Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ceci n'est pas une pipe

I've been thinking a lot today.

It may seem from recent posts that I've had my head up my horn's bell but I've been advancing on the singing/songwriting front as well. A new song has mostly written itself, though I'm cajoling the third verse into existence. And I've secured a lesson with a vocal coach later this month. One of the questions on his extensive intake forms is "What style of music do you sing?"

Well, good question. And a timely one, too. There's a pretty interesting discussion on The New York Times Arts Beat blog between pop music critic Jon Parales and classical music critic (and opera specialist) Tony Tommasini, regarding Renée Fleming's "this is not a crossover" album. What I find most interesting is that the rules for a singer are completely different from the rules for an instrumentalist.

As a marketer, I completely understand the need to create a brand identity for an artist or band. Faces, fashion, a sonic signature imprinted in the voice. Artists who "cross over" genres are at risk of diluting their brand, confusing the message, or becoming New Shimmer. (It's floor wax AND a dessert topping!)

But as a musician, the implication that a person must choose and commit to one genre description (or "genre-bending!/busting!/defying!" description) for their entire career is absurd. Don't we all come of age in a world full of varying musical styles for different times and occasions? Why should an artist have to pick one? Tons of instrumentalists don't. Mark Stewart, for example, is a founding member of "new music" group Bang On A Can All Stars, and has played with Paul Simon. Is he a (GASP) Crossover Artist?

No, he's a musician. And isn't the voice, like any other instrument, able to be played in any style or genre?

Hypothetically speaking, what if I write a song for bluegrass band and the next song I write happens to be for jazz quintet? (OK, this may not be hypothetical.) Do I have to pick just one musical style to perform? And what if the musical styles pick me?

Because I consider Paul Simon's Rhythm of the Saints and Graceland albums to be the 5th and 9th symphonies of songwriting, I'll go back to him. Instrumentation changes, sonic imprint changes, but somehow his brand became stronger through his explorations. And I don't think anyone associates him with "crossover."

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