Friday, February 06, 2004
The Lounge Revival Cometh
It’s telling that Jamie Cullum’s debut album was entitled Pointless Nostalgic, because this young Englishman is currently riding a wave of mass nostalgia for a time that many people don’t even remember. Call it ‘easy listening’, call it ‘vocal jazz’, call it whatever you like; what we’re dealing with here is a full-blown lounge revival, men and women barely out of college (and some too young to even go to college) who are revisiting the music not of their parents, but of their grandparents. Last year Norah Jones pointed towards the emergence of this new trend with the ubiquitous success of Come Away With Me, but Jamie Cullum and Canada’s Michael Bublé look destined to sky-rocket the burgeoning phenomenon into the popular cultural stratosphere throughout 2004. I’m not particularly looking forward to it.
Lounge, like hip hop, is a music that relies a great deal on the personality of the artist. The onstage banter of the Rat Pack isn’t a million miles away from the Wu Tang Clan’s live shenanigans. Pop and rock offer blank canvases to be projected onto, either via desirously empty personalities or vacuous posturing masquerading as everyman profundity. But lounge is dependant on a strong, even narcissistic charisma; if everybody already knows the songs then it’s the performer who is being judged rather than the material. One need only consider Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin to realise that arrogance, ego, and a mean streak the size of the Grand Canyon are beneficial qualities in the world of the lounge singer. The same goes for hip hop. Andy Williams or Dean Martin? Common or Ludacris? Jamie Cullum or… Eminem? The magnetic bad boy wins every time. But there’s the rub, because the likes of Cullum are very much posited within the milieu of pop music, where being squeaky clean is a bonus.
The names involved in one way or another with this trend for youthful musical retrogression are many, and cover bases beyond just lounge. Joss Stone is the great white teenage soul hope, Katie Melua another harmless jazz chanteuse, while Catherine Porter is a neo-folk waif. All are young, talented (Stone in particular is gifted [or cursed] with a truly exceptional voice), and resolutely middle of the road. The reasons behind this burgeoning ‘scene’ are various. The noughties’ obsession with reality pop has exposed the raw and ugly centre of the music business and has been met by many at whom it was aimed with distaste; it was fun for a while, but the populace can only take so much blatantly hollow spectacle before it starts to crave at least some degree of substance, even if that itself is by and large illusory. Michelle winning Pop Idol is the first example of the worm turning, the voters using the medium against the creators, proving once again that democratic power is an unpredictable thing and that the average man loves to prove that those in ‘charge’ don’t like it up ‘em.
For the people who are fed up with the machinations of Cowell, Waterman & co., Cullum and Bublé offer a marginally more acceptable and ‘authentic’ version of the unchallenging kitchen-sink-soundtrack purveyed by the likes of Will Young, Gareth Gates and David Sneddon. That Gates is rumoured to be in danger of being dropped by his label, and that Sneddon jumped before he was pushed, adds yet more fuel to the fire that is burning down the reality pop house of straw. The fear of acceleration is a reaction to postmodernism and is another contributing factor, as people seek stability and comfort in an ever more fluctuating culture. Cover versions have always been popular, familiarity breeding a level of affection that many feel uncomfortable or unwilling to try and nurture in relation to new songs. Plus it’s so much easier to hum along to a melody if you (and/or the collective conscious) already know it. Decreasing social and financial solidity, spiralling political events, the ever constant threat of global terrorism, simply not being able to keep up anymore; all these factors lead people to grasp hold of what is familiar with both hands. And if it’s a new, easily digestible simulacrum of something familiar then that’s even better.
Jamie Cullum himself is short, young (23! TWENTY-THREE! Twenty-three!) and a little bit hoarse, whereas Michael Bublé is as smooth as a warm latte. Cullum has the added advantage of writing some of his own material, a signpost for those obsessed with authenticity. Which is, of course, the only possible criterion for judging whether music is worth listening to or not… That he sounds as if he may have once smoked a Marlboro and drained a shot glass doesn’t necessarily add up to a noticeable degree of personality though. Competent singing is no guarantee of long-term success in the pop world; it doesn’t matter if you can hold a note perfectly and jump two octaves inside half a bar, because most of the people listening can’t tell what you’re doing with your larynx anyway. The public have long had a fascination with singers who simply cannot sing, from Cliff Richard to Britney Spears, via Bob Dylan, Madonna, The Beatles, Robbie Williams, Johnny Rotten, etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum.
Cullum, unlike Bublé, isn’t just an admin assistant with delusions of grandeur, photocopying other people’s work and passing it off as his own, but one still has to wonder just what the point of all this is on the behalf of the actual performers (obviously the record companies’ point is financial), whether it is pastiche, homage, hero-worship or something else. Lounge as performed by Vegas-era Elvis was an exciting, powerful music, visceral and sexual. In the hands of Ella Fitzgerald it was sophisticated and deeply emotional, for Dean Martin it was a stylish, suave experience and for Sinatra himself it was cool, glamorous and, given his occasionally dubious associates, a touch dangerous. What Bublé and Cullum do have in common is that they’re both incredibly safe and comfortable. The standards on show on Cullum and Bublé’s albums are signifiers of romance with the tantalising snatches of sexual frisson and emotional risk taken out completely. When juxtaposed with Rufus Wainwright’s ostentatious hi-camp New York crooning, for example, the likes of Cullum appear ever more bland and safe, like a medicinal spoonful of honey compared to bitingly dark chocolate. I know all too well from experience that a too-soft bed will play havoc with your back.
This column was first published on Stylus yesterday.
2/06/2004 01:58:00 pm