Friday, April 30, 2010

Heeeere's Yanni!: Investigating One of Pop Culture's Strangest Phenomenons

Whether it's Michael Bay movies or the Black Eyed Peas, there's a lot of very popular stuff out there that I'm not on board with. Whenever something gets sufficiently popular, however, I try and take my time to at least figure out why it's so popular, even if I have no actual interest in the item itself. Call it a morbid curiosity. Maybe I'm just trying to find ways to justify the awful taste in everything that Americans have proved to have time and time again.

But even when I find a piece of culture abysmally bad, I can almost always understand why other people enjoy it. Take the Twilight phenomenon - I have little to no interest in it, but I can easily see why teenage girls are really into the Edward/Jacob debate. I don't have a problem with it; it's just not for me (though I do align myself with Team Jacob).

Every so often, though, something becomes massively popular that just befuddles me. This is not to say said popular item is good or bad; it just means that I can't figure out why it appeals to large groups of people. Maybe it's the general feeling that I'm missing something or I'm out of the loop, but it drives me nuts.

So when I saw a used copy of Yanni: Live at the Acropolis at my local Goodwill last week for three dollars, I pounced. For those of you who don't remember the nineties , Yanni was one of the biggest New Age musicians in the world. His albums have sold millions of copies, and his concert video of the Live at the Acropolis event is the second highest-selling music video next to Michael Jackson's Thriller. I was completely ignorant about most of Yanni's career, but I knew he was a big deal and was determined to find out why.

Some context: Yanni's concert at the Acropolis has been called the crowning achievement of his career. The album itself has sold over 7.5 million copies, including five million in North America alone, putting it right up there with the top rock and pop albums of the early nineties. The concert itself was televised and watched by over 500 million people worldwide. PBS aired it as a fundraising event, netting a record amount of donations.

So I don't know what I was expecting when I popped the CD into my car. Maybe it would be very good, justifying the massive sales. Maybe it would be terrible, indicating that it hadn't aged well or I simply wasn't a fan of New Age music. My reaction, however, was neither. Yanni: Live at the Acropolis is neither a good nor a bad album. It's just thoroughly bland and mediocre throughout.

The Music Itself - My Investigation Begins

Yanni's music is just a bunch of orchestral flourishes and swells over a piano or a violin. There's no melody, no real structure, nothing to indicate that any work went into any of these compositions. Rather, it sounds like Yanni sat down at his piano and played a bunch of chords that sounded good and called it a day. There's a pervading consonance throughout, as if Yanni is afraid of performing a single dissonant note.

There's a similar school of composition, called minimalism, that involves stringing together a bunch of simple chords in a repetitive fashion. Minimalism makes no pretense toward emotional involvement though; rather, it's supposed to be hypnotic through its lack of emotion. Every one of Yanni's tracks, in contrast, strives for emotional catharsis. But without any plan or any audience investment in any of these songs, there can be no catharsis. His music simply sits there, swimming in place on major arpeggiated chords, directionless.

It sounds pretty, but it's the sort of "prettiness" you'd expect from an insurance commercial soundtrack or a montage in a Lifetime movie. The prettiness comes from the fact that Yanni orchestrated his bland melody with soft, lush instruments, and threw in some needless wind chimes and suspended cymbal rolls to give it that slightly "mystical" vibe.

So who are the 7.5 million people who bought this? I can see it being slightly appealing to same new age pseudo-hippies who listen to "Classical Music with Dolphin Sounds" CDs to get in touch with the World Spirit. But 7.5 million albums sold is not insubstantial. Yanni was an icon. And I don't know why.

For the record, I'm not trying to be a jerk. If Yanni were a moderately successful New Age musician, I'd totally be OK with it. His music is inoffensive. What confuses me is not that there are people who like Yanni, but the extreme level of his popularity. Yanni: Live at the Acropolis is a gold record, one that would sell well among a very specific market - people who listen to New Age music. But multi-platinum? Really?

The Investigation Continues - Yanni's Fans Respond

My first stop on this investigation was YouTube. Maybe there was something in Yanni's live performance that necessitated watching the band at work, in order to appreciate. So I cued up "Within Attraction" and, while Yanni does have a sweet mustache, it was nothing spectacular. Yanni is the only musician who even looks slightly enthused about the music, and you can tell he's convinced that he's making High Art. But the visual experience didn't fundamentally enhance the music in any meaningful way. Likewise, the YouTube comments such as "I cry every time I head this song" and "OMG!!! r they humans??? i cnt blieve tha extream ability..." tell me nothing.

My next stop was the reviews for the album on Amazon.com. 87 out of 118 reviewers have given this album five stars, but unfortunately they weren't quite able to mention anything specific that would help me understand Yanni's massive appeal. One reviewer called it the "very essence of passion". Another called it "atmospheric" before adding conveniently, "I have a difficult time describing it as anything else."

Most of the positive Amazon reviews mention that Yanni's music has beauty and emotion, without elaborating on anything. (To be fair, most of the negative reviews center around the theory that Yanni is an extraterrestrial or a clone). But Yanni's admirers don't mention any specifics, besides that such and such a track is very emotional, and such and such a track is beautiful. The reviews are so vague that they could be applied to any piece of instrumental music.

Theories and Confusion

So, in the end, I'm baffled. One of my prevailing theories right now is that Yanni's biggest fans have never heard any such instrumental music before, and so they have nothing to compare it to. But I'm not sure if that holds water. Anyone who's been to a wedding has heard Pachelbel's Canon, which, while still Hallmark-ified, has more substance than any one of Yanni's pieces. I don't believe that Yanni's fans are so musically isolated as to not be aware of other instrumental options. Walk into any greeting card store and you'll find a plethora CDs sporting overplayed but nonetheless solid classical music (Moonlight Sonata, anyone?).

The other theory is that Yanni's music works best as background music. I like him as this; I wrote some academic papers with the CD playing softly in the background. Likewise, it's not bad stuff for driving on a dark rainy night. It's fluff, music that doesn't demand anything from the listener - the aural equivalent of those cheesy beach paintings you might find in a hotel room. But Yanni's reviewers tell me otherwise; not one that I read mentions the music as background music. Instead, these people talk about being transfixed by the sheer passion of Yanni.

Again, it's not bad stuff. It's just boring, and not something I would have guessed would have massive appeal. I'm not belittling Yanni fans for bad taste; rather, I'm beseeching America to tell me how this strange man and his thoroughly mediocre music became a best-selling phenomenon. Last year, the NHL Playoffs were scheduled around Yanni's performance in the Pittsburgh Mellon Arena, an incident that annoyed both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. Granted, hockey is the black sheep of the professional sporting world, but when you have entire leagues rearranging their schedule to accommodate you, you must be a pretty big deal.

I suppose you never know what is and isn't going to sell well in America. That's part of the fun of following the entertainment industry - watching well-marketed things flop and watching no-name performers rise out of nowhere to become unexpected successes. But there's no rhyme or reason to it. If anyone out there on the Internet purchased a Yanni CD, or knows someone who has, sound off in the comments. I'm curious as to how you or your companion got into Yanni, what prompted the purchase. America has 307 million residents, and five million of them own Yanni: Live at the Acropolis. That's roughly 1 out of every 61 people. You'd think I would have met at least one of them in my life.

I keep returning to the CD, listening again in case there's some emotional depth or interesting sound that I've missed. But as of right now, he remains a musical enigma.