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An Open Letter to “SNL”: Your Live Music Just Sucks

RCL music columnist misses era when “Saturday Night Live” rocked viewers’ minds.

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Dear Lorne Michaels:

I am not writing you out of anger that Mr. Kanye West made an achingly sincere, almost historically shallow, bizarrely self-pitying, archetypically self-mythologizing pro-Trump speech while wearing a MAGA hat at the end of the September 29th Saturday Night Live.

This is still a free country, and Mr. Kanye West can express any opinion he wants. In fact, I think Mr. Kanye West’s willingness to risk his credibility and the support of his fans by making this statement is genuinely admirable.

That’s not what we are here to discuss.

What does make me truly angry about Saturday Night Live, is that your show was once a beacon of intense, spontaneous, soul-engaging and life-changing actual live music, and has now been reduced to consistently showcasing ill-prepared singers loping about lazily while lip-syncing, and/or large-scale PopCircus backing-track reliant live productions shrunk down to pet crate size.

What the actual f–k, Lorne Michaels?

Lorne, my life was changed by your live music performances. I was never the same, never the same, after I watched Patti Smith Group on April 17, 1976; they reached into a box made of poetry, broken glass, and garage rock and dragged me into the future. And when I saw the Kinks slashing, laughing, slurring, stumbling and roaring through a messy medley of their hits on February 26, 1977, it confirmed what my 14-year old mine already suspected: The Kinks were the Beatles of outsiders.

That now seems like an especially long time ago.

“Saturday Night Live” Episode 17 — Air Date 04/17/1976 — Pictured: Patti Smith of musical guest The Patti Smith Group performs on April 17, 1976 — (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

See, as erratic as your show is, it still retains a chalk outline of its original form and brave impetus of relevant and inventive comedy. But that doesn’t hold true for the musical performances.

The music performances on SNL have deteriorated into a state that your younger self would have peed on, then mocked while sipping white wine with your friends, then peed on again. The so-called live music on SNL circa 2018 is literally no better then the kind of sub-Vegas lip sync prancin’ and dancin’ we would have seen on 1973 summer replacement TV shows.

Man, your live music performances used to breathe, they used to grab the molecules in the air around them and create a wired, muscular energy that would sigh, sob, and scream through the damn TV screen. When you started SNL, it reflected a hipster culture and a downtown culture, and your musical bookings echoed that, too. They were eclectic, largely comprised of artists who would invent within the moment, and more importantly, they matched, stride for stride, the counter-culture element that was at the heart of your ha-ha-revolution.

The musical bookings used to say the same damn thing the show did: We are intruders in the palace. We reject the bosom-jokes and wifey-burned-my-dinner set-ups of other variety shows and ‘60s/’70s sitcoms. We have read National Lampoon and maybe even Burroughs. We found you one cold winter night in high school or college when we were flipping from Creatures of the Black Lagoon on Channel 5 and instantly we felt someone was talking to us.

My god, Lorne, who do your current musical bookings talk to?

Lorne, you revolutionized sketch comedy on television. By expertly harvesting elements from the Pythons, Second City, the Groove Tube and the National Lampoon, you blended absurdity and relevance into something we could not take our eyes off of. You also created a live music template to match that revolution step for step, booking Gil Scott Heron, Patti Smith, Leon Russell, Kinky Friedman, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Tom Waits, Neil Innes, McGarrigle Sisters, Leon Redbone, George Benson, Sun Freaking Ra…

And man, that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Even in the mid and late 1980s, you were still hitting some doubles against the wall – Phillip Glass, the Neville Brothers, Queen Ida and the Bon Temps Zydeco Band, Laurie Anderson, the Sugarcubes, Percy Sledge. But by the end of the 1980s, you had pretty much resigned yourself to booking the hipper end of the hit parade. Still, Lorne, still, they didn’t freaking lip sync, and they created a small-room vibe by adapting themselves to the familiar funky SNL set.

In recent years, ol’ Lorne, your musical bookings seemed to be based largely on whoever is racking up billions of Spotify clicks (it’s only a matter of time before that Cash Me Outside abomination appears on the show). Overnight success has left many of these singers (even the relatively good ones) with little desire or ability to present a non-auto-tuned or un-enhanced vocal – even the ones who actually sing live often sing on top of pre-recorded vocal tracks. And since virtually all of the artists you now book are arena level acts (and most came to that summit very quickly, before honing performance skills), these Absolute Beginners are lost without their circus-like arena production elements which, utterly bizarrely, you allow them to shoehorn onto the SNL stage.

The results are live performances absolutely rife with pre-recorded elements, staged in such a fashion that they are absolutely disconnected from the show itself.

My god, once upon a time SNL not only prohibited lip-sync, but actually mocked the few acts who utilized it. (In November of 1975 when ABBA, arguably the biggest band in the world at the time, appeared on SNL and lip synced, you actually built a sketch around ridiculing the affront.)

Wouldn’t it be better for your brand to once again make SNL a destination for remarkable live music? Truly, it is as if you have forgotten that’s part of your show; you’ve surrendered the musical slot to the very mainstream elements you created the show to combat.

Lorne, here are some simple ways you can turn this s–t-ship around:

1.) Ban any and all pre-recorded vocals. Since prohibiting all pre-recorded tracks is not feasible (artists in the post-Idol age simply do not understand the concept of live performance without pre-loaded elements), let’s just settle for the vocals. Never, ever again do I want to see a lead vocal line sung while the “singer” is nowhere near the microphone. Ask an intern to watch the last few years of musical performances and count how many times a vocal line boomed out of the speakers with the vocalist yards away, sometimes even with their mouth closed. Merv Griffin would not have accepted that, Lorne. Why do you?

2.) Stop allowing artists to bring extant production elements into the SNL performance. There was something beautiful (and branding) about the artist getting plopped down on that immediately identifiable SNL performance set. By allowing artists to essentially cart scaled down versions of their massive live staging onto the set, you are literally eliminating any need for the “live” music segment to exist at all. Why not just project a f–king video?

3.) Return some element of eclecticism and delightful weirdness to your musical bookings. Try mixing in an artist NOT boomeranging on Spotify, maybe dig up some credibility-enhancing jazz, avant garde, indie, blues or folk people (like you once did, Lorne). You still aim to align SNL’s comedy content with the anti-establishment DNA that was in the show’s origin; why not return the musical segment, at least to some small degree, to that place?

Or you could keep on just letting people stare dumbly at the camera while their backing track plays.

Yours,
Tim Sommer