Originally published in the Hindu Metroplus in November 2011.
Instead of asking you to remember the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’ or Nirvana’s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’, a modified question is: can you forget them? Certainly not, given the classic or cult status that songs have attained ever since the inception of popular music.
Pink Floyd had ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, ‘Comfortably Numb’ and even ‘Wish You Were Here’, but the front pages of cultural history only acknowledges these. Considered real gems by fans who grew up on the band’s music, tracks like ‘Mudmen’, ‘The Gunner’s Dream’ and ‘Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast’ are those quickly skipped over or ignored by the later generations, who mix their Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and T-Pain all into the same bunch of music.
Every potential fan has heard the classics – Jimi Hendrix, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Marley and countless other overused and overplayed artists. But it seems more likely today than before that classics have become a set playlist of songs that are played by the resident band/DJ at a party, club or concert.
Then, there are loads of newer, younger artists who are inspired by these songs and artists; inspired by the way they could top charts and become immortalised in music history ‘just for a couple of songs’. These artists aim for a formula – one they think exists – and fail to realise that even the greatest of artists were not just one-hit wonders. It was only after sizeable amount of songwriting ,recording and releasing that history decided to judge them as ‘legends’, and only a few select songs as ‘classics’.
Mihir Joshi, vocalist with The Works and Bombay Rock Project, disagree with this notion I put forth to him. “It’s about forming a connection,” he says. “There’s something about those ‘classics’ at the point of time when they got released that instantly connected with the hearts of an entire generation. That kind of a connection is not a formula.” With both bands, Joshi is a complete fan of the big music legends. But when asked which artists create music that is ‘classic’, he opts for the Beatles and John Mayer. A choice he supports by pointing out “In a world of singles, he (John Mayer) is a man who makes you want to hear an album; just like The Beatles did way back in the day!”
The other argument about classics is that it is all completely relative, thanks to the vast catalogues of music available for listening. There were others who went about relating to genres such as post-punk and hardcore instead of the select playlists of classics that were mass-consumed by the general public.
Kishore Krishna, the brains behind ‘romance pop-rock’ band Adam and the Fish-eyed Poets, is a relevant voice in this respect. “I tend to gravitate towards artists that have a touch of class and sense of intelligence about them,” he says. For him, acts such as The Smiths, Nick cave and the Bad Seeds, Tom Waits , and “old school soul/R&B acts like Sam Cooke ,Jackie Wilson or Otis Redding” are classics. “I can’t help but appreciate how well crafted and beautifully detailed the songs were and the passion and earnestness (conviction and clarity) with which they sang,” he justifies.
Newer to the indie scene, solo songwriter Shubham Mamgain says that although his musical tastes have been evolving continuously, he points to indie rock foreshadowers Sonic Youth and neo-psychedelic act Animal Collective as being the most “memorable acts”.
Terms like ‘mass-consumed’ can also hint at the involvement of the record label industry, which forms another aspect when dissecting the Classics debate. However, all three disagree with this position. “Sure they can really push a song and promote it all over the place but that cannot ensure that it will be a classic,” Joshi says. Reinforcing his point about capturing the heart of an entire generation, he adds that it has more to do with “a primal thing that just reaches out and gets you”. “That can happen even when someone’s just put a song out by themselves on the internet with no backing from anyone. If it goes viral, nothing can stop it from becoming a ‘classic’.”
Overplaying on radio stations and marketing a song helps drive the point home, according to Krishna, but he quickly adds, “Not every piece of pop drivel is going to be akin to ‘Baby one more time’ or ‘Nothing Else Matters’.”
“From an artist’s point of view, it comes down to the individual’s capacity to endure the sense of banality that comes with being stuck in the middle of the road,” he says, referring to how artists want to project a sense clarity of intention and also familiarity at the same time.
Mamgain is the only one to slightly favour the position, pitching the relevance debate. “Record labels might have had a say in the past but now, they just don’t have the power to govern any song as classic,” he says, adding that these days, singles are mostly given for free to generate a regular ‘buzz’ for artists.
In spite of all this, what is agreed upon is that while adding the achievement of having a ‘classic’ to one’s repertoire is an end in itself, classics are dictated not by the artists or the industry, but by the listeners. As Krishna says, “No sane artist will expect all his or her work to be appreciated by everyone at all times.”