The 27 club, Trump and Juice Wrld
Some forty years ago I was working professionally trying to figure the connection between making money and creating music. I learned two things. That it is called Pop music because it is popular. And that it is popular because it demonstrates a connection with, or reaction to, the lowest common denominator. It is in this sense that the charts – the Billboard Hot Hundred, the UK Top Twenty, serve as a mirror of the society. And because of the influence of these two leading music markets, the state of the world. On many levels, especially reading age and literacy of young people.
Familiarity with music, as any musically educated person will already know, means popular recognition has little or no bearing on music merit. Commercial musical recognition reflects the lowest-common-denominator. In popular music success is essentially like holding up a lifestyle mirror. What you see at number one relates to the lifestyle of the majority. Especially the youth. Music popularity in a commercial sense has always been driven by the youth. Two years ago my 14 year old god step daughter told me about Billie Eilish. “She is going to be huge”. I listened – but, it sounded out of my appreciation zone musically. As I write now, Billie Eilish is a #1 artist reflecting a great deal about America’s youth. They know what they want, and they want their peers as their musical role models. Their lifestyle mirrors.
“Duh” I get that.
Aside of commercial success, which to the older generation who know the Beatles and Pat Metheny and the various California cocaine genius bands of the 60’s, 70’s, means we have no appreciation of the current top 100 Billboard. It is either Nigga/Hoe/fuck/bitch/slap or it is God fearing Country that sounds like an app designed to rehash every country song you ever heard before.
Nope; if your over 40 and its interest in today’s hit music your looking for, there is greater reward to be found in looking at the wider picture. How hit acts represent their young followers. Remember how the young went beserk at the Beatles. Life changing, door opening beserk. Because it represented a voice speaking of a place that the lowest common denominator wanted. (‘I want to Hold your hand’. A breathtaking thing to say OUT LOUD in 62.)
I have watched the charts regularly for many decades. To the extent of getting the Top 100 on Billboard (I don’t bother with the UK anymore) and every two weeks I scroll through the top hundred. Usually after 5 seconds I get the idea – so I can review the top hundred in about one hour. Every two weeks. That’s two hours a month of research.
Remember the 27 club.
Jimi, blowing everyone away with his LSD musicality, then getting super toasted and falling asleep, choking on his own vomit. 27. By then, everyone wanted to play Little Wing on a Strat. Guitar playing took a giant leap forward. He defiled the Star spangled banner with a fuzz box LSD version and lived to tell the tale.
Curt Cobain. Rocking the whole world with an acoustic guitar, left handed. Smells Like teen Spirit changed lives for a whole generation. His enormous success enabled a bad heroin habit that led him to shotgun by his own hand. 27.
Janis Joplin. A role model for girls. Up there rocking as an equal to any hard drinking, hard smoking, smack whacking male rock star. 27.
It made sense. The music and the live shows were mostly for the teen generation. The stars had to be young. (Older stars trying to win a youth audience were all too often deviant. Like Paul Gadd.)
The young stars would learn their craft after school. Serve a hard apprenticeship for a few years, like the Beatles in Hamburg. Paul Simon traveling folk clubs in Britain. Robert Zimmerman traveling to New York penniless, to find Woody Guthrie and become Bob Dylan.
Stars would rise and, for what became the timeless greats, generally would be rewarded with fame at 20. Seven years was a good run for any young star. “Better to burn out than it is to rust“. And many reflected the values of the time by having the good grace to die at 27. Leaving a legacy intact for commercial exploitation.
Jumping forward to today. Music in the Trump era.
Try listening to the Billboard Hundred. Hear what the American electorate deem popular. Listen to the voice of the lowest common denominator in American youth. What started as ‘Rap music’. Now labelled generically as Hip Hop. I first heard this format with Eminem. Slim Shady. I loved it. Got it straight away. Not about music, about telling a story. Being a voice. No wonder he is one of the biggest selling artists of all time. All the right ingredients. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t sing, because he understood phrasing and timing and tone. He is a masterful wordsmith, and he added singers where needed, for the ear candy. Who couldn’t relate to the Eminem story. But then came the post Eminem clone generation.
Mostly Black. Mostly illiterate. Mostly severely exploited, mostly by Black Label bosses. Mostly denied even the opportunity to take up a career in boxing for want of physical discipline. All they had to do was follow the path of least resistance, emulate the lowest common denominator. No need to acquire any musical skills through 10,000 hours of passionate endeavor.
The culture of selling music became X Factor TV shows, separating the need for musical talent entirely from the celebrity aspect. Celebrities appeared by reality TV who became big selling artists because: Lowest common denominator.
It’s easy to have a committee identify what that is, and have 8 producers write a four minute dirge. Presto. Handsome young man, (Or girl with splendid buttocks and a good screech.) Over the past two decades, that’s been the migration. Very few new musical artists can depend on talent and recognition of talent to develop. The system depends on copycat sound a likes – milking the same market – the lowest common denominator dog whistle sounds to capture the reality TV watching young teens of America. Without doubt, a process as racist now as it ever was.
With all this in mind, imagine my surprise when I heard Juice Wrld. (Juice being a reference to TUPAC.) A big new star, signed to a subsidiary of Geffen Music, the same company as Joni Mitchell was, who enjoyed hits with Lucid Dreams in 2018 and All Girls Are the Same. In his song Legends Jarad A Higgins, AKA Juice Wrld rapped: ‘What’s the 27 Club? We ain’t making it past 21. I been going through paranoia.‘
His big hit was basically playing Sting’s “Shape of my heart’ and then doing some mumbling, in what I have just determined is a defeated style. A style not protesting for better – demanding change. A style looking inwards to despair. Hopelessness. Defeat Rap. No happy outcome here. This is more “The times they have a-changed. And lets be done with it.”
Why would a 19 year old boy be so gloomy in his outlook. And why would this resonate with a generation of young Americans?
Juice Wrld was raised by a single mum, very Christian, very poor. Now imagine being poorly educated. Very poor. Black in Chicago. Listening to the voice of the rappers who are your identity role models. Tyler, The Creator, Young Thug. Drake, Rick Ross. etc…… The same ten who occupy the Top Hundred for sales to the Black market. And next thing, at 19, you can gift a Lamborghini to the Chicago rapper who is managing you?
Then you have Trump as President? Try and imagine a young Black man finding his identity in this social climate. A value system. A set of core ethics. Learning about Love. And empathy. And kindness. And goals. And achievement. And moderation. And excellence, the pursuit and enjoyment of.
I am not at all surprised by the ‘what happened next’ answer. Jarad Higgins died on Sunday. Days after his 21’st birthday.
The headline reads:
Rapper Juice Wrld has died aged 21 after suffering a reported seizure at Chicago’s Midway airport Sunday morning. Anthony Guglielmi, a Chicago police spokesman, said the star “began convulsing (and) going into a seizure” as authorities were searching two carts of luggage at about 2am on Sunday morning. Federal agents quickly administered Narcan, a drug used to revive people thought to be overdosing on opioids, and the Chicago Fire Department was on the scene in under seven minutes.
Higgins woke up but was incoherent and, after being taken to hospital, was pronounced dead just after 3am.
But Narcan as a mistake. he was not on opioids. He was on Lean. Adding more sorrow to an already sad situation.
“It hasn’t really caught up to me yet. I haven’t really felt like ‘Oh my God, what just happened?’ But I think it’s a good thing because when people get caught up, they can get lost — lost in the moment. That can ruin somebody.”
Blending elements of meandering, mumble-rap singing against drill-lite percussion and pop-punk melodies, Juice Wrld has captured the minds of the generation raised on both Warped Tour and Summer Jam — bridging the gap between urban and suburban youth experiences; an angst-riddled adolescence that feels just as romantically rejected and isolated as it wants to turn-up.
His debut LP “Goodbye & Good Riddance” hit No. 7 on Billboard’s “Top 200” four weeks after its release. Higgins was also named Apple Music’s newest “Up Next” artist. He topped the Billboard chart this year with his second album Death Race for Love.
“My mom didn’t want me to listen to that music,” he said. “I was a little kid, those lyrics aren’t made for kids’ ears. She’s more on the conservative side, but I completely agree with her. Future is one of my favorite artists and I was listening to him in sixth/seventh grade wanting to drink lean, like that’s crazy. (Lean is a cheap drug concoction, probably the one that caused him to have the seizure that killed him.) Words have a lot of power. I was still developing as a person — mentally, physically, so those years were very crucial for who I am right now and that’s completely understandable. I talk about a lot of issues I go through and some of my fans go through, and try to create a fellowship where people can relate to each other,” he added. “I’m not worried about anyone getting the wrong idea or stereotyping what I’m doing. My music is straightforward because I want to give people me and let them know they’re not alone in going through the things that they go through.”
Higgins said he was focused on what he saw as his longevity as an artist.
“Life is a journey,” he said. “There’s no thought process really, it’s just life. (The album) is a couple pages of that. The ball just naturally keeps rolling. Two of my biggest songs are about relationship issues, that’s kind of cool. But there’s a whole other side of me that people haven’t seen yet and I get to show them.”
In high school, Jarad Higgins was a failing student with an active imagination (and a passion for Percy Jackson’s fantasy novels). He began posting songs to SoundCloud that he’d recorded on his cellphone in his sophomore year, as much a fan of Future, Soulja Boy and Tyler, the Creator, as of pop-punk and melodic hard-core bands like Escape the Fate, Bullet for My Valentine and Panic! at the Disco. Those influences shine through in his vocal approach, which relies heavily on the confident moping of that generation of rock-band frontmen.
In one of his songs, Juice Wrld rapped about the short lives of artists, saying “all the legends seem to die out”. (Yet this guys biggest hit is a sample of a Sting song. I guess that is the confident moping they speak of.)
The song, titled Legends, was dedicated to two late rappers, 20-year-old XXXTentacion and 21-year-old Lil Peep, who died in 2018 and 2017, respectively.
NME said the rapper “makes songs that stick, his vocal dissonance capturing what it feels like to be young and in pain, and feeling a sense of indifference towards authority figures“.
In a 2018 interview with the New York Times, Juice Wrld opened up about his use of cannabis and Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication. “I smoke weed, and every now and then I slip up and do something that’s poor judgment,” he told the paper.
The poor judgement is almost certainly the thing that killed him. Lean. Higgins has been candid about his use of lean, a liquid concoction containing prescription-strength cough syrup and soft drinks. In another of his songs, titled Empty, he references lean, saying it solves problems.
Another voice of the Trump generation silenced by sheer blind lack of will to live.
That is the message I take away from this sad story. And the similarly sad stories of the whole crop of super young deaths of stars who are ‘not really stars’ if I may be so uncouth as to make this observation. Why”
More than any other single reason, because they reflect an era where a President is not really a President. They mirror and age of false lives. False news. Fake everything. All the values that made popular music uplift youth, in the way that Dylan, Lennon/McCartney, Fagen/Becker, Tom Waits, Joni, Gordon Sumner and the plethora of great and skilled brilliant writers and performers who served their youthful audience so well, are dissolved in the ethical meltdown of a reality TV life based on nothing more than ratings chasing the lowest common denominator. All with the same abysmal monotone sub bass and metallic machine hi hat.
Jarad Anthony Higgins. 21. Such a waste. Hopefully his message in death will serve a higher purpose than his reality in life.
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