Stop Me If You Think I’m Wrong
Today, I’m going to throw a bunch of shit at the wall. I’m going to say a bunch of things you might not agree with.
Today I’m going to talk about something a lot of music aficionados are quick to dismiss and deride. It’s something that I was raised on, it’s something that I believe in, it’s something I think we’ve lost and it’s something I think we need to reclaim because it’s an essential part of our shared culture.
Today I’m going to talk about Pop Music.
I’ve been taking a creative writing class and one of the components about the course was that we all had to write a one-act play. During workshopping and discussion that took place as the majority of us were putting our pieces together, our Professor said something to me that’s changed the way I look at creative acts (writing, dancing, filmmaking, and especially music)
He told us that we needed to care as we crafted our plays because we weren’t just writing stories that would forever exist on paper – theoretically, we were creating things that were one day going to performed and watched. That we were creating Dramatic Artifacts. Think about that for a few moments, the idea of a Dramatic Artifact; a living story that will embed itself in the sediment that is our collective cultural history.
Now I want you to apply that paradigm of creation to our musical landscape and answer a question for me: Does it seem like anyone out there really gives a fuck about what they’re leaving to world anymore?
Some, yes, but a majority, no. And it breaks my damn heart.
There are probably some people seeing the views I’m presenting and thinking “Boo-fucking-hoo, if you want good music you’ve got to turn off the radio and seek out the underground, the independent, the music that lives off the beaten track” and to an extent, yes, those people are correct. If the only place you look for good music is the radio, or MTV or VH1, you’ll drown in a sea unsatisfying drivel. But you won’t necessarily find the satisfaction you desire off the beaten path either.
No, you’ll just be lost in the ether with a bunch of people trying to get on the beaten path. No one wants to slave away forever in relative obscurity forever. Disregard whatever ideals of a DIY-ethic or artistic integrity over money: Anyone who picks up an instrument and gets on stage, records a demo or makes any attempt at all to put their musical artifact out into the world is doing it because they want to make money and they want to be famous.
That isn’t a critique on the ethics of musicians and that isn’t meant to be disparaging whatsoever. There isn’t a single person on this planet that doesn’t want to be paid (and paid well) for what they love doing.
And that’s what you’ll find when you venture off the beaten musical path – a bunch of people yearning to be more famous than they are, to reach more ears, to struggle less. The battle for validity is a beautiful thing but it shouldn’t intrinsically be tied to artistic integrity or creativity, which often what you’ll hear when you hear people blowing smoke up their own asses about their off-beat musical tastes.
Which brings us back to the issue at hand, American Pop Music and it’s stagnation.
If we look at the world around us, take a sample of music from Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa – there’s something dynamic about it. Something vaguely alive and organically memetic. Something beautiful. And no, this isn’t me just looking wistfully at another culture and putting them up on a pedestal due to my distaste at an aspect of my nation. It’s me looking through the window and seeing something I’m not seeing here: Effort.
And it’s not the fact that the musicians and producers over there are trying harder than the ones here, it’s the fact that they’re letting more people try.
Stop me if you think I’m wrong but here’s something I’ve noticed about this country: If you’re not black or white, you will not be a popular musician. You will not sell out an arena, you will not have a Billboard hit, you will not be nominated for a Grammy.
And no, before you bring it up, I am not ignoring the fact that there are popular Latino entertainers in this country, I’m just defying YOU to bring up the last time any of them had hit single with utterly distinct Latino roots.
I’m not going to make this more about America’s color complex than it needs to be nor am I going to claim that equal opportunity in the music industry would make the quality of music produced in our country better by sheer virtue of the fact that a wrong will be righted – I’m saying it’ll make our music better because a wider swath of cultural influences will give our music industry the shot of the arm it needs.
Take a look at Europe, where sounds bleed across borders and the much maligned immigrant populations have brought in different sounds and sights have created a vibrant musical scene across the board. Things evolve there. Take a look at there electronic scenes, their hip-hop scenes, even the fucking their bubblegum-played-a-million-times-on-the-radio-pop-scenes change and grow.
When was the last time we took something to a new place? We’ll turn to the past and we’ll sample, we’ll strip it down, add some reverb, some god damn auto-tune, but when was the last time someone did something truly new? A more important question, however, is why? Why the stagnation?
Well there’s that lack of cross-cultural innovation for sure, but there’s something else, something that harkens back to the seed from which all popular music derives from: The Blues. It was the first truly American art form and pretty much all popular music, in this country and others, owes it’s origins to the blues.
Here’s the problem with the blues: All you need to play it is Three chords and the truth. If you look at the structure of most popular music today, you’ll find those three chords, but what you won’t find is the truth.
Because the truth is dead.
We’ve got moronically dressed rappers preaching about moving bricks and throwing money around strip clubs, but that’s not the truth. We’ve got pop-starlets with amazing voices who can’t sing a song that means a damn thing because we live in a culture where it’s not even okay for people to admit that they’re sad.
We mask our emotions, we mask our living conditions, our desires and our beliefs. We live in a culture where the truth is difficult to get out of the people around us, hence, it’s impossible to find any semblance of it in our popular entertainment.
You can try and tell me it’s always been that way but when I look to the past I see music that reflected the mood of an era. Even fucking disco had some truth in it – everyone was on cocaine and everyone just wanted to fucking dance. That might not be a beautiful truth, but it’s truth nonetheless.
In the future, when they look back at this period of popular music, what is it going to say about it? Is it going to say that we were bleary-eyed, pathetic and vacuous? Is there even enough content to make a proper judgement of us? I prefer to think there isn’t, because the alternative is heartbreaking.