Saturday, June 30, 2018

The McCartney jukebox

The Toronto Star gave a scathing review to Paul McCartney's December 7, 1989 concert at Skydome, part of his 1989-1990 world tour.  The closing line was something along the lines of "McCartney has turned himself into a jukebox, and nobody wants to see that".  It specifically referred to McCartney relying so heavily on Beatles songs to fill out the setlist, something he'd been hesitant to do while leading Wings and in his solo career to that point.

Peter Howell was the Star's rock critic, and he was only expressing what would have been common critical sentiment at the time.  McCartney had been a chart fixture through the mid-80's, but his 1989 album "Flowers in the Dirt" didn't yield any top ten hits.  In terms of pop success, it was the biggest failure of his career, and in fact he'd go thirty years between appearances in the top ten (from "Spies Like Us" in 1985 to "FourFiveSeconds" in 2015, an incredible achievement really and an even better bit of music trivia).  To bounce back from that failure, he turned to a different kind of populism and started trading on past glories more than he ever had before.  To the general critical establishment of the day, it meant he was clearly washed up.  Suddenly the co-lead of the greatest and most influential band of all time was no different that any other oldies act, "reuniting" without most of the original members to make a few bucks off of the wealthy boomers who would pay a premium to hear the same hits from twenty years played over and over.

In McCartney's appearance on the Late Late Show with James Corden, he figuratively becomes the jukebox in a Liverpool pub.  Patrons make requests in the jukebox, and he plays them as part of a cleverly staged "surprise" gig.  The twenty minute "Carpool Karaoke" clip has gone viral with good reason.  In 2018, only the most sour and cynical souls could fail to be moved by Corden talking about his father and grandfather playing "Let It Be" when he was a boy, or Paul playing "When I'm Sixty Four" on the piano in the home he lived in as a teenager, or three generations of fans losing their minds seeing him play down at the local Liverpool pub.

How did this happen?  When did the "authenticity" requirement die off?  As music gradually loses its cultural impact and becomes just another form of streamable entertainment, more of a premium is placed on the undownloadable live experience.  Concert ticket prices have skyrocketed in the last fifteen years, at least in part to make up for lost income from record sales.  More and more people don't want to feel challenged by live music anymore, they simply want to have a good time singing along to the songs they know.  The hugely successful Pixies reunion may have been the official nail in the coffin (even with new post-reunion albums) that made profiteering palatable even to indie fans who grew up on bands who prided themselves on prioritizing their vision over their courting of a mass audience. 

This is much more fun that the older way of doing things.

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