Plato once said the following:
Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the laws of the State always change with them.
He makes an interesting point. Music changes with the times. It is reflective of the society that brings it about.
Music today is on the decline. Now, every generation believes that new music is worse than the music which preceded it. Certainly when Elvis was performing, there were detractors who disliked the new sound. When Beethoven’s symphonies were first heard, there were undoubtedly those who felt his music was too new and edgy.
That is not what I am writing about. The decline in today’s music is less subjective than that. I remember a late night party where a bunch of 40 year old people were dancing and singing loudly out of key to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’. What struck me was how the crowd was so hyped up with the lyrics and the familiarity of the song. It wasn’t the musical quality which made them fondly recall the song. They weren’t appreciating the intricacies of the artists’ work, they were reliving some mysterious moment in their lives when they were younger and having a good time, and this song happened to be playing because it was a “hit.” The song could have been anything so long as it had been hugely popular at some point when they were doing something memorable.
Another incident I remember was DJing a local Tampa dive bar, spinning some House music (Industrial isn’t my only thing), and this woman came up to me demanding to hear Rihanna’s Birthday Cake, because it was her birthday. The song’s musical quality (or lack thereof) was irrelevant. The music was appreciated only because it was popular and the lyrics coincided with a life-moment for her. She was very insistent, and actually quite rude when I explained I had been hired to spin House by the promoters. So I played Deadmau5’s Attention Whore instead, using another song’s lyrics to send a completely different message.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was part of the problem. The music wasn’t about enjoyment of harmony and intricacy. It wasn’t an appreciation of the deeper, almost mathematical precision of it. I couldn’t even claim to be mixing the song because I felt some soulful connection to the thumping beats and repetitive leads. It was simply about sending a message to an obnoxious woman.
So much of today’s music is like this, from Tupac’s rapping to whatever it is Miley Cyrus was doing on stage. The music is about the lyrical message, it’s about listening to some celebrity lecturing you about how to live your life (usually quite poorly, I might add). The songs are about associating moments of your life with a melody. This is your first dance, this is your song as a couple, this other track is what was playing when you were drunk on your birthday talking to transsexual prostitutes in a strip club with your frat buddies.
For most people, the music is just a means to an end, the soundtrack playing in the club while you troll the waters for your latest sexual conquest or drunken act of stupidity. It isn’t about the music itself, the innate complexity of it, the precision, the soul. And since this is true, we see everyone from garage bands to bedroom DJs trying to get a slice of the good life. Put on your Raybans and deliver the wub-wub to the proto-yuppie spring-breakers on South Beach.
Music used to bring attention to the most talented, to those who worked the hardest to understand it. In the words of Coone and the Gang, you would have to be a nerd to become a DJ. Beethoven and Mozart were mad geniuses, the uber-geeks of their age. But the Pop Culture age changed all that. It’s hard to a put my finger on exactly when this happened, but it was already in play by the time Elvis appeared on the scene. In him you can see an early prototype for the pop stars that followed.
Today it’s about who makes you belt out bad popular melodies in front of drunkards at the local dive bar. It’s about who can twerk on stage or who can deliver the most offensive, controversial lyrics possible. The actual composition and writing of most of the music is outsourced to shadowy producers, some of whom never get any credit.
Music composed, performed and mixed for its own sake is a dying art. Should we be surprised, then, that so much of it is terrible?
Some people in the electronic music community bemoan that computers and modern mixing equipment have made music too easy for everyone, and that’s why so much of it is terrible. This is an outright lie. I’m sure someone bemoaned the piano when it was released, for it was far easier to learn than many of the previous instruments. The problem is not the equipment, indeed it has never been the issue. If anything, this may help more talented musicians to discover their abilities.
Go to a big concert and you will begin to understand the real issue. You will see fireworks and massive light shows. Lasers and fog will be everywhere. A stadium will be filled with 50,000 people, all singing along and bobbing their heads to the beat. The lead singer will glance at someone in the crowd, and assume the famous Jesus pose. The lyrical messages will echo across the venue, telling you not to stop believin’. You’re special, you see, and it’s all about you. It’s your birthday cake, it’s about your poker face, you’re all shook up.
Concerts today are the equivalent of a well-produced religious service, and the crowds are the devotees, hanging off every lyric. The actual music is a distant memory, and that’s why when that drunken moment comes 20 years later and someone relives the great concert of their youth… they can’t even sing a single note on key. It was never about the music.
Today’s musicians provide the soundtrack to life. And as life becomes increasingly shallow and disposable, we should continue to expect the vast majority of music to follow.