steven ivory

Steven Ivory

*I’m convinced: losing two Temptations and a Miracle within a two week period is a sign from God.

What else could the days-apart passing of former Temptations  Damon Harris and Richard Street, and Bobby Rogers, a founding member of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles–three members of two of the most influential Motown vocal groups of all time—mean?  That’s no coincidence. That’s downright  Biblical.

It’s God saying He’s just about had   enough of our madness—our dysfunction, our lies and selfishness, our  disrespect for self, the planet and one another.  He’s had enough of the wars and fake reality and our shamelessness about it all.

But before He pulls the plug on the mess we’ve made, the world must first endure a period of great and fervid  tribulation, the soundtrack for which is going to be really bad (as in awful) black music.

Figures.  If popular music is but a reflection of society, then we are a culture of the unimaginative, the unadventurous and the unqualified.

Thus,  you can thank our  abysmal collective karma for the sonic  retribution known as “Harlem Shake.”  Debuting  at number one on the Billboard singles chart–the first track  to do so after going viral on YouTube—the  vapidity of this “song” makes “Gangham Style” sound like Duke Ellington.  Well, no, it doesn’t.  But see, that’s the kind of exaggeration we’re now paying for.

The track was produced by 24 year-old DJ Harrison Rodrigues, who spins, produces and remixes under the professional moniker, Baauer. Rodrigues isn’t black, but his annoying amalgamation is rooted in hip hop beats and Electro and House sounds.  It’s more trend than song. There’s more soul in downloading pictures of cats.

If  “Harlem Shake”  were food, it would be the   most synthetic thing you could possibly digest without  keeling over; if it were a car, it would be a Yugo.  If it were clothes, it would be menswear by Thom Browne, the designer who did a fabulous job dressing First Lady Michelle Obama for the second inauguration, but whose  kooky threads  for men are right out of a Tim Burton movie—surreal stuff normal people SAY is cool, but wouldn’t be caught dead in.

That’s the scary part about much of  black pop today:  It’s almost all style and no substance, yet  those who embrace  it think they’re really into something.

My contemptuous attitude  doesn’t emanate  from some  staid, old-fashioned guy hunkered down in the generational divide.  It’s just that I cut my teeth on the impassioned ingenuity and trailblazing genius of  such groundbreaking artists as Curtis Mayfield (“Superfly”), Marvin Gaye (“What’s Going On”) and Stevie Wonder (“Innervisions”). Age doesn’t  hinder me from digging something musically fresh and exciting.

However, age, the aforementioned artists and others like them HAVE taught me the difference.  It’s hard to pretend  the Emperor is dressed to kill, when in fact he is  butt naked.

Where are today’s innovative artists?  Where is the act with one foot in the music of the legends and the other planted firmly inside their own new vision?

Frankly,  I didn’t see that artist performing on the recent Grammys telecast. Have  Mayfield, Gaye, Wonder, Aretha Franklin,  Donny Hathaway, Sly Stone and a handful others left any trails unpaved?  I’m just asking.

As creative entities—as singers, performers, songwriters, musicians and producers—many of the “youngsters” leave a lot to be desired.   “Early Settlers” is   what  Maurice White, founder and producer of Earth, Wind & Fire, used to call those who, after  coming  upon an interesting musical idea,   were quick to call it  a song, rather than dig in, do the work  and develop it into something special.

I listen to today’s music and I’m often left wondering: How’d this person get a record deal? Where is the craftsmanship? The musicianship?  Where is the @#$%%&! melody? Narcissism, brazen and  misshapen, will never take the place of  true talent.

I know there are some wonderfully inventive young artists working today. Names   known and not so well known, who draw upon the inspiration of those who have gone before them while forging a legacy of their own.

I’m counting on one of them, or somebody yet to be discovered, to come forward and deliver me from this sufferance. Please. The mere thought of  an enduring Kanye West sounds like pure hell.

Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love  (Simon & Schuster),  has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]