How to Fix SNL's Musical Acts
The music could be good again.
I like to think that the thousands of people who clucked and hooted about Lana Del Rey's performance on Saturday Night Live last month were stunned into abashed silence when they saw novelty faux-rap duo Karmin perform on the show last week. Del Rey was nervous and awkward, but Karmin was genuinely awful, from their forced and credibility-free appropriations of hip-hop to frontwoman Amy Heidemann's unbearably twee irritating-theater-kid persona.
It didn't used to be like this. If you look at the Wikipedia page that lists every SNL host and musical guest since the show premiered back in the fall of 1975, it's amazing how hip the show's music guests used to be. Legendary jazz singer Betty Carter one week, Horses-era Patti Smith the next. Tom Waits at the height of his barfly-poet persona in 1977, Kate Bush in the midst of her artsy-pinup phase the following year. And it's not restricted to the show's so-called "golden age," either: The Specials, Captain Beefheart, Sparks and Squeeze all appeared on the show during its 1980-83 nadir.
Admittedly, by the time I was watching the show religiously in high school and college, the musical guests had grown safer and more commercially viable, but even then, acts like The Sugarcubes and Teenage Fanclub occasionally broke trough amidst the Tracy Chapman and MC Hammer snoozefests. But these days, the musically credible acts are few and far between, and even then, they're along the indie-but-widely-accessible lines of Fleet Foxes or The Ting-Tings. Critical Mob faves like Destroyer or The War On Drugs are not gonna show up on SNL anytime soon.
The irony is that within the last year, both of those acts have appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, a show with multiple ties to SNL. (Fallon's an ex-castmember, obviously, but his announcer Steve Higgins is also SNL's head producer, and of course both shows are executive-produced by Lorne Michaels.) One of the main reasons why Fallon's show quickly became the must-see late night talk show is that its music booker has a perfect ear. Hip young acts appear regularly, but so do R&B veterans, underground and old-school hip-hoppers, proper red-dirt country singers, jazz players and other underexposed stalwarts. It's an always-interesting mix -- much like what SNL's music bookers used to put together -- and there is no reason why the weekend crew can't put together something just as exciting.
In the meantime, this weekend it's faux-indie bandwagon jumpers Sleigh Bells (a duo consisting of a girl who used to be in a Spice Girls knockoff and a guy who used to be in a third-string emocore band), and next week it's...Justin Bieber. At least the comedy is mostly pretty funny these days.
|Elvis Costello on SNL, December 1977|