Why There Will Never Be Another Pop Star Like Phil Collins
Phil Collins isn't cool but that's exactly why he's so important.
There will probably never be another artist like Phil Collins in pop music and that's a shame. That's not to say there won't be other artists who embrace the darker side of pop or can play stunning drum solos, but the way the world is going, there just isn't room for global musical icons who look like they could be the protagonist of Sideways 2. (In fact, chances are, there will never even be another superstar with the name "Phil" so I'm going to refer to him via his first name for the duration of this piece.) Let's face it, Phil was never cool-looking and now that he's in his 60s and obsessed with the Alamo, the odds of him making a full-fledged comeback are about as good as Mexico annexing Texas. However, this says less about Phil than it does the current state of pop music.
Some backstory: Phil Collins was my first concert ever and I still have the shirt from it. (The most notable thing about it is that Phil doesn't list the cities on the back like a typical act but instead lists the countries.) The year was 1990, I was 11 years old and Phil was touring on his smash album …But Seriously, an album that's artwork features an unflattering profile of his face which I proudly displayed across my chest as a teenager. I used to lie and say that my first concert was Guns N' Roses on the Use Your Illusion tour but that was technically my third concert after catching Phil and, separately, Genesis on the We Can't Dance Tour. The dude I went to one of these shows with is now a congressman who looks like one of Kevin Spacey's cronies on House Of Cards. In other words, it was a long fucking time ago.
The author's threadbared Phil Collins shirt.
Anyway, the other day, I came across my shirt and queued up …But Seriously and nostalgia-factor aside, it sounds pretty good even if a lot of the keyboard patches and arrangements are obviously incredibly dated by today's standards. However, what else struck me aside from Phil's distinctive croon was the lyrical content. I mean, look at his number one hit, "Another Day In Paradise." This is essentially a song about feeling guilty about ignoring homeless people, sung in a way that certainly isn't going to make you feel fuzzy inside. To refresh your memory since you maybe haven't been jamming to Phil on the reg, it goes something like this: "She calls out to the man on the street, 'Sir, can you help me? It's cold and there's nowhere I can sleep, is there some way you can tell me?' He walks on doesn't reply, he pretends he can't hear her. Starts to whistle as he crosses the street, seems embarrassed to be there."
Now let's contrast that with today's number one song, "Happy" by Pharrell Williams. "It might seem crazy what I'm about to say, Sunshine, she's here, you can take a break. I'm a hot air balloon that could go to space. With the air, like I don't care, baby by the way." There's nothing wrong with celebrating happiness and allowing music to be a respite from the daily grind but it's also difficult to argue against the fact that songs like this are inherently about escaping our problems instead of embracing them. Admittedly, 80s all-star anthems like "We Are The World" sound hokey now but can you imagine every pop icon getting over their beefs for long enough to get together in the same room and make a song about peace in 2014? It would never happen—or if it did, it would be part of a reality show and/or marketing campaign.
Writer Neal Pollack recently got a lot of flack for writing an excellent piece for the New York Observer about how SXSW has become over-commercialized and while he was right, it's not just the festival, it's mainstream culture in general, from pop to politics. (Do you really think we'll ever elect another president who looks like Ronald Reagan in the post-Obama age?) When we think about the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, each genre has a distinctive sound and feel. When we look back on the current era, is there going to be a stylistic hallmark or are we going to just remember Lady Gaga wearing a meat suit to the Grammys or the different colors of Nicki Minaj's wigs? Phil would ask "Do You Remember?" referring to a time when "going viral" was a concerning outcome. Then again, Phil probably had trouble getting laid even when he was one of the biggest pop stars in the world… and there's something strangely reassuring in that reality.
But don't take my word for it. I talked to notable Phil Collins enthusiast, Erin Tate, the drummer for Minus The Bear, who explained, "People that say Phil Collins is cheesy have never listened to his full catalog," citing that Collins started the influential prog group Brand X. "As a drummer, he was the first to step out from the background and take control of his situation. Genesis lost an amazing frontman with Peter Gabriel, but Phil David Collins stepped up to bring the band to new heights," he summarizes, "which, as a drummer, is pretty fucking killer." Tate also informed me that Collins recently came out of retirement to announce that he's going to work with Adele, which makes sense considering she's a kindred spirit in the sense that she looks like a real person; like Phil, her talent is so vast that she can't be ignored just because she doesn't fit the physical mold.
As I was typing this, "I Wish It Would Rain Down" came on just as it started pouring outside and when Phil sang, "I wish it would rain, rain down on me," I realized that clearly it's a metaphor for love and loss. But like all Phil Collins songs, ultimately, it's about the pain of a break-up and what it feels like to have your heart yanked out of your chest. It's gut-wrenching and traumatic but at least it forces you to feel something. Today's pop music doesn't hurt but as a whole, it doesn't make you question, either. Maybe it's a symptom of the internet, maybe people are sick of being bombarded with depressing shit, or maybe I'm just becoming senile.
I just like my music to make me feel something. Not in a fleeting way… but seriously.
Jonah Bayer can feel it, coming in the air tonight. Follow him on Twitter - @mynameisjonah