj, and so many, many more. Along with a few of their frequent collaborators, they've written almost every hit pop song of the past 20 years.
And then there's Karl Martin Sandberg, known in the biz as Max Martin. Sandberg left a gig in Saturday Night Live's house band to become a songwriter, and he's since had 54 songs crack the Billboard top 10 (and 21 reach #1), which is 20 more than some little band called the goddamn Beatles. He and his colleagues are secretly controlling both the creative direction of pop music and Europe's diabolical plan to lure us into a false sense of security with their silly names.
Ester Dean also deserves mention, as in just a few years, she went from Oklahoma nursing assistant with zero industry connections to one of the most in-demand pop songwriters. She's written hits for Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and more, because it turns out that you can have a pretty lucrative career if you're willing to let other people take the fame, fortune, and inevitable self-destructive scandals that your hard work produces.
As for the whole co-writing thing, there's an industry expression -- "Change a word, get a third." In other words, if Taylor Swift ducks her head into the studio and says, "'suck it out' doesn't sound quite right, let's try 'shake it off'," before returning to her intensive meeting with her twee consultant, she gets a writing credit. Singers are given permission to make negligible alterations to finished songs in exchange for artistic credibility.
That may have shocked you into tearing down your T-Swift posters, but when you think about it, the idea that pop megastars would have time to write an album is ridiculous. Superstar is a demanding job full of lengthy world tours, constant interviews, award shows, secret Illuminati blood rituals, and other miscellaneous appearances. There's no way Swift's handlers are going to let her hunker down in a Big Sur cabin for three months with nothing but a guitar and her thoughts.
So, if you've ever thought that all modern pop music sounds alike, only to have someone younger tell you that you're just old and out of touch, rest assured that you were right. Pop music does sounds the same, because it's all made by the same people following a very specific and very successful formula. Although, you are also getting older and out of touch. Sorry.
Patrick Coyne has written other things on his blog, Florida Cousins.
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For more depressing truths about the music industry, check out 5 Unknown People Who Secretly Made All Your Favorite Music and The 6 Most Hilarious Failures In Music Censorship History.
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