Feels nothing like teen spirit

The albums chart is filled with some of the least-offensive music ever made and rock critics are wondering what ever happened to youthful rebellion as embodied by punk rock and grunge. The stars of easy listening see things differently. Jamie Cullum, Katie Melua, Lauren Waterworth and Michael Bublé tell Simmy Richman why they are the revolutionaries
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Call it the Norah factor and blame her if you must. But there is more than just the small matter of 8 million sales (and counting) of Ms Jones's debut album behind the resurgence in what music critics are calling "the new easy listening".

Call it the Norah factor and blame her if you must. But there is more than just the small matter of 8 million sales (and counting) of Ms Jones's debut album behind the resurgence in what music critics are calling "the new easy listening".

Look at the albums chart: there's Katie Melua (1 million sales to date and, aside from one week, keeping Norah Jones's second album off the top slot). Then there's Norah herself; Jamie Cullum; Harry Connick Jr; Engelbert Humperdinck. Hell, there's even room for Barry Manilow at the top-20 party.

But Humperdinck and Manilow are at least old enough to remember the golden age of easy listening - the days when melody was key; the days of Frank, Dean and Doris; the days before those rockers, rappers, punks and grungers snarled, spat and crotch-grabbed their way into the living-rooms of settled suburbia.

So what has happened to this new generation of artists that makes them content to noodle away in the background making music your gran would like, rather than trying to change the world. OK, many aren't old enough to remember the Clash. But what about Nirvana. Put simply: what has happened to teen spirit?

Music fans of a certain age used to blame Thatcher for all that was wrong with the young people coming up behind them. They called the kids who grew up under her premiership, Thatcher's Children. They felt sorry for that generation's lack of rage, feelings of powerlessness and all-round conservatism. But many of this current crop are too young to remember Thatcher, let alone be influenced by her. It seems there must be something else happening in society that has made these kids turn out this way.

Could it be that once the advertising and marketing people of the late 1990s realised that "edgy" was where it was at, edgy somehow lost its edge. Is it that - like Saffy in Absolutely Fabulous - this generation is content to be sensible, hard-working and not rock the boat?

Or is it the decline of singles sales (down nearly 20 million in the past year) while sales of albums have continued to rise as a result of the new, more mature buyer. (The British Phonographic Industry has revealed that 40- to 49-year-olds are now buying more albums that 12- to 19-year-olds for the first time.) Maybe the people buying records are as unadventurous as the people making them. Maybe "the kids" just prefer to download.

Or could it be the "Radio 2 phenomenon". Mark Banham, radio correspondent of Media Week, says that one of the reasons Radio 2 now has 13 million listeners (compared with around 10 million for Radio 1), is that "another generation is growing up with a more rounded view of music". So maybe the truth is simply that this music - the old classics, the jazz standards, the tunes to croon - is better than anything that has come after it?

To find out whether rock'n'roll has already, or will ever die, we tracked down some of the artists at the forefront of this velvet-eared revolution...

Jamie Cullum

Although he was given a few piano lessons as a young lad, pretty soon Jamie Cullum was listening to indie, rock, Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana, you name it. "I showed a little potential at piano," Cullum says, as bright as a button in spite of having just stepped off the early morning train from Paris, "but I was much more interested in playing the guitar. I didn't practice and I wasn't into classical music, so I only went back to the piano when I discovered Dr John, Herbie Hancock and Harry Connick Jr. From then on I was self-taught."

Cullum, 24, grew up in the West Country and says he was "into music full-stop". He discovered jazz by working back from dance music and hip hop. These days, jazz purists are arguing among themselves whether Cullum is an ambassador for the genre, or a liability.

"I love those arguments," Cullum laughs. "I'm flattered by the attention and realise that I'm not yet a great jazz musician. But people have to understand that's what I'm striving to be - that's the lifetime project."

Is there a side to Cullum that just wants to rock out, and does he feel restricted from doing so by a multimillion-pound recording contract that is happy to keep him playing the "Sinatra in sneakers" card forever?

"There are lots of sides to me," he says, tucking into a hurried lunch. "When people ask me why I play jazz, I say that I think good music is relevant to any generation, in the way that On the Road was relevant to me, even though I didn't grow up in the US in the 1950s.

"I can get the same hit from 'I Get a Kick Out of You' as I do from Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. I'm from that generation and I bunked off school the day Cobain died. At that time I would have ridiculed songs like 'I Get a Kick'. But when I played at festivals last year, kids were coming up to me and asking: 'What was that "cocaine" song you sang?'

"You know," he says, offering a bite of his sandwich to anyone interested, while begging to be allowed to make tea for the six or so people surrounding him today, "I'm fascinated by the way some critics have accused me, and artists like me, of being boring. These people probably go home to their wife and kids and moan about how things used to be. But I don't have to justify myself. I like going out, getting drunk and other things I'm not going to talk about. But everyone wants to be a rocker or in a rap band, so this is something off the wall and different. Maybe we are rebelling against the conformity of being in leather-jacket-wearing rock bands."

'Twentysomething' is out now. Jamie Cullum tours the UK in June and July. Go to www.jamiecullum.com for details

Lauren Waterworth

The youngest of the artists here, Lauren Waterworth was just 11 years old when Pete Waterman signed her up to be the "new Charlotte Church". Now 15, she has sung for members of the Royal Family, supported Westlife on tour and her debut album of "inspirational songs" was the highest entry in its week of release last year.

But today, she ambles into the Covent Garden hotel with her mother looking like any other 15-year-old. They have come to London on the train from Wigan and it doesn't take long before Waterworth is bubbling away on the music she loves most.

"Big ballads," she says decisively. "I grew up listening to Celine Dion with me mum and I love her [Celine] and Barbra Streisand." The first song Waterworth says she really loved was Streisand's "Evergreen", from the film A Star is Born. So did she relate at all to the wild rock character played by Kris Kristofferson in that film.

"Well, I've got a bit of a mischievous side," she admits. "I get up to all the normal things my friends get up to." And how have her friends reacted to her music. "Well a lot of them are into different things to me - although everyone decided to be my friend when I was playing with Westlife. Anyway, some of my friends are into the dark clothes. Some of them love my music and some tell me that it's not their cup of tea. I respect their honesty. Although sometimes I do think, 'Why aren't I making the kind of music my friends will go and buy?'"

So does it frustrate her to be this clean-cut hymn-singing goody-goody. "I really felt my age when everyone used to go drinking after Westlife concerts," she says. And what does she make of current pop acts her own age? "I don't so much like their music," she says, "but I like Avril Lavigne's clothes. Look I know," she says reflectively, "that it's weird for someone my age to love big ballads like I do, but I need to feel emotion when I'm singing and they just make me happy."

When it comes to summoning the adult emotions of, say, love, how does she cope. "Obviously I'm not experienced in relationships," she says. "But I can relate to them in different ways. And also, something happens when you sing. Off stage, I'm bubbly and Northern. But on stage I'm this other person who lives for music. I don't perform - it just happens from the heart."

'Beyond Her Years' is out now

Michael Bublé

Born in Vancouver, Michael Bublé is the 25-year-old swinger who has now notched up over a million worldwide sales for his album of "perennials". He discovered swing through his grandfather and says that something magical happened the first time he was played a Mills Brothers record.

Today, Bublé is shuffling around a suite at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington eager to justify this love for his chosen music. "When I was growing up this music was everywhere," he says. "I'd hear it at home, in coffee shops, commercials. Of course, I heard modern stuff too - Nirvana and Pearl Jam - but while there was melody there, it wasn't enough for me. All I can tell you about this music can be summed up in that one word: melody."

What did his friends at school make of his musical preference? "In a way," he says, "this was my rebellion. When I was growing up kids weren't given any choice. Radio stations and record companies weren't servicing people who weren't between 13 and 16. They took every bit of shit for that demographic and threw it at them."

So does this swinger shtick come naturally to him? "Well, there's an element of an act," he admits, "but that's an extension of any performer. Someone once told me I wasn't old enough to sing about heartbreak, but I said: if an actor has to play a junkie, does he have to take heroin? Look," he says, animated and in full, er, swing, "I was not born in 1930 and I am not nostalgic about this music. I don't drink Martinis and I'm not Frank Sinatra. Frank was great but Frank's dead. I'm Michael Bublé."

"For too long there were a lot of people being kept out of the loop," he continues. "I like rap, pop and R&B. I can hear it's good but for too long there has only been room for that and no room for... I don't want to call it easy listening because easy listening is not what I do."

Are there conflicts being a modern man in a world where a different set of standards might be expected? "There was a time," he admits, "when I told a journalist I might have had a bit of a joint once. Some people told me not to admit to things like that as I could alienate a section of my audience. You know, I thought about that for a few days. But then I decided that I only want to have real fans; people who are into me for what I am." *

'Michael Bublé' is out now. Bublé tours the UK in May and November. Go to www.michaelbuble.com for details

Katie Melua

The 19-year-old who has spent the best part of this year at number one in the album chart wafts in carrying an acoustic guitar. We are in Westbourne Studios in west London, a long way from Melua's birthplace of Georgia, in the former USSR. When Melua was nine, her dad got a job as a heart surgeon in Belfast and home is now with mum and dad in Surrey, although she is planning to buy a house of her own soon - with the profits from the phenomenally successful Call Off the Search.

She was discovered by Mike "Wombles" Batt while studying at the Brit School for Performing Arts in south London, and today, huddled over a Diet Coke, she is relaxed, happy and full of the heartfelt opinions of any ordinary 19-year-old. She grew up listening to pop acts such as the Spice Girls, and says her musical epiphany came when she discovered "the greats" - Dylan, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and Eva Cassidy.

"I thought the Spice Girls were hip and cool," she says, "which they were to a 13-year-old. But then I heard Eva Cassidy's 'Over the Rainbow' and it opened my eyes. I thought: 'This sounds old-fashioned but also fresh and new.' It made me realise my love of the Spice Girls wasn't to do with the music." Having discovered Cassidy, Melua began to delve into the back catalogues of artists such as Bob Dylan. So would she ever consider using her new-found fame to protest against the wrongs of the world?

"I've already written a song like that," she says. "Young people listen to music more than they listen to politicians. Musical protest can be a powerful tool and it's been neglected in the mainstream charts recently."

But you are Katie Melua. The star of the new easy listening. People suppose you to be as conservative (with a small "c") as your music. "God, I'm so unconservative," she roars. "That's so funny. Also, I don't think that my music is conservative because of the climate it's in. If everyone else was doing jazzy bluesy folky things in the charts, then you could accuse me of being conservative. But everyone's doing R&B and hip hop and it's the same old tune and the same old video and this is completely different. So how can that be conservative?"

If you are in any doubt about where Melua sits politically, talk to her about Iraq. "That war made me so angry," she says, going into a rant about the apology George Bush should have issued to the world after 11 September. Does her team ever worry about her sprouting these opinions. "When I first came along people did tell me to tone it down," she says. "But I haven't said anything I'm not happy with you printing."

So is Melua now a part of the "fame culture" she first noticed through her love of the Spice Girls all those years ago? "I think about where I stand in the current scene," she admits, "but I just want to make the music I love and I can't really control the outer things." And if you were writing about the new easy listening, how would you describe herself. "The dirty Norah Jones," she says without missing a beat.

'Call Off the Search' is out now

Comments