Blues for the digital age?
As a 10 year old kid growing up in North Mississippi, the birthplace of the sound, I recognized that traditional blues was for a prior generation. The local radio station, "92 Jamz" FM played a wide variety of Hip Hop and R&B. I fondly remember Salt-N-Peppa, R. Kelly, and Snoop Dogg churning throughout the day, every day except Saturday or Sunday. Sundays were, of course, for gospel, but Saturday was reserved for the blues. ZZ Hill, Marvin Sease, and Bobby Rush dominated the airwaves from 7am to 7pm. We didn't hate blues as kids, but we knew that those were Grandaddy's tunes and that the genre was on its way out. I remember thinking, at the time, that the evolved form of Blues sounded a bit like a cheesy attempt at the R&B of the day.
Enter 2013 and Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd. He's not from the South (actually, not from this country), far from poor, doesn't strum a guitar chord, and yet I'd say he's revived Blues for a new generation. Pay attention because the archetypal signs of the genre are all there. The mental despair, escapism through substance, and sexual themes are all there. For all of the reasons he shouldn't and largely won't be considered a traditional Blues crooner, an argument can be made that he is a direct descendent ― evolved for the times.
Where those in the Mississippi Delta time and time again longed for a way out of a region where cotton was king and sharecropping fortified the post-slavery economic conditions for Black people, The Weeknd totally flips the setting on its head. He continually reaches for solid ground and it isn't because he's limited in resources or lacks the ability to go where he wants. He has too much of the money, sex, and fame that many in this society long for; so much so that he's grown numb. This is where the twisted connection between his very distant sound and yesteryear's Blues artist is its strongest. Very few recording artists have presented the picture of the silver spoon in this manner.
Many would dismiss this as "rich brat syndrome". Be that as it may, in economics as well the human psyche, there's a thing called the law of diminishing returns, which can be applied to just about anything producing an output. Whether it's the feeling of having your favorite food for the 8th time in one week or having sexual contact with the 8th beautiful face in the same time span, the original spark diminishes. His longing is to be awakened out of a robotic existential state; however privileged it may seem.
For me his subject matter and subsequent rise to fame mirror themes that are commonly associated with the age of instant information and disconnected connectedness. Stimulation is little more than a click or scroll away, forcing non-url encounters to be that much more intense. Yes, it would be very difficult for Robert Johnson in 1930 or traditional Blues fans to relate to the same pain, but I'd wager to say millions of Snapchat, Tinder and Twitter users in 2014 are finding it easy to relate.