Why I’m Encouraged by Pop Music Trends

An acquaintance of mine, a semi-well-known actress, apparently ran into Kanye West and talked with him for a bit. (I feel famous.) He told her that his latest big project is coming up with a way to release a song along with all the tracks and mixing that went into it. In other words, he wants to change the music scene so that whenever any artist releases a song, all the tracks are released as well and can be brought up in a sequencer. You, the recipient, can then perform a musical lobotomy on the song: you can take out Kanye’s voice and put your own in, or change one of his loops, or put in your own percussion. Or you can just mess around with plug-ins and make it all sound like the chipmunks going hip-hop. And that’s just an anecdote—I hear and see this idea gaining ground all over the place and have even seen a few examples. Everyone’s becoming a producer these days.

Over on the other side of the popular music world, it seems these days like everyone is wearing a vest, plaid, learning guitar, and singing with a raspy voice. Many people lament this, that somehow alternative and folk rock is turning into something anyone can do. Oh, and, if you didn’t catch it, that is a bad thing. Somehow the fact that Mumford & Sons can be reproduced by any group of four guys with some musical talent is a detriment to them.

I think not. What we’re seeing is the collapse of a system of music that will, after its demise, be considered probably the most bizarre ever. It’s a sort of game: whereas all your ancestors enjoyed music by actually doing it, you enjoy music by listening to other people doing it. Whereas popular music used to be a communal activity that everyone engaged in, popular music is now anything but popular: it’s utterly professionalized. The melodies are so unsingable even the singers need autotune and only the talented perform karaoke. So we listen to other “talented” people perform and think that we’re enjoying music ourselves through them.

All that is ending. To borrow Marxist language, we have alienated the human impulse to music from ourselves, but that is not a tenable situation in the long run. It’s like putting a cap on a pressure-filled pipe, and it must burst. Sooner or later, we’ll just decide to stop listening to other people enjoy music and we’ll start to actually enjoy it ourselves. And then I think we’ll realize just how bizarre we were for about 60 or 70 years there in the 20th century.

So, for my money, Miley Cyrus’ performance was encouraging. Kanye West is encouraging. Everyone becoming the next Mumford is encouraging. We’re seeing the old way of doing popular music die away (some say twerking, some say death throes…) and an older way resume. Increasingly, humans are becoming musicians. They’re butting in on the musical act, because the musical act is an impulse God put in us. And that doesn’t mean that there won’t always be those who are better poets or better musicians than the rest, but what a difference it will make to have an audience of musicians to listen to them.

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4 Reasons Traditionalism Is Modernism

1. Recording Technology

Rewind 100 years. Say you wanted to hear a decent performance of Bach. You would probably have to go on the right weekend to a big city. If you found that weekend, and had enough money to secure the tickets, and did so before they were sold out, you would then be in the extraordinary and rare position to hear a performance of Bach that would in no way resemble what Bach actually would have sounded like. Why not, you ask?

2. Performance Practice

Performances of Bach 100 years ago were rare, but they were also steeped in egregious error of performance. The tempos, orchestration, the very quality of the instruments, and, above all, the style of singing would be enough to have made Bach alienated and estranged in his own ears from what is his own composition. That is because music is not simply about what is on the page. Musicologists, realizing this, have spent the last century developing serious advancements in how to perform the works of a period distant from our own with accuracy, and this has allowed us, for the first time, to actually hear it in ways that would be recognizable to the composers themselves.

3. The Printing Press

But if you rewind 200 years, the sheet music of Bach would be nowhere found. It might be in a box in some palace or church or house or, later, museum, but it would likely be hand-written, never published. This is because at this time music was not rarely intended to be performed more than once after its composition. This changed for all sorts of reasons, but one of the main ones was the proliferation of sheet music. Music was some of the earliest printed stuff after Gutenberg’s revolution, but, still, it was unlikely that a publisher would spend that much money publishing works that were not modern and popular, until such a time as it became popular to like the non-modern stuff. Think about times before the printing press—how on earth was a church supposed to use old music if it had to have a trained reader travel hundreds of miles to a library to pay serious money to get a manuscript copied, at great length and labor, by a monk who might not let him see the manuscript beforehand anyway?

4. Economic Prosperity

Traditionalism requires a certain amount of economic risk, risk which would be unlikely to pay off in less opulent times. Today, to release an album of Bach, you need to rely on a market that likes Bach because you have to pay a handful of the most highly trained musicians in the world lots of money to record it. On top of this, the conductor is smart to have a team of musicologists researching the music and verifying the performance practice decisions. But imagine the risk of releasing a CD of Josquin or Regis. Sure, the world needs to hear them, but if you’re a recording label, you have to face the fact that the world has never heard them. Investing money in old dead composers people have never heard of is just less of a financial priority than investing in living ones. I complain as much as anyone that the Tallis Scholars pander to their client-base of people lustful for angelic choir-boy music at the expense of accuracy, but that is an eminently first-world problem. Not only should other centuries have not worried about traditional music, but they could not on any meaningful scale.

We Love Boredom

Those who don’t like classical music think it’s boring because they expect it to be boring.

Why do they expect it to be boring? Because those who do like classical music want it to be boring and try everything in their power to make it that way.

Being bored attending a concert is essentially a cathartic experience. A member of an older generation wants the concert to be boring because he wants to be able to disconnect from our culture. He wants a confrontation with something disconnected from the sordid now, something older and something difficult to understand. But he also does not want to understand it.

Undergoing an hour or two of entertainment where are you not entertained, where you are bored stiff, is a choice and a sacrifice, but it is a potent way to register complaint with alternative forms of entertainment that you don’t approve of. In some ways, after an hour or two of something you did not understand, you feel you’ve paid penance for allowing yourself to be inundated and even sometimes amused by modern entertainment. For every binge of pop culture, you purge with some classical.

But it is all a delusion. We think listening to Katy Perry is being mindlessly disengaged and listening to some long 19th century piece is being mentally stimulated. But the exact opposite is true: the very fact that you can recognize that Katy Perry is mindless entertainment means you have, on some level, engaged with the music enough to recognize something is wrong. Exactly how are you engaging with the Brahms 1st piano concerto? At any given moment during the concert, you could not tell me where you were in the form or structure of the piece; you could not tell me what the cultural connotations at the time would have been; you could have given me only the vaguest description of what Brahms was trying to accomplish in this or that measure, assuming you were awake and paying attention. But let’s face it: how much of the concert are you actually paying attention to the music?

Do you even know what it means to pay attention to the music? What are you supposed to be paying attention to? What are you even supposed to listen for? How do you find out what to listen for?

Listening to classical music is, for many people, the most selfish aesthetic activity of their aesthetic lives. It isn’t done out of a love of the music, but out of a love of the feelings the music produces in you. These feelings may be feelings of orgasmic pleasure, which self-proclaimedly was true of the early French audiences of Wagner’s operas, or it may be the cathartic act of boring yourself, or feelings of the numinous and the spiritual for people who don’t understand either, or the sort of music that awakens sexual discontent in love-starved, middle-aged women. Sometimes, ironically, classical music even inspires the most exhilarating feeling of all, the knowledge that you are superior because you imagine yourself to be listening to music for its own sake, and not for the feelings it produces in you.

Once I happened to be at a dinner in the better part of Scottsdale, and the wife of a famous recently-retired newspaper editor asked me to play Clair de Lune on the piano. During a particularly emotional part, she leaned over to my mom, groaned, and said, “Oh, this piece is better than sex.” (My mother, apparently, didn’t know quite where to go with the conversation at this point.) The observation, however, was on some level a trenchant one: this woman was engaging with the music enough to at least be aware of its purpose. Debussy would probably be happy to know that this lady most likely represents the largest demographic of listeners to Clair de Lune.

There are three sorts of musicians—players, composers, and critics. A musician is all of them.

There is only one solution to all our problems: we must change the audience into musicians. They must become themselves players, composers, and critics.

Everyone is trained to read. Everyone is trained to write. Not everyone becomes a writer. Not everyone reads for a living.

So too it used to be with music. Was it coincidence that it used to be that way in the cultures that produced Praetorius, Schütz and Bach?