Wednesday, March 24, 2004

On Music

I have these days a radio in my car. I do not have a tape deck or a CD player, or I should not be moved to write this, but I do have a radio and just as important to this rant, this is the first time since the mid-80s that such is the case.  Having a radio, and listening to it, I have little control over what I hear, but instead must sample what radio stations choose to play — and sample I do, and extensively, because so much of that is so awful.

But what this radio listening has done, because of the prevalence of “classic rock” stations, as well as “oldies”, is reacquaint me with the music of my youth and juxtapose it with the music of today. Now I must say that when I was a youth, the music then played did not impress me much. I am no fan of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Stones, the Beatles, Elvis, or much of anything from the 60s. I do admit a passing fancy for CCR, Three Dog Night, Emerson Lake & Palmer and I am nostalgic over Uriah Heep and some Moody Blues, but most of what I would by choice listen to, should I listen to anything in that vein, comes later. I shall not further expose myself to ridicule by naming names, nor would it serve my purpose to do so. And my purpose in this:

What impresses me when I listen to the mix of old and new that results from hitting the “scan” button is how musical the old music is. The older it is, the more musical it becomes, as people of that age had not yet escaped the tyranny of whole chords, harmony, and consonant notes. But even a song like Purple Haze, with hardly a consonant note to its name, while dissonant, is dissonant to a purpose. Purple Haze may be described as raw, screechy, loud — but also as a harmonious organic whole that is undeniably musical. So while Hendrix, CCR, Elvis and the Beatles may not have agreed on the preferred modes of musical expression with Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, O’Carolan, and Faure, or with each other, they are united in their openness to music’s possibilities — to exploring essentially what music is.

Today’s “artists” seem to stand in stark contrast to this, being obsessed I think with exploring what music is not.  Singing is replaced by chanting, harmony by cacophony, and everyone plays flat. Lyric and melody seems to fall into two classes — those making random percussive noise while shrieking “Fuck U!” and those make random strumming noise while chanting phrases like “clouds of Jupiter in her ha-air-airerrr.” Whoever wrote that should stop playing with the random lyric generator on dorkpoet.com. Between the hoarse fuck U-ing and artlessly pretentious pseudo-lyrics I suppose I might well choose the former as it at least seems to have some adolescent verve and sincerity behind it, while the latter is merely a sophomoric attempt to impress people who are even more clueless than the writer. But I shudder at the thought of having to choose at all.

Even worse is when said “musicians” attempt something actually musical. Not so long ago, a popular song by a female group — at least I assume it was popular as for a space of some months you couldn’t get away from the damn thing — descended for it’s final minute into a capella. There, shorn of instrumentals, supported by nothing but their own naked voices, these women attempted to harmonize with themselves and achieved nothing but the most astounding public admission of musical debility I have ever heard. It left me wondering what manager was so cruel as to allow these people to try to actually sing, as if having an iron heart and a tin ear was now requisite in the industry.

But I wonder if there might not be another explanation, more depressing though less snide: the recent music I hear (some tuneful elevator pop excepted) seems to me to be entirely reactive; that is, entirely negative, in its nature. Determined to be new, to set itself apart, questing for a facetious relevance, it turns its back on anything it’s heard before. If they sang, we shall chant; if they played notes, we shall play almost-notes; if their lyrics were obscure ours will be nonsensical, vulgar, or both. [As an aside, I’ve often wondered what would happen if one were to mix together that “Jupiter” bit with the fuck-U birds[1]. To my knowledge, no one has tried this, but I think it might have some merit.]

The result is all this is a flatness, both figurative and literal; a strange self-limiting dissonance that defines itself only by what it is not. It is a voice I think of a generation so relentlessly coddled; so safe, well-fed, and ill-informed, that their world view, their sense of the possible, their idea of risk and their notion of striving has been squished, flattened, circumscribed, dulled, and bleached to the point that their inner lives — their souls, if you will — have become the most comfortably furnished wasteland on Earth.

And if that is the case, and I see no reason to doubt it, that is a God Damned shame.


[1]  That term derives from the British forces in Burma in WWII. Those parts are inhabited by a creature known as the Fuck-U Bird, for its long melodious, maddening, thrice repeated cry of “fuck-u fuck-u fuck-u” which it would keep up all night. The creature is actually a large lizard, and its “proper” name is unknown to me.

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