So indulge me for a minute, because I was farting off on the internet yesterday as I am apt to do, when I came across a headline that read, “Keith Urban and the new school of ‘countrypolitan’ music.” As I’m sure many of you are aware by now, I’m kind of a country music nut, so I decided to take a gander. Mixing Keith Urban with countrypolitan sounded like an interesting topic.
So I get to reading this article, which is clearly a puff piece promoting an upcoming Keith Urban concert, and just about flipped my lid when I read some of the quotes from our lovable little pop country icon from Australia.
What he said at first was standard fare—the same crap we’ve been hearing for years from current pop stars who call themselves country, trying to justify their trespasses by saying what they’re doing is no different from what Jim Reeves or Patsy Cline did back in the day and the music must evolve.
“I see [country music] doing what it’s done since the late ’50s and early ’60s: drawing elements from pop music into itself to take the genre to a different place,” Urban says.
Yes Keith, you and others are taking country music to a place that’s distinctly not country. Of course back in the day, countrypolitan with its overproduced strings and choruses was criticized by many genre purists too, and still is by some today. Over time though, the countrypolitan sound has grown on many classic country fans, especially when you compare it to the riff raff of today.
But this was the quote from Keith that set me off.
“Back then, it was the big, lush orchestra, and now it’s drum machines and synthesizers,” Urban says, as if that’s an equal trade off. What is the difference between now and then, strings and choruses vs. drum machines and synthesizers? Let me try to illustrate…
– – – – – – – – –
Here we have a human being. It is a carbon-based living organism, bipedal in nature, intelligent (usually), with advanced language skills and the ability to fashion and utilize tools, inhabiting the 3rd planet from the sun in the earth-recognized solar system residing in the Milky Way Galaxy. Though highly advanced for a living organism, the human is inclined to err on a regular basis, and is often influenced by emotion, making the creation of musical sounds a fallible enterprise, yet instilling each individual performance with taste, uniqueness, emotion, character, originality, and soul.
This is a computer (drum machine pictured). Rigid, predictable, infallible, constant and cold, it spits out 1’s and 0’s in exact precision and accuracy to the demands it is programmed to execute, never making a mistake, never disobeying its commands (mostly), and never offering anything ingenious or original. It has no soul.
Even though large orchestrations or highly-choreographed choir sections are undoubtedly elements of overproduction, they are still by definition organic. There is still a human element to them, in both the performance and the arrangement. Many still believe strings and choirs have no place in country music, and that’s a fair argument to make. But comparing them to the electronic accoutrements of the day is poppycock, not to mention many of those countrypolitan compositions were much better written and performed songs in general, even if they veered away from traditional country themes. Today, it’s hard to find any redeeming elements in the music of artists like Keith Urban, especially his recent record Ripcord.
There is nothing wrong with synthesizers and drum machines in music … in their proper context. There are some folks doing astounding things with electronic music that can take you to audio vistas no human-played instrument is capable of. But that’s not country music. Country music is from the country. That’s why it’s called “country.”
It seems like an incredibly simple point to make, but it’s so important to understanding the cultural divide that is making country music such a polarized environment these days. Yes, pop has always had its part in country, but drum machines have not. Keith Urban goes on to say that he’s utilized drum machines in his music since his debut in 1999. And you can tell that by listening. That’s why there’s no mojo, because the music has been anesthetized by electronics. “Those elements which used to be buried in my records have now just come to the front a lot more,” Urban goes on to say. And parallel to this trend, any elements of substance have disappeared from Urban’s music.
The irony here is that Keith Urban himself is a great guitar player, at least technically speaking. He’s one of the best in the mainstream. But you won’t hear that on his Ripcord album. It’s been replaced by synthesizers and programming. It might even be okay to add a little moog or even synthesizer to some country music, if the music it’s being added to is actually good from the start, or its an addition on top of the music, instead of an essential building block of it. Urban can say whatever he wants in interviews; deep down he knows this trend is adverse for music. Same goes with the last album from Zac Brown Band. You have this excellent assemblage of musicians, and yet multiple songs rely on Zac’s vocals and someone sitting behind a laptop.
We don’t want music to be perfect, because as humans, we are not perfect. We want music to engage us through the inspiration the musicians are feeling as they perform where each moment is unique, whether it’s captured in a studio, or performed live. You want perfection from your music, there are certainly those options out there in the marketplace. But in country, as we’re listening to songs about cheating and broken hearts, about falling down, about losing and making mistakes, we want the music to be real. Because our problems, and are joys are real. We can feel them, just like we can that classic country music.