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Scott Brinton

Where’s the soul in today’s popular music?


Lately I’ve been worried that I’m becoming Andy Rooney, the curmudgeonly commentator who capped each episode of CBS’s “60 Minutes” from 1978 to 2011 with a segment titled “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney.” He packed a lot of wit and wisdom into his two and a half minutes of airtime for the weekly news magazine.
Rooney died in 2011, at 92. He was a member of the “greatest generation,” having written for Stars & Stripes from the front lines of Europe during World War II. He described himself as a “dead-center, normal, average American,” and yes, he very much represented his generation.
He often railed against modern music and art. He could never quite get what any of it meant, and he found it utterly distasteful. One of the biggest (and relatively few) controversies that he stirred was caused by his remarks after the death of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain by a self-inflicted gunshot in April 1994. To Rooney, the heroin-addled Cobain somehow represented Generation X — those born between 1965 and roughly 1984 — and he held back nothing in his bitter analysis of Cobain and Gen X.
As a member of Gen X, I was forever insulted.
Nearing death in 2010, Rooney appeared to mellow. Gone were the harsh words for the music produced by younger generations. He simply remarked that he was entirely out of touch with it. In a May 2010 episode, he listed three artists whom he had no knowledge of, but whom you would have expected anyone with a heartbeat in America would know — Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Usher. Rooney claimed to have never heard of them, except when pointed out by someone else.

“I don’t know who Lady Gaga is, and kids today don’t know who Ella Fitzgerald is,” he remarked in his customary deadpan. “Maybe we should call it even.”
Back in 2010, I at least knew of the artists Rooney listed. I’ll confess, however, that I had not heard of nearly all the musicians honored at the Grammy Awards last month, including Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Lil Nas X, Cage the Elephant, Vampire Weekend, et al. I was familiar with one nominee, Ariana Grande, but only because she was a cast member of a show that my daughter loved as a kid, Nickelodeon’s “Victorious,” back around 2010. Otherwise, I was utterly clueless.
My goodness, I thought, have I really become Andy Rooney?
As brief video clips by the artists appeared on the airwaves in the days leading up to and after the Grammys, I could only think how self-absorbed the music seemed. I found myself wondering, is this what passes for music and art these days?
Increasingly, I thought about the artists who had helped shape my formative years — artists with a soul, a worldview. Artists who spoke of love, but also of the environment, homelessness, drug addiction and war. Artists who championed the poor and the oppressed. I’m speaking of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Creedence Clearwater Revival, U2, R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs.
When did mainstream music lose its social conscience?
Alas, perhaps that’s how it should be, I thought. On the other hand, I can’t help feeling that music should be more than a catchy tune. It needs a certain gravitas — not all the time, but at least once in a while. I’m sorry, that’s a product of my generational thinking, of the era in which I came of age.
That was why I was floored to hear Coldplay’s most recent album, “Everyday Life,” for the first time, as it happened, around the time of the Grammys. It blew me away, not only because of its exceptional musicianship, but also its soul. I can’t stop listening to it.
I’ve long admired Coldplay’s music, with its fervent, thumping beats, explosive choral segments and intelligent lyrics, but the band never particularly struck me as the next U2. It was a group of hyper-talented musicians who rarely — apologies to diehard Coldplay fans — made an impactful statement through their music.
Not so with “Everyday Life,” which explores cultures and social issues from around the world, including Africa, the Middle East and the U.S. It’s vehemently anti-gun and pro-people. It’s all about giving a voice to the voiceless, and the music is stunning. Ayoola Magbagbeola’s tenor saxophone solo on “Arabesque” is, hands down, the greatest bit of musical artistry I have heard in ages. “Éko,” with its sweet African guitar riffs, is probably the most beautiful song I have ever heard.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a band made up entirely of British Gen Xers, all born in the late 1970s, would finally produce an album that embraced the notion that music should be about the greater good — that there is a world beyond our own four walls, a world that is often frightening, but also magical. “Everyday Life” shows both sides of it.
Yes, I do see hope in today’s music scene. Maybe I haven’t become Andy Rooney just yet.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.