Monday, January 26, 2009

Worst Pop Singer?

My friend JIM FIELDS sent me the link to this article in Slate, posted this past Friday, on Billy Joel. The article, by Ron Rosenbaum, is titled, provocatively—no doubt intentionally so—“The Worst Pop Singer Ever,” and explores the question, “Why Is Billy Joel So Bad?” I urge anyone even mildly interested in popular music to read the article, whether you like Billy Joel or, like Rosenbaum, happen to think he is “the worst pop singer ever.” Actually, you should read it even if you don't care one way or the other. The article is worth reading because Rosenbaum, whether he consciously realizes it or not, is dancing around the foundational principle at the basis of all of rock criticism, the perception that determines all final determinations of value (and negotiations of value) of a particular expression of music—whether something is “good” or “bad”—and that is authenticity, those artistic creations that are perceived by listeners as especially “genuine” and “real.” To be “genuine” and/or “real” is to manipulate successfully the various codified gestures of passion in our culture: beads of sweat on the forehead, singing with your eyes closed, the proper (or tasteful) use of melisma, and so on, all without ever committing the unpardonable sin of hyper-emoting which, as Rosenbaum's analysis shows, has the unhappy effect of evoking both pity and scorn from listeners. Having read his article, I wonder whether he is on to something, namely that Billy Joel, as a white singer, is filled with self-loathing (the guilt caused by an awareness that one is both inauthentic and privileged) but also an insatiable desire for fame (the desire for power that comes with privilege).

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