Monday, July 30, 2012

Today's music

I never did do the follow up post I promised on Friday afternoon.

Short answer, I blame the audience. That makes me a contrarian as everyone I talked to about it wanted to blame the music industry. The industry is not completely blameless. Over the past few decades it has,
  • tried to fool everyone into buying the same music, drastically limiting the variety of music available,
  • manipulated people into buying long-playing formats such as LPs or CDs that led them to buy much more music than they really wanted,
  • endlessly cranked up the volume.
That said, they got lots of help from the public.

Just as John Phillip Sousa predicted, recording technology has made us less musically literate. As we became so, it became easier and easier for the industry to sell us crap.

Beginning with the recording ban and the ASCAP battle against radio, the industry began to get hints that the public would buy crap. At first they thought that hillbilly and race music was selling because hillbillies and blacks were buying it. Over time, however, they realized that a larger audience of musical illiterates was buying this simpler music.

Perhaps the pivotal figure in this story was Nat King Cole. A very good musician, Cole was capable of producing sophisticated music for a musically literate audience and he did so at considerable profit to him and to Capitol records. As the fifties went along, however, he and Capitol discovered that they could make a lot more money out of tripe like "The Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer" than they could out of his brilliant recordings of jazz standards.

That Cole was a black man had a lot to do with this. A black man singing romantic love songs was simply too threatening for the white audience.  They could stomach silly tunes such as "Straighten Up and Fly Right" though.

But the real discovery was that white audiences would stomach songs that dealt with transgressive sexual behaviours from black men and women. This, of course, was racism at it's very ugliest. It was precisely because they harbored crude racist beliefs that the whites were willing to "allow" blacks to sing about things that would have tainted a white performer in their eyes.

It wasn't primarily grunt and groan pornographic sex that was flogged by the way. There was always a hint of that but it was primarily themes of infidelity and premarital sex that were used to sell black music to a  mass white audience. Even now you will find "serious" critics who will praise the black girl groups of the late 1950s and early 1960s for being so much more aware than the white girl groups.

The problem with that is that an awful lot of the more "knowing" songs were written by Jewish girls and boys from New York. Everyone knew about this stuff but only black girls were allowed to get up and portray these roles on stage because everyone already (for racist reasons) thought less of them.

From then on it was only a matter of packaging. The first step was made by hipsters who sold the supposed "black" music (there is an awful lot less evidence that black audiences liked this stuff than you would think) as a new and interesting art form. They were helped in this by the industry which had gradually replaced the sophisticated music of the 1940s and early 1950s with an increasingly bland product. Although we should remember that they only got away with this because the audience increasingly didn't know the difference between sophisticated and unsophisticated music.

The next step was to convince the audience that socially challenging ideas were the same thing as musical and lyrical sophistication. That done, the door was open for white artists such as the Rolling Stones to exploit the long traditions of the minstrel show and step in and play act the roles already established by black artists. And so on down to Lady Gaga.

As I've mentioned before, one of the transformational experiences in my life was seeing the Rolling Stones movie At the Max. It was the first time I'd seen them when I wasn't being carried along by the crowd enthusiasm and alcohol. Part way through it hit me with a sudden jolt that Jagger, who'd been in the business more than thirty nearly forty years at that point, had a very hard time remaining on key.

It's not just the discovery that a pop singer is actually not a very good singer. It was that a very hard working and driven performer had never put much effort into his singing. And the reason he hadn't was because it didn't matter. If it had mattered, you can be sure Jagger would have worked at it.

And that is our fault, not his.

The big problem is that we never grew up. Listening to crappy pop music is both natural and harmless in teenagers. The problem is that, beginning with the baby boom, people with a string appetite for music, kept buying the same junk as they got older. They occasionally tried more sophisticated forms but that was too hard so they kept going back to pop.

Meanwhile some helpful critics stepped in with useful rationalizations. If you couldn't get more challenging music, we'll just pretend that the Beatles new record is challenging. And we can repeat this with every passing generation.

Combine this with an unrelenting attack on anything middlebrow and pretty soon you have college boys sitting around listening to sloppy, inept bands such as The Violent Femmes and actually congratulating themselves for being superior to the girls in the same dorm for their "unsophisticated" tastes in performers such as Joan Armatrading, even though Armatrading is actually a much more accomplished musician producing more sophisticated music.

And so it went, down, down, down ....

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