Friday, January 4, 2008

The Death of Music, Part 3: Myths and Fallacies

A lot of music out there just flat out blows. I can make such a scientific, iron-clad, empirically-based claim because I think about this stuff a lot. In fact, while you're wasting time sleeping, I'm probably thinking about music. That's right; after you go to sleep, I put on the face paint and camouflage pants and cut myself across the chest with a bowie knife, and then sit there and think about music. I'm that intense when it comes to this stuff.

During my many hours of silent rumination, I've often wondered what is going through people's minds (or not going through their minds) when they create some of the god-awful aural pestilence they mistakenly label "music." In my more Socratic moments, I entertain the notion that no man willingly creates a 4/4 turd-jamboree and calls it a song, any more than a man can knowingly and willingly do wrong.

Perhaps, I muse benevolently, these deluded souls aren't TRYING to produce crap, but are merely the victims of wide-spread misconceptions that have slowly seeped into the public consciousness and are killing music from the inside out. Some of the more prevalent myths and fallacies about music have become so ingrained in our culture that we just take them for granted and don't even notice them anymore.

It's sort of like our skewed value systems: we recognize that rampant materialism (for example) is probably a non-viable and damaging mindset, and yet materialism informs a lot of what we say and do. So how do we deal with this? We live in denial; we try to pretend it's okay. We keep believing the system can somehow sustain itself even though it's built on a seriously shaky foundation. The same thing goes for music: we've built an elaborate house of cards with dubious principles and wrong-headed ideas about what constitutes "good" music, but Tiger's charging through the living room with shampoo all over his fur, and that house of cards is about to come crashing down on us pretty hard.

It is my belief that the first step to recovery is recognizing some of the more damaging and widely held beliefs which serve only to undermine music. Hopefully, by analyzing these "myths," we can shine a little light on their illogical or harmful nature, thereby debunking them and loosening their vice grip on both musicians and listeners alike.

With that in mind here are some of the "music myths" that really need to HEY HO! LET"S GO!

1) Serious musicians/artists only sing about serious things.

Hands down, one of the most wide-spread and potentially stifling beliefs out there. This is why we have so many people singing about pain and suffering and trying to sound either melancholy, enraged, or just plain "deep," even when they don't feel that way, or have nothing interesting to say. Somewhere along the line, we got the idea that to be a real "artist" you have to only concern yourself with "weighty" matters. But the secret to being a great artist is being serious about your art, NOT making "serious art" just because that's what you think you have to do.

2) The more stripped down the production on a song is, the more "real" it is.

More romantic nonsense. One man squeaking away on his acoustic guitar strings and singing in a barely audible whisper about how he spotted your yellow sun dress out of the corner of his eye at the local library is no more "real" than the 11 man band with 5 synthesizers, a vocoder, 3 oboes, an accordion, and an electric violin. First of all, all the musicians involved, if they're guys, probably just wanna get laid. And if they can do that by making you think they're "rootsy" or "avant-garde" or "able to play a flute with their butt cheeks" or WHATEVER the hell it takes, they'll do it. Second, there is nothing more intrinsically "real" about one sound over another. What matters is the "intent" of the lyrics/music and how effectively it is conveyed in the context of the artists' unique vision. In other words, I'll take Kraftwerk over Van Morrison any day.

3) True artists never let "commercial" considerations taint their art.

In a perfect world, maybe. But we don't live in a perfect world, and people are a mass of conflicting interests and desires. To expect music to be some holy, pure entity untouched by lowly human concerns such as putting food on the table is unrealistic, and I would even go so far as to say damaging. Not only that, some of the greatest songs ever written were designed with the explicit intent of creating great art AND having commercial success. In some cases, the goal of commercial success can even bring out the best in some writers. The Brill Building staff and Motown writers spring immediately to mind. Hence, the issue is not whether or not you care about commercial success, because there is no one who plays music for a living (other than some of the millionaires and masochists) who doesn't crave SOME degree of success, even if it's just enough to enable them to keep playing. The issue is whether or not you allow an unchecked or unhealthy desire for success to compromise your artistic decision-making, rather than enhance it.

4) The more notes a musician plays, the better he is.

Also known as the "virtuoso" myth or fallacy. There are tons of TECHNICALLY proficient songwriters/musicians who can make their fret boards or drum sets literally burst into flames with their crazy, animated, frenetic playing. Usually these musicians send aspiring, would-be musicians into fits of glee. And 99 out of 100 times I could care less. Someone once said that the notes you choose not to play are just as important as the notes you choose to play, and this is 100 percent true. Crazy soloing may have its place, in moderation, as a vehicle for demonstrating a musician's dexterity from time to time. However, too many people look up to these performers simply because they are doing something they can't. It is not enough to play thousands of notes: the secret is to select the most effective notes that communicate the feel of the song. Otherwise, you're just talking and talking, and you're not really saying anything.

Well, that's it for now. I'm not really sure if this exercise will actually accomplish anything; more likely than not the problems endemic to modern music are merely symptomatic of questionable thinking on a larger scale. For example, would you honestly be surprised to learn that a culture that pathologically venerates "the individual" and "doing your own thing" (as opposed to, say, promoting the common good) was also responsible for some of the most self-indulgent, narcissistic, and frighteningly average music ever heard by man? I know it sure as hell wouldn't surprise me. (The fact that evil people can often appreciate and create good music is neither here nor there.)

Still, if you'd like to send me some more myths and fallacies for our next installment, feel free to do so. Maybe together, we can rescue music yet.

But I'm not holding my breath.