By Gabriel Assouline
“Americans have decided to be stupid and shallow since 1980. Madonna is like Nero; she marks the turning point.” – Joni Mitchell
In today’s world, pop star status equates “crossing over” and selling out. What “sells” and what is played on the radio, in commercials and in movies today is what follows a specific formula for success. While the taste and smell and sound of the ingredients change with time, the formula, or recipe, stays the same. It usually falls within 4 different categories: The female pop star – Taylor swift, Beyonce, Lady gaga, Britney, Christina, Rihanna, Katy Perry, the Queen Madonna and on and on; The Male R&B star – Justin, Usher, Bruno Mars, Chris Brown, Drake…The Rock band – Coldplay, U2, Bon Jovi, Nickelback, Imagine Dragons etc… The Dance anthem – I’m too sexy, I’m sexy and I know it, Avicii (any track), David Guetta (any track).
There are those that say pop music today sucks & for good reason, but we must all acknowledge the benefits of a catchy, glossy radio tune. Everyone needs a happy song to sing in the shower or on their way home from work. These pop songs may disappear soon after they made their way into our psyche, but they do provide us with true moments of joy. And so right before they expire and become so uncool and objects of collective hatred, they deserve a heartfelt thank you.
“Your sons and daughters are beyond your command…The times they are a-changin” -Bob Dylan
Before Americans (and the rest of the West) became shallow & stupid as Joni Mitchell declared, pop music was something quite different. The 1950s saw the birth of pop music, coinciding with the advent of youth culture post WW2, where young people became the focus of what was cool rather than being told to behave. And so with young people leading the way, we saw the rise of Doo wop, Rockabilly, Rock & Roll, the British invasion, Classic Rock, Disco, Hip-Hop & Electronic music . A byproduct of youth pop culture, the musician as a star and icon, came to be starting with Elvis & Jerry Lee Lewis and culminating with the Beatles.
The music that resonated with kids at that time had a rebelliousness and an edge to it rarely seen by white audiences (but on full display by black artists since the advent of Jazz). And while many clones and record company puppets tried to create a formula, the real stars of the 60s and 70s were true artists with a distinct sound, identity and mission. They perfectly fused the universes of cool and artistry. In other words pop music then was solid, groundbreaking music that constantly evolved and reinvented itself while remaining accessible and radio friendly. Cool was a byproduct of the music and not vice versa.
It all changed in the 80s of course (Michael Jackson being in my opinion that last true pop star) and today as mentioned in the opening paragraph, pop music has become formulaic (the good ones tragically die young: Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and yes Tupac) and generic to the point where most people resort to “crate digging” and listening to oldies.
The modern pop “star” formula today, the mix of social media savvy, riding the coattails of other stars, a lot of selfies, cars, sex and provocation and some talent has rendered pop MUSIC dead.
A saviour may however be upon us & his name is Paolo Nutini.
You haven’t heard of him? Good, that means he hasn’t sold out. yet.
Paolo Nutini is a 27 year old Scottish singer/songwriter of Italian descent. He released his first album, These Streets, in 2006 – at the age of 18 – and his second album, Sunny Side Up, in 2009. Now after selling more than 3,000,000 albums, Paolo Nutini is getting ready to release his third album entitled Caustic Love.
Paolo Nutini not only follows the tradition of 50s and 60s pop stars by creating catchy music of high quality, he also sometimes sounds like he time travelled from the 60s. His music is heavily influenced by the jazz, big band and Scat he listened to growing up and his voice gives the impression that one is listening to an old soul that’s smoked for 30 years and endured 5 lifetimes of love and pain. His lyrics are wise and clever and betray a subtle edginess and grit.
Paolo Nutini is the type of artist that would have found success in any decade. His talents, soul and brand of music are timeless. That’s saying a lot in a generation of one hit auto-tune wonders. Where others fit in, he stands out. Where others try hard to be different to stand out, he stands out while with his natural abilities. His music is both familiar and new, his lyrics at once common and unique. Paolo Nutini proves that there is always room for good pop music and innovation within pop music without trying too hard. Indeed he makes it look so easy.
An avid fan of his music since his first album came out, I’ve made Paolo Nutini fans of many people I’ve come across. With every album he’s released, he’s made me look like a visionary, his music displaying growth and diversity incorporating swing, jazz, bluegrass, reggae and R&B influences.
Now on the eve of the release of his third album on April 18, he has released a new single: Scream (funk my life up). True to form, it’s different from his earlier material, but better. It’s been 5 years since he last released an album and the second that song comes on you know he hasn’t lost a step.
Paolo Nutini keeps his music fun but serious while not taking himself seriously. A star for his music not his larger than life ego or looks or who he’s dating, Paolo Nutini holds the torch passed on by greats like Buddy Holly, Cab Calloway & Van Morrison to name a few. He is on the cusp of breaking out in America and he will do so on his own terms.
While I patiently wait for the new album to come out, I have taken the liberty to remix an acoustic cover Paolo Nutini recorded of Arcade Fire’s Wake Up.Enjoy: