… It’s easy to get excited about a few great singles or a great album or two from a promising singer, but it takes most vocalists many years of performing, recording, and reflecting to cultivate a distinctive artistic voices. The pop music industry of the two thousands and twenty tens resembles other post-50s pop eras in that lackluster performers continually garner more attention than innovative, electrifying singers. The digitally mediated shortened pop culture news cycle is the only significant difference.
Many of the more prominent, and even acclaimed, superstars in popular and semi-popular music (i.e. jazz) are transparent reproductions of earlier pop archetypes. While homage and pastiche can be useful passages for artists to locate their own voices most abandon distinctiveness for the easy allure of formulas. I can cite myriad examples ranging from former “teen pop” singers who are now considered “mature” solo acts to commercial crooners who borrow from the aura of jazz but fail to embody its improvisatory spirit. I am, however, more interested in tuning my ears to the best singers in the present who provide hope for the future of vocal singing worth savoring. Several appealing contemporary singers, with more recent careers, have garnered sufficient enough praise that I am confident their profiles will continue to expand. Instead of devoting chapters to their work I acknowledge their promising work, and wager that their careers will continue to provide listeners with meaningful music...
…I heard Bruno Mars’s (b. 1985) songwriting before actually hearing him when Cory Monteith’s character Finn sang “Just the Way You Are” on an episode of Glee to Chris Colfer’s character Kurt. I liked the melody and the sentiment and was very impressed by the diversity of Mars’s debut album Doo-Wops & Hooligans. Mars has a lean, nasal sound that evokes Michael Jackson and Prince lovingly without compromising his essence. If his lyrics are sometimes insipid (“Lazy Song”) or too literal minded (“Grenade”) I am impressed by the melodic richness and aural diversity his album demonstrates. As a writer, producer, and vocalist he is a self-contained performer who can shape his own sound; this greatly distinguishes him from other pop acts that rely on the vision and talents of outside producers. My impression of him deepened when I saw his live appearances as the featured singer (2010) and as host and musical performer (2012) on Saturday Night Live and his James Brown inspired performance of “Runaway Baby” on the 2012 Grammy Awards broadcast. At each performance he presented himself as a stylish, buoyant band-leading dynamo that can sing, dance and perform with an acumen we associate with Jackson, Prince, Brown and forebears like Jackie Wilson and Sammy Davis Jr. The success of his sophomore album, 2012's Unorthodox Jukebox, a delicious slice of '80s pop inflected with contemporary hip-hop touches, and 2014’s buoyant number one pop hit “Uptown Funk,” an homage to Prince-style ‘80s funk, furthered my impressions of him as a pop figure for our time.
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