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Buble versus Morrissey

Who wins this crooner cage match? No contest.

Mark Mushet 7 Apr

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Right. So the Junos are history and Michael Buble is Canada's Artist of the Year. I can't believe it. When I first saw his face postered about town several years ago, I was sure and hopeful it would soon disappear. It represented such blandness; the face of conservative youth, favoured by the Mulroneys and anointed by the likes of saccharine dreckmeister David Foster. Now, he is Vancouver's great hope for the world's Sinatra-aping hipsters. He's ubiquitous and in full flush of broad commercial success. Surely the times demand better than this?

Different generations and times breed a multitude of tastes and needs when it comes to music. Buble's success seems like a triumphant proclamation of blandness as a virtue. His music seeks to provide comfort in the glossiest, least threatening songs of the past and the polished and empty lifestyles of the present. After all, airport lounges need soundtracks for consumption at their martini bars. But in my view, if there's going to be a conquering hero of the music charts, one really worth our attention, then he or she should be the one that speaks with anger and passion wrapped in poetry and originality. In short, one who makes great art out of popular song form. Michael Buble offers none of these things.

So, with the rise and market dominance of Michael Buble, I am forced to look further for the real thing, a voice for a generation and a time. And I have found it. It was there all along: Steven Patrick Morrissey - ex lead singer of 80s British bedsit miserablists The Smiths. Literate and poetically blunt, he recently made a triumphant "comeback" DVD titled (with delicious irony) "Who put the 'M' in Manchester?" and another CD is upon us this month titled "Ringleader of the Tormentors".

Cruel wit

In the DVD, Morrissey appears very much the conquering hometown hero with his name in tall red letters at the rear stage in clear and hysterical reference to Elvis. And the new album furthers the notion that Morrissey is THE crooner of the noughties; cruel, ironic, witty and full of life…and original songs. Meanwhile, Buble makes me ashamed that he is our "contender". Everything says shallow. Cynical. Product.

Both men bear some resemblance to 1950's crooners. But Buble comes straight from the stylists trailer on a Hollywood B-Movie lot…or a Vancouver side street. Morrissey's claim to the territory comes naturally, steeped in the post-war northern British malaise that produced Coronation Street, Teddy Boys and suchlike. It is an identity that has been consistent and honest for over two decades of living and singing, of highs and lows. He sings of nationalism, class, betrayal, pettiness, disappointment, twisted passions, the kitchen sink melodrama that life can be. Yet, he's often very precisely singing about our times and, lately, he's been singing about other singers...

From "The World is Full of Crashing Bores":

Lock-jawed pop stars thicker than pigshit / nothing to convey So scared to show intelligence It might smear their lovely career

Ouch! Bang-on, Steve. But we'd never say it out loud here in the colonies. As always, we wait for those better, and from elsewhere, to say what needs to be said, often in song form. Perhaps there's a good case to be made for a midnight cage match between these two clearly opposite claimants to the "Supreme Noughtie Crooner" title!

Sinatra updated

It may be unfair to compare. After all, Morrissey comes by his muse honestly, through a childhood in a bleak industrial English town. He sings of the hopes, shames, disappointments and cruelties endured (and dished out) all glazed with a rare form of touching irony. And his audience is unusually diverse, a sign that his lyrical concerns are universal on some level. He doesn't pander to a demographic. His comeback feels triumphant, coming as it does after a litany of personal setbacks, not least of which was being pilloried by his home country's media during much of the nineties. A high court judge once called him "truculent and devious." Well, aren't most true artists? Aren't most people? But still, he is the creator of a music that reflects inwards and outwards simultaneously. It is "affordable" and it appears there are enough kindred spirits in the world to reinvigorate his career. And the British music industry and press are willing to play ball with him.

Morrissey has recently opened his concerts with a personalized take on a classic that Buble will surely recognise:

Regrets, I've had a few but then again…too many to mention!

Then, post concert, the exit music is the full, unadulterated Sinatra version of "My Way." A cheesy and cheeky reference, but it resonates. It has stood the test of time. So will the best of Morrissey, I'll bet.

Buble, by way of contrast, is merely a stylist, a copyist in every sense. He's a marketing success borne of a culture where things come too easily, where authenticity is seen only in branding terms. He is careering. If only he had more regrets, he might be interesting. And maybe he does. And maybe he will. But I'm not holding my breath.

Voice of Vancouver?

Morrissey once sang "Sing your Life" and if Michael Buble is singing his, well then, he is - to borrow from our man Steven - a crashing bore. Even his choice of covers betrays a taste for the obvious. "Come Fly with Me", for example, was made famous by the "Chairman of the Board" and it is, not surprisingly, a tune oft mimicked and readymade for commercial exploitation. But at least Sinatra did his stint as a true outsider and whipping boy when tastes changed. He walked through his valleys and sung about them on occasion. Buble, however, is sticking to the peaks, the happy songs, uncut with any sort of depth or self-reflection. I could hardly get through half a CD without nodding off. And it all seems very American, which is fine as far as it goes. Morrissey is very British. But then where is the Canadian equivalent?

Even the most cynical marketers at record companies know that the real thing, music which is wrenched from the soul, is a rare commodity. A glance at the CD box sets and reissues on music store shelves (and in exclusive displays at Starbucks, where Buble is marketed heavily) tells us we value people who've created art in the crucible of suffering and observation. Billie Holliday, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, etc. But while they are here on earth, in real time, they are often forced to eat dirt until one is occasionally anointed through sheer attrition in the maw of one of the nastiest businesses on the planet.

But who could blame a modern singer for not wanting to suffer for their art? It's the old catch-22. You risk merely creating aural wallpaper for the mannered lifestyles of the wannabe rich and famous. And it is worrying to see so many young people falling for it. And depressing that Vancouver is the place of origin of this conspicuous example. For if ever there was a time to be vigilant, cutting, passionate and devastating in song, it is now. We need a talent and a voice that will put the "V" in Vancouver, a strong, proud and free singer of unique gifts. Buble's still young. But from what I've seen and heard so far, my suspicion is that he's more likely to put the "V" in Vegas. And that leaves us here in the colonies still reliant on an import from the motherland. Oh well, if you're looking for a real pop crooner, the "voice of a generation", at least Morrissey's tried and true.

Mark Mushet is a Vancouver-based photographer and writer, and the Photo / Art Editor of Vancouver Review.

Got a nomination for 'voice for a generation?' Post a comment.  [Tyee]

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