- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

Watching Norah Jones sweep Sunday's Grammys, it would be easy to think of her success as astonishing but essentially anomalous. It would be easy but wrong.

Miss Jones is actually part of a larger musical trend that has been gaining momentum for years and could accelerate further once the record industry finally figures out what's driving it. The record industry being what it is, it is likely to try to imitate Miss Jones' success rather than understand it. That would be a mistake, because the trend I am talking about isn't centered on any specific musical genre. Rather, during the past several years, there has been a succession of offbeatþ surprise musical sensations of widely divergent styles.

With each new year bringing a surprise in a different genre, maybe it shouldn't come as such a surprise anymore.

The surprise champ of last year's Grammys was the old-time country music from the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Before that came the craze for the wistful Cuban dance music of the 1930s, brought to America by the spry survivors of an era long past in the documentary "The Buena Vista Social Club." All the while, the career of jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall has been rocketing forward.

What these disparate musical styles have in common is more important than what separates them, and that's why they should be viewed as a single broadly advancing trend in musical tastes and markets: There is a growing audience for music that is sincere, skilled and melodic music made from and addressed to the emotional lives of honest-to-goodness adults.

For the longest time, mainstream adult audiences had very few musical choices. If they didn't like grunge or rap or boy bands, they could always listen to the "classic rock" of their youth. For many, that was, and is, enough. Or they could listen to Kenny G. and the other perpetrators of "smooth jazz" a musiclike product meant to act as aural Valium for people buckling under the stresses of middle age. As it turns out, most adults don't want the soothing neutrality of smooth jazz any more than they want the raw buzz saw of rap-metal.

Sure, the opening guitar riff of "Brown Sugar" may still bring a smile to their faces, but enjoying one's old Rolling Stones albums now and then doesn't mean you aren't searching for something new. What the adult audience seems to be seeking are songs that give voice to the inescapable complexities and contradictions of adult life.

Our adolescent popular culture may refuse to grow up, but real people must, whether they want to or not. As they do, they outgrow the music of their youth. Aristotle argued that youths have no business studying ethics because they lack the experience to understand what's at stake; so, too, there's little point in listening to Frank Sinatra's "In the Wee Small Hours" while in your teens.

Earlier generations of Americans were lucky. Once they matured into experienced and complicated adults, they found experienced and complicated music waiting for them. The rock-'n'-roll generation seems to be realizing it was shortchanged.

Perhaps that's why Rod Stewart decided to take on the great American songbook. The record is a travesty, yes, because Mr. Stewart hasn't got much of a voice left, and his impoverished musical vocabulary leaves him without the means to tackle such songs as "I'll Be Seeing You," but for all its embarrassments, the record has sold more than 3 million copies.

The lesson here is that aging rockers need not pander anymore either to the nostalgia of their boomer peers or to adolescents, with smarmy parodies of adolescent desire, rebellion and rage. Indeed, the market seems to be saying that they had better grow up if they want to sell records to grown-ups. If they don't, this market will buy grown-up records, anyway whether from a 23-year-old like Norah Jones or an octogenarian like the "O Brother" soundtrack's Ralph Stanley.

It's worth comparing the thriving trend toward adult music with a huge non-rock fad that promptly fizzled. If you want to know what happens when a teen sensibility is applied to adult sounds, take a look at the short-lived "neo-swing" craze inspired by the self-consciously trend-mongering movie "Swingers." The sudden success of such bands as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Squirrel Nut Zippers was a symptom of the creative exhaustion that has plagued pop and rock for years.

There are significant audiences that are open to that crave, really something other than the tired offerings heard on radio. Why, then, did these bands suddenly crash back to Earth? In large part, they simply lacked the musical skills necessary to sustain long-term interest.

The Squirrel Nut Zippers' second-rate horn players had to contend with third-rate singers. The band members did their best to wink and nod at the audience, striking an ironic pose with their sloppy playing, but that kind of shtick gets old in a hurry. Adult audiences, in particular, are signaling that they have little patience these days for music that isn't sincere, that lacks the emotional power that comes from honest experience.

In contrast to the neo-swing crowd, the "Buena Vista" and "O Brother" virtuosos have never had to make joking excuses for their playing. If the musical deficit weren't in and of itself enough to doom neo-swing, there was another problem: With their campy antics, zoot-suit costumes and contrived hipster argot, the neo-swing bands were playing to a youth audience. That audience was amused for a while by all those wacky fedoras, then got bored and moved on. The young mind always has been fickle, and in the era of MTV, the young have the attention span of minnows.

Industry artist-and-repertoire men are hunting for demos that copy the Norah Jones template. Expect an avalanche of scratchy-voiced girl singers floating on airy, pared-down rhythm sections. But the A&R men are missing the point. They should be looking across far-flung genres for music that is part of the larger trend toward adult music.

As the trend grows, the audience is becoming more sophisticated and eclectic in its tastes. For all the antique counterculture propaganda about open-minded youth and narrow-minded adults, the truth is nearer the opposite. Teens are often very doctrinaire in their musical tastes, in part because those tastes often are little more than an expression of group identity. Adults are less susceptible to pressures to conform to group expectations in taste and fashion.

Today's new adult audience is happy to embrace jazz, country, Latin and the great American songbook without much concern for category. The recording industry would do well to worry less about cloning Norah and think more about finding good music that is not an insult to grown-up intelligence and emotional complexity.

Eric Felten, a singer and trombonist, leads the Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra.

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