FOR SOME REASON only known to my sense of the absurd, last night I found myself flicking through footage of the Queen’s jubilee concert.
Usually, I steadfastly ignore such glitzy spectaculars, and especially those involving outmoded privileged elites like the British royal family. But a friend had alerted me to the appearance of Grace Jones, and my usual good sense and willpower deserted me.
With one hand wrapped determinedly around the remote control – my smartest finger ready to pounce repeatedly on the fast-forward button – and the other cradling a fine red wine, I set about navigating through this marathon, in which the crumbling edifice/artifice of an empire would be celebrated by the nation’s crumbling pop celebrities. Apt.
And as my finger delicately swooped me from one barely airborne musical disaster to another, I couldn’t help but noting two rather distressing characteristics of the whole shebang:
1) Voices that could hit a note fair and square and stay in tune with any degree of conviction were almost absent.
2) Most of the pop and rock stars were so old, feeble and fatigued that their plastic faces were practically melting off under the stage-lights, and their performances were almost uniformly embarrassing.
Song after song, performance after performance, I found myself aghast, almost blushing at the indignity of the whole charade. But really, it’s the artists themselves who should have been blushing.
Only token American Stevie Wonder, and Tom Jones with his unsubtle bull-elephant roar of a voice, were vocally sure-footed and still capable of performing with a bit of energy and pizzazz.
Oh, and Grace Jones, of course, who as always, was more about projecting an image – theatrics – than about musical performance, per se. But she was divine, with her perpetual hula-hoop and legs that could have belonged to a 19-year-old.
But honestly. Paul McCartney. How can I say it? You sucked. Unlike most of the others, McCartney’s performance comprised what amounts to a short set, and the songs were as predictable as you might imagine. Unfortunately, his vocal cords were totally shot: shaky as the legs of a male praying mantis whose head has just been bitten off, and desperately aiming (but often not quite hitting) for those elusive notes. The poor guy looked tired, so tired.
Shirley Bassey, how could you? Recently, I’ve become something of a Bassey convert. I grew up in a household where she was known as Shirley “Brassey”, and none of us liked the tone of her voice. But now, when I listen to those Bond classics, or the amazing Billy McKenzie song she sang during her comeback in the ‘80s, ‘The Rhythm Divine’, I hear something unique and thrilling, controlled but impassioned. Sadly, the septuagenarian could barely get off the runway at the Queen’s jubilee concert, sounding husky and lacking utterly in oomph.
Come on, Elton John. You looked poorly, you barely enunciated the words of your songs (is there something we should know about the state of your health?), and the vocal qualities that wowed punters in arenas around the world for several decades were simply absent. What remained was a shadow on the wall.
Annie Lennox, why did you bother even turning up? Your voice sounded school-marmy, and was shorn of the soul power witnessed on your records.
Cliff Richard, why oh why? You’re the oldest teenager in the world, with your sad mask of a face. Almost as freaky as Michael Jackson, until quite recently, your voice held out okay. But really, there’s no getting around the fact that you’ve now totally lost it. Your performance was shocking, embarrassing. I felt ashamed on your behalf.
Apart from a few light operatic performers, the vocals on the night were uniformly dire, and that included the younger contingent. Of those that could sing in tune, or hit a note, there was little power or passion or personality on show. And the groups were so memorable that I can’t even remember their names. And then there was Kylie Minogue, still pretending, like Madonna, to be a twentysomething, and still unable to convincingly carry a tune, especially while dancing around in her underwear.
So, to get back to our duly numbered and noted characteristics:
Could it be true that the voice as an instrument has been so undernourished by the requirements of pop and rock music over the past 20 or 30 years that now we’ve got to the stage where nobody even notices when someone isn’t singing in tune?
I reckon so. In pop, just about all the really great vocalists are dead already. Why do we not expect the same level of dexterity and commitment to pitch out of our singers that we do out of our instrumentalists?
This is the first time in history where a whole generation of pop and rock stars is now old enough to qualify for rest homes.
Unfortunately, it’s also the first generation of pop and rock that celebrated youth, and many of its exponents continues to harbor some kind of illusion that age is only in the mind, even as the teeth fall out and another round of Botox is scheduled.
I’m not in favour of enforced retirement, but someone should be telling our elderly pop and rock stars that enough is enough; that when one’s performative abilities start to give out, then it’s the audience that gets the raw deal, and that their memories of you at your best are forever tarnished.
There are other issues, of course. There’s an insatiable demand for nostalgia amongst the baby boomer generation, and that’s a kind of seasickness that probably won’t go away. And despite mega-stars like Lady Gaga, there have been no understudies to replace the likes of Paul McCartney or Elton John in the public’s affections.
What was disturbing about the Queen’s jubilee celebration was the frightening lack of young talent on display of the calibre of the older performers, faded or otherwise. None of the 21st Century’s critically acclaimed singers, songwriters or bands was represented.
The Queen wore what looked like a grumpy face all through the concert, and I felt for her. Most of it was shit. Intolerable shit, at that. GARY STEEL