Commentary: Is Any Pop Music Eternal?

[26 March 2013]

By Rich Heldenfels

Akron Beacon Journal (MCT)

In “Phil Spector,” a new HBO movie about the music producer and convicted killer, one of Spector’s attorneys takes out a yellow spindle adapter, the gizmo that lets a 45-rpm record play on an LP turntable. She explains it to a young man on the staff, then takes out a 45 and asks the man to tell her what it is.

Something to do with early computers? he wonders. The attorney hands him the record, saying, “Put it on your keychain. It’s a piece of the past.”

And a past, the movie suggests there and elsewhere, that has faded from collective memory. Records were succeeded by tapes and CDs and now iPods and other mp3 players. What is an indelible touchstone for one age is of no consequence for others.

But isn’t the music — Spector’s and others’ — somehow still timeless? The movie, which premieres at 9 p.m. EDT Sunday with Al Pacino as Spector and Helen Mirren as the attorney, is dotted with bits of vintage Spector songs. And the hearing of “Be My Baby” or “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” should be appreciated even by people born during the many decades since the songs’ original release.

Only to some, especially the young, the songs may not even be recognizable.

That was a recurring message during Wednesday night’s installment of “American Idol,” where the theme was songs of the Beatles (more specifically, Beatles songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney). While many in the audience nodded as vintage songs were played, again and again we heard how the youthful performers did not know the songs they were performing.

You might accept that about, say, “She’s Leaving Home,” the melancholy tune from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which singer Amber Holcomb did not know; even “Idol” judge Mariah Carey said, “I personally did not know the song.” And contestant Candice Glover’s puzzlement over the lyrics of “Come Together” is understandable. Toe-jam football, indeed.

But far more people must have shaken their heads when contestant Burnell Taylor said, “I don’t know this song at all” — about “Let It Be.”

“Idol” contestant mentor Jimmy Iovine said, “The rest of the world really knows the song.” Judge Keith Urban not only knew every song performed, but he also had to stop himself from declaring each song his favorite.

Only Iovine turns 60 in May — old enough to remember the Beatles phenomenon when it was fresh, and spindle adapters. While Urban, 45, was born a few months after “Sgt. Pepper’s” was released, he is steeped in popular music across generations, repeatedly shown singing along with performers.

Taylor is a few weeks shy of 20. Holcomb is 19. Even as they aspire to pop stardom, and should be aware of a variety of music, their cultural frame is relatively small. Popular music, and the media that carry it, have focused ever more narrowly. Satellite radio is remarkable in its separating not only by genre but subgenre. (Alternative, for example, is on separate “new,” “classic” and grunge channels.) Much the way someone who does not listen to classical music couldn’t tell Beethoven from Bach, a current pop fan may never hear a Lennon-McCartney classic.

That’s not to say the singers can’t master the songs. Holcomb’s “She’s Leaving Home” was quite good, and Glover (who is 24) tore through “Come Together.” At the same time, though, “Idol” showed the gap between the songs it thinks its audience knows, and those its contestants are aware of.

As for Phil Spector, even though he worked with the Beatles, would young people know even that he’s a jailbird — let alone the man behind songs that should play forever?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/wire/169798-commentary-is-any-pop-music-eternal/