What is music?
Is music the soundtrack to our lives, or merely the background radiation that permeates the air around us? Is it just “entertainment”, or is it the voice with which we speak? Does it communicate and educate, or does it simply occupy us?
The truth is that now more than ever, music has become obscured. Now, more than ever, it is simple “product”, and not at all the spiritual, intellectual and social force it should be. The truth is that somewhere in the scramble for more “hits”, the industry has missed the point: That music needs to touch us in order to be relevant.
Homogeneity and conformity have always been part of any musical trend. It is an unavoidable reality, when dealing with style and genre. Things faze out, and then are brought back into sharp focus later down the road. Music for most is not timeless, but rather a reflection of some other era that is either currently “fashionable”, or currently “not fashionable”. The problem is that the zeitgeist becomes a concrete idea, and the music suffers by association. Currently, ’80’s synth pop is fashionable again, but 7 years ago, one could be mocked and derided for listening to the Human League, Depeche Mode and Gary Numan. In the mid ’90’s, speedy pop-punk was in vogue, and listening to Iron Maiden was considered comical by many. Now metal is back and that pop-punk is in a down-swing, at least subculturally speaking. And in essence, subculture is where one needs to look for the “next big thing”. In 1993, so-called “emo” music was just the buried undercurrent of the punk scene, the leftover’s of Rites of Spring’s legacy, and now you can turn on the radio and hear it’s echoes anywhere.
The point is this: Does any of the music you ever liked suck now because it’s not popular? Or does it still bear some relevance to you? Does it still touch your soul? Did it ever? Or do you wear music like just another accessory in a your ensemble? What makes music good? Seriously…..
The truth is that we are TOLD what makes music good, by the industry. It may be crumbling now, the empire of the big 3, but they still tell us what to like and what to buy. There is a structure that exists to hunt down those new trends from the subculture, homogenize them, repackage them, and incorporate them into the industry in a way that is controllable, predictable and safe.
Every now and again, some miracle artist slips through the cracks, a Rage Against the Machine, or a Nirvana, or a or a Metallica, etc, someone who wears their disparate influences on their sleeve and does whatever they wish. The problem is that none of them are a lasting force for change. They either self-destruct (RATM), have members die (Nirvana), break up or become completely absorbed into the industry, self-absorbed and out of touch (Metallica). VERY RARELY does a band or artist continue to sell records, sell out concerts and still exist by their own rules. Because the industry is designed and built to disallow such an existence.
The industry has one function: to make YOU and ME buy records, buy merchandise, go to concerts and part with our money. This in and of itself would be fine, if that money was going to the artists we support and believe in, but it seldom does. Even bands that you or I would call “successful” are often still tied up in the legalities of paying off their debts to the labels, who trick and mislead artists with recoupables, letters of intent and “development” deals. Sometimes an artist who has a couple big hits never even makes any money at all. If you want to read a scathing and on-point assessment of the industry as a whole, you should read Steve Albini’s masterful dissertation “the Problem with Music” (http://www.negativland.com/albini.html).
To this end, making you and I buy music, the industry has one other precursory function: deception. To sell something, you must convince someone that what you’re selling is what they “want”. When music becomes product, the goal is to make it enticing. So it hardly matters if the music is good, sincere or performed by dedicated professionals, especially when you can get some sex kitten or macho stud to sing the songs. It doesn’t matter if they possess ANY talent whatsoever anymore, since the technology is such that a lack of talent can be properly hidden. In fact, no one truly knows what they’re hearing anymore. Record producers and engineers use Antares Auto-Tune, and other notable pitch-correction devices to automatically sense the pitches that are being sung and transpose them into the pitches in a pre-programmed scale. Beat-Detective can sense and quantize audio (not just MIDI) into a pre-programmed tempo map. So now that you can sing in key and on time, with a miniscule chance of detection, who cares whether you have spent time honing your craft, as long as you have chiseled abs and perfect teeth. All the better to reinforce negative body stereotypes and send out ripples of self-loathing through the already esteem-beleaguered masses. And for that matter, who cares if it’s detected anyways? 17 years ago, Milli Vannilli’s career was RUINED by a lip-synching scandal, which was leaked out. They weren’t even caught doing it. Today? Ashlee Simpson can be busted on NATIONAL TV while lip-synching, and release a top-ten single 2 months later. We don’t care anymore. Authenticity and truth are not part of our societal mandate for our art, which is truly sad, and more than a little repugnant to this author’s estimation. The technology in and of itself is not bad, and many artists who ARE skilled use them, either because they can’t afford the studio time to tweak every little thing, or because they need to fix something after the fact in mixing that slipped through the cracks. But it’s equally common for it to be used on artists because they are terrible musicians.
The point is this, people: We NEED to reclaim our music. We NEED to believe in the artists we look up to. We NEED to focus on the music, instead of all of the extraneous bullshit that disempowers it. We NEED another revolution in music. It is my hope that we can turn things around.