How commercialism kidnapped the acoustic guitar

Posted on May 31, 2009

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In a recent, startling revelation, “Bad Day” by Daniel Powter was revealed to be the most played song in the UK between 2003-2008 on that well known bastion of musical quality, the radio. An unfortunate turn of events for sure, and one which must surely be linked to the economic crisis somehow. Well maybe not, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised, it’s reign has lasted longer than many small wars for Christ sake.

At the very least Powter’s saccharine wailing paved the way for the double headed serpent of evil known as James Blunt and James Morrison. Both appeared at roughly the same time and even look just about as vaguely innocuous as each other. Unfortunately for us however, both James’ were wolves in sheep’s clothing. Who knew for example, that some posh bloke with an acoustic guitar singing about some girl he saw on the tube would become such a hit? “You’re Beautiful” quickly became the soundtrack to middle-class, middle-age life for millions of people up and down the land, its mix of subtly twangy acoustic guitar and lyrics uncomplicated lyrics paving the way for it to become the non threatening commercial hit that the radio, adverts and various T.V montage sequences had needed for some time. Actually to say the lyrics are uncomplicated would be an understatement. The lyrics are in fact so simple as to give the impression that it was written in a GCSE poetry class before receiving an F grade. For example, the crux of the song is “you’re beautiful/ you’re beautiful/ I saw your face/ in a crowded place” If musical success ever turns its back on Blunt then surely a career in pre-school book writing beckons.

Unfortunately, the success of Blunt and Morrison led to several unforeseen side effects including, a second James Morrison album, a second James Blunt album and the career of Paolo Nuitini. The most horrifying effect however was the sanitisation of the acoustic guitar. For years the humble acoustic has been seen as the quiet member of the musical family, the quiet non-descript one who stands in the corner and is too afraid to talk to girls; often used as a backing instrument or when the atmosphere needs to be settled down or when an electric simply couldn’t be found. For some though, the acoustic has been a symbol of defiance and hope, a devastating weapon that shows just what one man can do with six strings and a handful of lyrics. Billy Bragg is perhaps the best known of the politically aware troubadours, with songs such as “To Have And Have Not” and “From Red To Blue” pricking the consciousness of the student collective in the seventies / eighties. Today however the acoustic guitar has been rather publically castrated. The genre is now seen as a sort of bizarre housewife’s favourite, a clumsy mix of background “ooh”s and overwrought wailing about some heartless bint or another who clearly doesn’t exist. Advertising has also kidnapped the genre for even greater commercial use. Next time the adverts are on, really listen to the background music; today more than ever a gently picked guitar line and breathy vocal is used to denote softness or innocence, in particular washing detergents such as Lenor and the “simplicity” aspect of the current Dell P.C’s advert. Even emo bands such as Plain White T’s have gotten in on the act, releasing the acoustic ballad “Hey There Delilah” as their first major single, despite the fact it sounds nothing like the rest of their back catalogue. Needless to say it charted higher than any subsequent release.

Frankly it’s an embarrassing situation for a style of music that has so much to offer in terms of substance, and one that people who are serious about it have had to fight against in order to reclaim any sort of credibility. In this respect the hard work of artists such as Frank Turner cannot be underestimated. Through an almost constant tour schedule and early songs with titles such as “Thatcher Fucked The Kids”, Turner inevitably drew comparisons with Billy Bragg. As time has gone by however, Turner has distanced himself from the political scene, instead using his guitar to create rousing songs about disillusionment and lost love. These aren’t gentle slices of melodica however, and Turner has gradually built himself a cult following around the disaffected youth: “It’s possible to write simple acoustic music without sounding like James Blunt, whilst retaining some passion, anger, and a sense of humour. The central paradigm of one person and one instrument remains at the heart of what I do.” After nearly four years on the road Turner is only just gaining any sort of recognition, a process that has been greatly quickened by his past in a moderately popular punk band. If Turner had been trying to make it without the fans of his past project it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t still be playing to empty rooms and kipping on stranger’s floors.

Unfortunately, commercialism’s emasculation of acoustic music is only the latest in a long line of “dangerous” music being made safe. Prime examples from recent decades include reggae, a genre that grew out of slave labour and subjugation but has been made acceptable for the middle class by acts such as The Police, who have sold fifty million albums and were the highest earning musicians of last year, and more recently BRIT School graduate and tabloid magnet Amy Winehouse. Both employ a cordial form of Reggae (just add water) which shunted more authentic acts into the sidelines and cult status and made it safe for fame-whores desperate to make it in the business to follow their lead. Artists like Jason Mraz have brought the genre down further by making a version so diluted that he performed live on Loose Women, the most vacuous program on television today. Not even Punk has escaped the sterilisation process. It’s taken longer than usual but today glorified boy bands like McFly are constantly on the most populist shows such as This Morning jumping around like real rock stars and playing three chord nonsense. This is punk for teenage girls and people who don’t want the danger of upsetting anyone or getting their ear bitten off.

The key fact with all of these genres is that it takes something or someone special for them to regain any sort of integrity. “Real” Reggae has been shunted to the sidelines and punk has merged with metal, ska and various other genres in order to carry on its DIY spirit. Thankfully for acoustic music Frank Turner and various other New English Folk acts such as Laura Marling, Noah And The Whale, Jay Jay Pistolet and Tommy Reilly are doing their best to make the guitar a major part of the industry again. Whether they can succeed in bringing integrity back into the genre on a larger scale remains to be seen. It may be that the damage has already done by advertising, and then we’ll never get “Bad Day” off the airwaves.

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