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Popular Music in America and Three Artists that Need More Recognition

Updated on March 25, 2012
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Music in America is Too Closed-Minded

Music is one of a culture’s most important characteristics. It is used to celebrate, represent, and simply make us feel emotions that are as powerful as human emotions can get. It has been around in some form for centuries, always evolving and growing in complexity. Though a lot of music is universal (having fans all over the world), much of it is emphasized depending on the location. People in parts of Ireland more often than not listen to some form of traditional Celtic music, while many people in China most likely listen to music filled with pipas and harps. Now that’s not to say that Chinese and Irish people have never rocked out to The Beatles or even Elvis Presley, it’s just that that is the type of music that is most concentrated on in that particular country. In the United States people listen to a massive array of musical styles. Southern rock, classical music, and jazz are just a few. America, however, tends to place its musical emphasis in the wrong place. In the US, someone’s success with music more often than not is determined by their physical appearance.

Music videos that transform the music into a visible show became a massive American trend during the 1980s. It has since continued into the present day, though now it is far more commercialized. Now I’m not knocking the concept of music videos. In fact, I think they are a brilliant idea. The videos for Land of Confusion by Genesis and Money for Nothing by Dire Straits are two classic presentations that come to my mind when thinking about music videos. The good thing about those videos is that the video didn’t take away from the music. The characters were animated (or made into puppets) and there was an extra dose of entertainment added to the music. This still goes on in America today, but not as much. Most music videos, or any video productions of songs, feature sexy women, gangsters, fast cars, and the like. And why is that? Because in America that’s what most of the popular songs are about. Perhaps the most dominant musical genres in the US are Hip Hop and Pop or some combination of them both. This is the type of music that emphasizes on sex, partying, and basically just stuff about having fun all the time. Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with some music like that. Some of it can definitely bring on a laugh and an overall feeling just letting loose and having a good time. I’m cool with that. What I do have a problem with is that that music is all the music media of America focuses on. It doesn’t have any interest in exploring new avenues with music and instruments. Rather, it ensures that music in America that becomes popular does so because it’s got attractive people and lyrics that are all about having fun, having sex, going to clubs, and basically just the parts of life that aren’t to be taken seriously. Like I said before, this style of music is ok sometimes but do we really need to put so much focus on it? It’s good for satisfying that one aspect of our personalities as human beings, but there’s so much more out there that’s left in the dark. Ironically, the music that is left in the dark is oftentimes the best music there is if you look at it from an artistic standpoint. It may be comical and fun at times, but how hard is it to come up with lyrics about “busting a cap in a gangster” or “checking out fine women". I’m not trying to completely blast these types of music; they represent a certain type of culture and I can respect that. And hell, I like looking at a fine woman as much as any other guy! It’s just not right that someone like Lady Gaga gets more attention and respect from the media and public because she's sexy and provocative than musicians that actually put a lot of thought into their music and really create something fresh with instruments basically because she's sexy. Yes it's true that sex sells, I get that. But art doesn't have to be based just around that.

In my opinion there are a handful of bands that deserve a massive amount of exposure to the American music scene. They deserve this because they sing about a wide variety of topics and carry the essence of music to places it’s never been before. They produce some comical music but also tunes that incite rage, sadness, and even bliss. They blend multiple music genres to create what I feel is the culmination of musical creativity. If these artists could be effectively incorporated into America’s popular music scene then we could start to see more appreciation for the music as well as new artists that can carry that legacy forward. Though there are many, I have selected three artists/groups (saving the best one for last) who I believe deserve as much air time and respect as anyone else in the music scene today. They all perform music derived in some shape or form from progressive rock, an artistic style of music pioneered by the likes of Genesis, Yes, and Rush.

One of Townsend's most recent photos
One of Townsend's most recent photos | Source

"Fly" from the Album "Ghost". This is one of Townsend's softer tracks.

"Addicted" from the Album of the Same Name. It is one of Townsend's heavier tracks

Devin Townsend

Devin Townsend is a Canadian musician who was originally the front man for the death metal group Strapping Young Lad. He has also released many solo albums either under his own name or as The Devin Townsend Band and The Devin Townsend Project. Though Townsend is a hardcore metal man at the core, much of his music features softer, lullaby-like sounds and singing. To me that is the best kind of music there is, music that jumps from hard and heavy to soft and melodic. It makes perfect sense because it covers both the dark and the light aspects of human nature and displays how our mindsets really do move back and forth between love and hate, anger and happiness. Most of Townsend’s albums are comprised of this yin and yang style of music, though he has done a few that were either/or.

One of the main themes behind many of Townsend's songs is nature. The album that represents this theme the most is 2001's Terria that features songs such as Earth Day and Mountain. These songs exhibit a respect for the earth and mother nature but do so, interestingly enough, with extreme heavy metal. I think that is pretty darn unique. With that being said, isn't it a little classier to write about those topics versus "thugs and hos"? I think so.

Of all three artists I’m including in this discussion, Devin Townsend is the one who displays the most contrast in style. One minute he sounds like the Devil himself conducting an orchestra of demons and the next he’s singing something that could easily rock a baby to sleep. It’s not just metal. It’s not just easy listening. It’s a perfect representation of the human spirit and mind.

Katatonia with lead singer Jonas Renkse in the front
Katatonia with lead singer Jonas Renkse in the front | Source

"Liberation" from the album "Night is the New Day"

"My Twin" from the album "The Great Cold Distance"

Katatonia

Katatonia is a Swedish gothic-metal band that emphasizes on many of the darker aspects of life and human emotions. The current band lineup is Jonas Renkse on lead vocals, Anders Nystrom on guitars and keyboards, and Daniel Liljekvist on drums and percussion. Jonas Renkse has a very unique voice that often displays his Swedish accent, which further increases its uniqueness. Though there are a few songs where Renkse does the typical death metal growl, most of the vocals are clear and very easy to understand. The production of the band’s music is also top-notch, with very fluid instrumentation that captures the hard rocking riffs and the atmospheric, melodic tones perfectly. My personal favorite album by Katatonia is Night is the New Day, released in 2009. It’s one of those albums where every single song is a good one, and it has spent an awful lot of time in my CD player. As with most of their albums, the songs carry a dark and often eerie tone combined with crunching guitars and solid percussion. If you are a fan of the likes of Ozzy Osbourne or Evanescence then you owe it to yourself to check out this band. I can guarantee you will not be disappointed.

From left to right: Gavin Harrison, Steven Wilson, Colin Edwin, and Richard Barbieri
From left to right: Gavin Harrison, Steven Wilson, Colin Edwin, and Richard Barbieri | Source

"Blackest Eyes" from the album "In Absentia"

"Normal" from the album "Nil Recurring"

Porcupine Tree

I said I’d save the best band for last and here they are. Hailing from Great Britain is Porcupine Tree, a band unlike any you have ever heard before. Their music ranges from psychedelic instrumentals to folk music and all the way into heavy metal.

The entity of Porcupine Tree was formed in the early 90s by front man Steven Wilson. For the first couple of albums, Wilson was the sole member of the project, writing and playing all of the music. As time went by and the music started to be taken more seriously, Wilson recruited other musicians to play specific instruments and contribute to song-writing. As of right now there are four members of the band: Steven Wilson on vocals and guitars, Colin Edwin on bass, Gavin Harrison on drums, and Richard Barbieri on keyboards and synthesizers.

So why do I say this band is the best of them all? It’s simple. If you don’t like one song, go to another. It will more than likely be a sharp contrast to what you were first listening to. Basically, the band covers such a wide array of musical styles and sounds that it’s almost impossible for someone to not find something they like by the band.

My personal favorite album is 2002’s In Absentia. The entire album tells the story of a young boy who grows up to become a serial killer, ultimately murdering his own family. Now I know this may sound a bit macabre at first, but don’t let the concept fool you. The music on the album features not only metal (this was actually the band’s first metal album) but songs fueled by acoustic guitars and deep textures of soundscapes from Barbieri and his synthesizers. So the gist of it may be a turnoff for some people but it is not (entirely) what they might think. Besides, it’s more creative and intriguing than songs about “hos” and “phat asses”, at least for an intellectual person.

During the early 90s, the music produced by Porcupine Tree was mostly trippy instrumental pieces that lasted anywhere from eight to twenty-five minutes. LSD and other such drugs were often the focal point of these tracks (there was no singing but often there was someone narrating as the music went along). From there Porcupine Tree moved more towards acoustic, “radio-friendly” music before finally arriving in the heavy metal genre. Interestingly enough, though the band is now more of a metal act, they have never lost their roots. Incorporated into the heavier music is that same psychedelic and acoustic music that they once focused more on. So, in short, the band has significantly evolved over the years but never lost the fundamental sounds that it was created around. That right there is good music-making.

The members of Porcupine Tree, specifically Steven Wilson, have also done a number of other musical projects that are worth giving a listen to. No-Manand Blackfield are two of Wilson's side projects and he has also done a few albums under is own name. Whereas No-Man evolved from a techno-pop style of music into more complex rhythms and sounds, Blackfield is more mellow and radio-friendly, displaying music that is driven by electric and acoustic guitar melodies and an almost symphonic feel. The vocals in Blackfield are shared by Steven Wilson and Israel's Aviv Geffen, while No-Man's songs are sung by England native Tim Bowness. Again, these projects are worth checking out, especially if you find you like Porcupine Tree.

Some of the well-known bands that Porcupine Tree has been compared to include Nine Inch Nails (because of PT’s regular display of Industrial music in their newer metal albums), Tool, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and even the Beach Boys! That’s just how dynamic they are. I can give you my personal guarantee that if you give Porcupine Tree a fair chance and explore what they have to offer, you will find something you like.

In Conclusion

It’s easy to point out one reason these three artists are not at the top of the American music scene: they’re not American. As we all know, people tend to favor what comes from where they come from. We like people that look like us and act like us. But the three aforementioned artists are no different than us. They play metal, many of us like metal. They play music that features only singing and an acoustic guitar, and we like that too. People in America are just not exposed to such artists because the “sexual, overly visual” acts in America are blotting them out. Don’t dispose of those acts, just give other types of music a fair shot. There is no doubt in my mind that these bands can be bigger than they are.

So why am I so adamant about these musicians getting more recognition? Other than the fact that they simply deserve it, they represent a direction in musical exploration that needs to be considered by anybody and everybody. All of the other popular music genres in the US such as Hip Hop, Pop, and Country are good genres that serve a purpose for people’s rhythmic and musical emotions. Acts like Eminem, Lady Gaga, and, let’s say, Rascal Flatts are all icons in the American music world and they deserve to be so. So do Porcupine Tree, Katatonia, and Devin Townsend, or any other such artist. In short, you shouldn't have to be beautiful to be a successful musician. You should have an outstanding talent at creating words and sounds that touch all people and expand horizons beyond the norm.

Which one of these artists sounds the most interesting to you?

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What current American music icon do you think is the most overrated?

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    • TheHeavyReview profile image

      TheHeavyReview 5 years ago

      Great hub, voted up! I chose Katatonia and Eminem. I'm not the biggest fan of Katatonia's newer work but I like some of their older stuff. Eminem is very overrated for many reasons that I won't even go into, but I chose him because out of all the artists in that poll he is the most universally loved. I can't stand most modern popular music. Your artist picks were very good!

    • poet83 profile image
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      Brian Lawson 5 years ago from Windsor, Va.

      Thanks TheHeavyReview! Have you ever listened to Porcupine Tree?

    • TheHeavyReview profile image

      TheHeavyReview 5 years ago

      I've never listened to Porcupine Tree in depth, but I have heard a few of their songs. I can't recall which ones at the moment. Aside from "In Absentia", what other albums would you recommend? I enjoyed the songs you have here... do they have anything a little more metallic?

    • poet83 profile image
      Author

      Brian Lawson 5 years ago from Windsor, Va.

      Yes any album after "In Absentia" has a good deal of metal to it, no roaring vocals but hard percussion and guitars. Check out "The Incident" and "Deadwing".

    • profile image

      Blauer 5 years ago

      Good article, I see your point, but as long as these talented, but somewhat unknown artists have a decent amount of success (which is true for the three you named), I con't care about the close-minded masses very much.

      Also I'd like to point out that Mr. Townsend is American. ;)

    • poet83 profile image
      Author

      Brian Lawson 5 years ago from Windsor, Va.

      Thanks for commenting! You have a very good point there and yes these artists are having success. I'd just like to hear them on some American radio! As for Townsend, I'm pretty sure he's originally Canadian. Check out some of his bios on the web. Again, thanks for the feedback!

    • profile image

      Tortiss 5 years ago

      Townsend is Canadian, and definitely still is.

    • profile image

      Blauer 5 years ago

      Yeah, sorry for the geo-confusion. In my language (not English) we often make a difference between American (from the continent of America) and US-American.

    • profile image

      Paul scott 5 years ago

      Underground rap music, have a listen

      www.reverbnation.com/paulscotti

      Cheers

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