Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Talentless Entertainment

Written by johnleemk on 11:36:56 am May 31, 2005.

Of late, many from the past generation have been lamenting the dearth of talent to be found in today's superstars. In the past, of course, such complaints existed, but for once, the old fogies may actually be right in some way. Most popular musicians are hardly anywhere near the rock stars of yesteryear — the Rolling Stones and the Beatles come to mind. Likewise, when it comes to filmmaking, actually being able to act seems to have dropped quite low on the priority list of directors, in favour of special effects and/or more talentless music.

Now, if you know me well, you know my two favourite genres of music are oldies (but not too old; some of the 50s music you can listen to on Light & Easy every Sunday are simply horrifying) and classical. The reason for this largely stems from the fact that I don't "get" rap, and think loudness isn't exactly an innate quality of good music. The fact that most music in either of the latter two genres lacks talent probably helps, too.

Of course, you want to know why I say most modern musicians lack talent. Well, it's really quite simple: first of all, most of these "musicians" don't actually make music; they just sing. Secondly, these "musicians" also generally do not write their own music.

Now, naturally, the next question to arise is why must these attributes be valued? Because generally, that makes up about two thirds of music's components; the third component is the vocals.

However, nowadays a lot of emphasis, particularly in mainstream music, is placed on good vocals. Since when did Mariah Carey play the guitar or write her own music? Substitute Mariah Carey's name with just about any mainstream singer, and the sentence would still be true. Ashlee Simpson, Britney Spears, N'Sync, they're all catering to an audience which values talentless hacks like them.

Contrast this with a superstar group from yesteryear - let's take the Beatles as an example. It's not just because I love their music, but also because audiences recognised that they were just damn bloody good. An example: the Beatles are the only artiste ever to have held every single one of the top 5 positions on the Billboard charts. They are also the only artiste to have had back-to-back-to-back number ones on the Billboard charts (effectively taking over the number one spot from themselves twice in a row).

How talented were they? In their early career, they resembled the Backstreet Boys or any other boy band quite a bit. Most fans try to deny this, but it's all there: the cover versions, the pretty boy, clean image. However, a few things set them apart from ordinary boy bands. First of all, they avoided using new songs not written by them; unlike most boy bands nowadays where the original material has not come from the pen of the band's members, the Beatles refused to perform original songs they did not compose. Another important thing is that even their debut album featured three or four original songs from them, and that as time went on, they phased out cover versions from their albums; three years after their debut, they stopped covering old songs entirely.

Last but not least, the Beatles were extremely versatile when it came to instruments. Their first number one in America, "I Want To Hold Your Hand" was composed on a piano, even though they were better known for their skills with the guitar. John Lennon (rhythm guitar) could play the harmonica proficiently. Paul McCartney (bass) played the drums on "Back in the USSR". And perhaps most interestingly, the Beatles insisted on doing whatever they could themselves, as long as it was feasible.

I honestly had no idea that originally the backing "choir" on "Let it Be" were the Beatles themselves, for example. (Of course, then Phil Spector dubbed them over with a real choir when they gave up on the project.) Most modern artistes just screech into a microphone and rely on the synthesiser and other cutting edge tools to make their "music" marketable.

Having said that, I'm well aware of mainstream bands like Linkin Park and the Simple Plan, both of which actually have a use for instruments and write their own music. But honestly, just listen to their music. You call that talented? If I shouted "Shut up, shut up, shut up!" into a microphone, would you call that talented? Because that's all they are really doing.

So, that's how it is with music. Either they don't have any talent, or they're just about as talented as I am.

Movies, on the other hand...I can fit most "mainstream" movies these days into two categories: special effects-powered or star-powered. The former relies on lifelike explosions and incredible computer generated imagery to grab the ticket-buyer's attention at the box office. The latter uses talentless music hacks to do the same.

Naturally, neither category places a premium on acting talent, or even a decent script. As long as there are enough explosions and/or cleavage-showing superstars to make money, it doesn't matter that the plot is impossible to believe or that the actors look as though Pinnochio could express more emotion with his wooden face than them.

Some movies, however, occasionally don't get a horrid script or robotic actors, thanks to the roll of the dice. The latest installment in the Star Wars series is a good example. The last two movies were horrible. Not only did they feature enough special effects and blue screens to put Pixar to shame, but the actors and scriptwriters could easily have their asses owned by Pixar! (If you're an adult and need to know what I mean, put The Incredibles, Toy Story and Toy Story 2 on your shopping list.) The third movie, however, was a bit of a suprise. The special effects were still there, but for once, the actors actually looked like humans trying to portray characters, instead of robots trying to stiltedly pretended they were humans!

Nevertheless, there are still a few directors/actors with a heart out there. Steven Spielberg is a good example. Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind was brilliant (I'm still scratching my head over how he failed to win the Best Actor award at the Oscars that year). And the direction and scriptwriting of The Pianist were definitely some of the best I've ever seen. It's these kinds of people who can still produce movies where you actually emphathise and care for the characters, instead of being detached and aloof, separated by the chasm of poor characterisation, from the characters.

That entertainment will change is of course a given; nobody can stop change. But you can certainly alter where the direction of change is headed. I'm not too satisfied with the quality of entertainment these days, but I can't stop entertainment from changing. Nevertheless, something must be done to deter this devaluing of talent. Perhaps someday we'll all be entertained by realistic holographic computer images, but till then, I'd like my human actors not to look like a poor imitation of those holograms, and my human musicians to remain human.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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