October 31, 2007

What's gone wrong with music?

A recurrent topic of mine is "Kids These Days: What's the Deal with Their Music?" Unlike the previous generation, my complaint is that popular music has barely changed in 25 years. Rap music is still the same old same old; the LA "New Rock" radio station KROQ sounds almost exactly the same as when I left LA in 1982, except styles have gotten narrower (fewer synthesizers and fewer girl singers); and country sounds like the lamer sort of 1970s rock.

The great age of rock music was driven in part by the electric guitar, which first emerged with Charlie Christian's participation in Benny Goodman's band in the late 1930s. Just as the development of the pianoforte (soft-loud) was essential to the Romantic music of the 19th Century (imagine if Romantic composers had had to compose on harpsichords!), the electric guitar was central to turning rock 'n' roll (which could be performed just fine on the piano, as Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard had shown) into rock. Around 1964-1965, the world discovered how protean the electric guitar could sound, and that set off one of the great eras in popular music history.

But there was an important ethnic angle, the slow synthesis during the 19th and 20th Centuries, mostly in the Mississippi watershed, of an Afro-Anglo-Celtic style. And that started to come apart with the punk-New Wave era at the end of the 1970s, which was a rebellion, in large part, against the dominance of the blues, as institutionalized by the Brits from the Beatles onward in the sainted Sixties. Devo, with their robotic rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," was a representative New Wave act -- not particularly talented, but that made them more representative than some idiosyncratic genius. Their message was: Let's stop pretending we're Mississippi Delta bluesmen; we're nerdy suburban white kids with three digit IQs.

The problem has become that the punk-New Wave rebellion against the blues got institutionalized, and the same musical styles that were refreshing in 1977-1982 are still hanging around. The more linear, abstracted styles that emerged after 1977 were interesting, but you can't keep mining that vein -- abstracting an abstraction hits diminishing marginal emotional returns pretty quickly.

An article in The New Yorker --"A Paler Shade of White: How indie rock lost its soul" by Sasha Frere-Jones -- starts off as a review of an Arcade Fire concert and then touches on some of these issues.

By the time I saw the Clash, in 1981, it was finished with punk music. It had just released “Sandinista!,” a three-LP set consisting of dub, funk, rap, and Motown interpretations, along with other songs that were indebted—at least in their form—to Jamaican and African-American sources. As I watched Arcade Fire, I realized that the drummer and the bassist rarely played syncopated patterns or lingered in the low registers. If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible. And what I really wanted to hear, after a stretch of raucous sing-alongs, was a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies—in other words, attributes of African-American popular music.

There’s no point in faulting Arcade Fire for what it doesn’t do; what’s missing from the band’s musical DNA is missing from dozens of other popular and accomplished rock bands as well—most of them less entertaining than Arcade Fire. I’ve spent the past decade wondering why rock and roll, the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed, underwent a racial re-sorting in the nineteen-nineties. Why did so many white rock bands retreat from the ecstatic singing and intense, voicelike guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat, and the elaborate showmanship that characterized black music of the mid-twentieth century.

Unfortunately, the author appears to be too young to know his history correctly:
"MTV had been on the air for nearly two years before it got up the courage to play the video for Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” in 1983. (Jackson was the first black artist to appear on the channel, though it had played videos by the equally gifted white soul act Hall & Oates.) Jackson’s 1982 album “Thriller” is the second-biggest-selling record of all time (after “Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975”), but he alone could not alter pop music’s racial power balance. Black and white musicians continued to trade, borrow, and steal from one another, but white artists typically made more money and received more acclaim."

No, he's confused here. Blacks were huge stars long before then -- Ever hear of the Supremes? Stevie Wonder? Aretha Franklin? Jimi Hendrix? Marvin Gaye? Ray Charles? Johnny Mathis? Nat King Cole? Ella Fitzgerald? The biggest stars of the post-1964 classic rock era were British (Beatles, Stones, Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd), but among American acts, blacks did fine.

The first two years of MTV, 1981-1982, were an anomalous period in which white rock fans were overtly anti-black. (I recall Prince, opening for the Rolling Stones at the LA Coliseum in 1981, being showered with boos no matter how much heavy Hendrix-style electric guitar he laid on.) This was specifically because white rockers blamed blacks (wrongly) for disco. (They should have blamed gays -- as Tom Wolfe pointed out at the time after visiting Studio 54, the music industry was covering up just how gay disco was.) It was a passing phase growing out of the anti-disco backlash, and wasn't true before or after.
"If young white musicians had been imitating black ones, it was partly because they had been able to do so in the dark, so to speak. In 1969, most of Led Zeppelin’s audience would have had no idea that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page had taken some of the lyrics of “Whole Lotta Love” from the blues artist Willie Dixon, whom the band had already covered twice (with credit) on its d├ębut album."

Oh, come on ... Everybody knew British rockers were copying black bluesmen. The Brits talked about it constantly -- in their limey speaking accents that contrasted so hilariously with their Memphis singing accents.

Nor were whites only "stealing" from blacks. Consider Aretha's 1967 classic "(You Make Me Feel Like a) A Natural Woman," which was written by the Brill Building husband-wife team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Indeed, a strong respect for Jewish showbiz professionalism contributed mightily to black musical success. Most famously, Motown founder Berry Gordy explicitly organized his recording company to mimic the methods of Hollywood movie studios of the 1930s.

The author goes on to make a better point:
"In the mid- and late eighties, as MTV began granting equal airtime to videos by black musicians, academia was developing a doctrine of racial sensitivity that also had a sobering effect on white musicians: political correctness. Dabbling in black song forms, new or old, could now be seen as an act of appropriation, minstrelsy, or co-optation. A political reading of art took root, ending an age of innocent—or, at least, guilt-free—pilfering. This wasn’t a case of chickens coming home to roost. Rather, it was as though your parents had come home and turned on the lights."

For example, after the first rap Top 40 hit in late 1979, white bands released various raps in 1980-81, such as Talking Heads' "Crosseyed and Painless" (with super-nerd David Byrne rapping "Facts are simple and facts are straight / Facts are lazy and facts are late"), The Clash's "Magnificent Seven," and Blondie's #1 hit "Rapture." It was a fun novelty fad, and the cool New Wave bands were hopping on the bandwagon. And why shouldn't they?

Now, though a white performer has to be as good at rapping as Eminem or he'll be tarred as the new Vanilla Ice.

So, white musicians retreated from anything to do with black music, not wanting to be accused of being the new Pat Boone and stealing Little Richard's act.

Meanwhile, it turned out that blacks weren't such almighty natural creative geniuses either, at least when freed of the anxiety of living up to white demands. Black songwriting collapsed. Writing melodic hooks came to be seen as incompatible with keepin' it real. By the 1990s, black songs that weren't raps didn't have much more melody than the raps did. Hip-hop just droned on forever, although it may now, hopefully, be finally dying.

The terrible irony is that blacks turned themselves into new minstrels, acting out ridiculous gangsta rap fantasies for white fans, sometimes with lethal results.

At the Super Bowl halftime show this year, oldtimer Prince gave a tremendous performance in the pouring rain. For his two cover versions, he pointedly chose songs written by whites and covered by blacks -- Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" (most famously peformed by Jimi Hendrix) and Creedence Clearwater's "Proud Mary" as done by Ike and Tina Turner. His message was clear: Let's get over this obsession with who stole what from whom. Together, we Americans conquered the musical world. We can do it again if we just grow up.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

51 comments:

Shouting Thomas said...

I'll throw in my completely uneducated, statistics free observations from my experience as a musician and artist over 35 years:

White kids didn't just get leary of being accused of mimicking blacks, they got fed up with their parents' obsession with nominating blacks for sainthood. The kids didn't want people to feel sorry for blacks. People should feel sorry for them.

So, white college educated kids came up with some incredible ploys to shift the balance of whining victimhood to themselves. The sexual and physical abuse hysterias of the 80s and 90s helped affluent white kids to position themselves as sainted victims.

But the real coup in this game was outing one's self as gay. A white kid with a dentist father could join the ranks of the sainted oppressed by announcing himself as gay.

I regard about 90% of the kids' gay performances as complete fabrications. I know... I know... It's completely innate and considering the sainted history of gay oppression nobody in their right mind would just pretend to be gay... or engage in homosexual acts for peer approval. Baloney!

In the hip environs where I've lived for 35 years, kids routinely pretend to be American Indians in a ploy for sympathy. Why not pretend to be gay (or even engage in gay sexual acts) if it makes you an object of sympathy, and elevates you to the status of the oppressed?

The kids found a way to occupy the space of the poor oppressed blacks. Just go home on Friday night and announce to the parents that you're gay. Let the fun begin! If they don't immediately embrace you, then the parents (and all adults) are just plain godawful bigots... just like the ones that hosed down those black people in Selma.

And, the solution to the death of the music business is... a return to roots music forms. Time to re-absorb the blues, old time country and gospel.

Anonymous said...

It would be nice to see young U.S. blacks making music with actual instruments again. Rap {with a few exceptions} seems to have killed off an entire generation of black musicians. This development can't be helping matters any.

Anonymous said...

Excellent examination of the article, although some of the best 80's/90's niche music escapes the black/white premise: Heavy metal guitar.

Someday I'd like some of you to examine this same musical dichotomy (white/black players) within the realm of heavy metal guitar. Heavy metal owes most of its roots to classical music, and is certainly one of the most difficult forms of guitar to play - at least technically - yet blacks as well as whites have mastered the forms due to the mathematical exactitude of the classical arrangement. Black guitarists like Tony MacAlpine and Greg Howe are as capable shredders as Yngwie or Paul Gilbert. Is there an IQ differential at work in such a mathematical medium? Howe and MacAlpine indeed write originally as well as mimic the music previously written by others.

Additionally, the "twich muscle" benefit attributed to blacks seems to have conveyed no advantage here... Gilbert is marginally faster than MacAlpine on the metronome. Just a thought if you're bored, but still want to delve into this realm a bit further.

Anonymous said...

By the 1990s, black songs that weren't raps didn't have much more melody than the raps did.

You're crazy. I defy you to listen to a chanteuse like Mary J. Blige (say, "Sweet Thing"), a boy band like Soul For Real ("Candy Rain") or Boyz-II-Men or a straight up singer-songwriter like Brian McKnight and say the same thing.

Hip-hop just droned on forever, although it may now, hopefully, be finally dying.

Sorry, dude, it's not happening. On one day, not two months ago--September 11th, 2007--Kanye West and 50 Cent released albums simultaneously. There was even a rivalry to see who could sell more. How'd they do?

50 sold over 300,000 copies.
Kanye sold over 400,000.

Another much anticipated album--a country record--came out the same day, from the well-known Kenny Chesney. How many units did Kenny move?

Just over 100,000.

Check it out, pa.

All of these numbers are lower (maybe 20%) than if there were no such thing as illegal file-sharing. But the fact that a good rap album can almost go gold in about a day surely means something.

Hip-hop is enduring form with decades left in its lifespan.

devolution said...

Yes, it's true that today's popular music is terrible and it has been since the mid 1990's. However, I think this writer, Sasha Frere-Jones, is a bit biased about the cause of this decline. He's a bass player in a white funk band for god's sake.

Sasha Frere-Jones is one of these white guys who hates himself for being white. His greatest desire is to be as cool as the black guys he's seen on TV. He soaked up his poltically correct education like a sponge and sees examples of white racism around every corner.

Unfortunately for him, 9 times out of 10 this white racism is merely a figment of his own imagination. His MTV example is a perfect illustration of this. In fact, he was 180 degrees off from the truth.

Black music and culture has been in the mainstream of American society since the 1960's. When the New Wave genre, which had a more white aethetic character, came around in the late 70's and early 80's, it was rejected by the mainstream music industry in America which had already been "miscegenated" for almost two decades.

It was the unknown upstart, MTV, which embraced New Wave in its first couple of years and helped to give the new chanel a niche in the entertainment marketplace. It also introduced America to a lot of great music from Europe and helped give the old MTV its anti-establishment image. As MTV became more mainstream, it began to have more black musicians on its chanel, not the other way around.

Like so many others today, he's guilty of exagerating the influence of black culture in rock music. This seems to be the current politically correct version of rock history. While it is certainly true that early rock was influenced by black musical styles, such as jazz and blues, it was also influenced by the old country/western styles.

Also, ever since the days of the Beatles and the British invasion, these inlfuences have gradually gotten weaker. Sure, the Beatles and many of the rock bands who followed them in the 60s and 70s occasionally payed lip service to these black influences in their music, but they did this in a clearly white style.

So, the real question is did rock music seperate itself from black music, or did black music seperate itself from rock music? The reality is that, with a few exceptions, rock music and black music have been slowly evolving in different directions since the days of Motown. This seperation was well underway before punk and New Wave came around. I also think it was inevitable since culture is a product of the people who make it.

Anonymous said...

I'm no expert on popular music, but aren't you exaggerating the retreat of whites from imitating non-white music? When were Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel doing all that world music stuff? And didn't "No Quarter," by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, have all sorts of North African/Arab stuff on it? And what about British triphop, like Portishead; isn't that strongly influenced by African-American music?

Of course, the artists I have mentioned aren't exactly the most popular, but I believe they are considered important by critics, and they have their fans (including me.)

Cato said...

Interesting post as usual;

The message was: Let's stop pretending we're Mississippi Delta bluesmen; we're nerdy suburban white kids with three digit IQs.

That seems to be the message from today's white rock bands as well. Irony seems to be a lot more popular than earnestly mining some musical tradition.

Meanwhile, it turned out that blacks weren't such almighty natural creative geniuses either, at least when freed of the anxiety of living up to white demands. Black songwriting collapsed. Writing melodic hooks came to be seen as incompatible with keepin' it real.

This isn't really new. In the period from the 20s to the 50s, black musicians were at the forefront of jazz, but most of them turned in their best performances covering the Great American Songbook - which was largely penned by white guys (many jewish and/or gay). Of that era, the only two first-rate black songwriters are Ellington and Waller. Louis Armstrong, the father of modern American music, didn't write a single tune that would be recognized by the general public today. Charlie Parker was an innovative theoretician, but again, didn't write memorable melodies. Instead, he, and most of the be-boppers of the 40s and 50s would just improvise over the chord changes to standards like Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm."

In short, composition has never been an area where black musicians' contributions have been conspicuous.

Anonymous said...

"Rap music is still the same old same old; "

Didn't I tell you already that rap today sounds very very different from what it sounded like in 1980?You criticize Sasha for not knowing musical history before his time but you have the opposite problem; you entirely lost the plot somewhere around 1990.

Todd Fletcher said...

The book "The Rest is Noise", a history of 20th century classical music, has an interesting chapter on the origins of jazz. Many of the early jazz artists were conservatory trained and had hoped for careers in the white classical world. When this didn't work out they took what they learned and applied it to their african-american musical roots, with famous results.

There's telling anecdote in the book about a Charlie Parker show that Stravinsky attended. When Parker saw him in the audince, he started improvising on themes from "The Firebird".

So I think questions of whites or blacks co-opting each other is silly. Musicians never used to bother about such things, but just made the best music they could.

tommy said...

I recall Prince, opening for the Rolling Stones at the LA Coliseum in 1981, being showered with boos no matter how much heavy Hendrix-style electric guitar he laid on.

Which is pretty funny given the way the Rolling Stones had themselves sold out to the era with awful songs "Miss You" and "Shattered."

tommy said...

I recall Prince, opening for the Rolling Stones at the LA Coliseum in 1981, being showered with boos no matter how much heavy Hendrix-style electric guitar he laid on.

In fact, I'm surprised to learn that the Stones had hardcore fans left after "Emotional Rescue." Or at least I figured they hadn't recovered any until the the 90s when they cranked out some better songs like "Love Is Strong."

dearieme said...

Oh my Bix and Louis long ago.
I recommend Sudhalter's "Lost Chords" which draws a nice distinction between what you might call a Political History of Jazz (1915-1945) and a Musical History. CDs of Jazz of that era are cheap and the music is wonderful. Not Mozart-Beethoven wonderful, but pretty wonderful none the less.

jody said...

what happened to music?

video games.

music is a dying form of entertainment.

to survive and thrive, any field of human endeavor must capture the teenage mind. it is only then that you end up with a large talent pool of people in their 20s and 30s doing vital work in the field.

Anonymous said...

Steve:

The lack of musicianship among today's top bands -- and certainly among rappers --is very apparent.

The '70s were blessed with rock bands that had real chops musically ... guys who could write, play and sing.

Today's guitarists sling their axes low for two reasons -- one, to show off all their arm tats, and two, because they don't really need to play them beyond banging out a few power chords.

Name one guitar player today who could be considered in the same league as Hendrix, Clapton, Brian May, Don Felder, and so on and so on?

michael farris said...

I'll probably post several times here, so this is the first in a series.
In high school I enjoyed listening to Elmore James, Bobbly Blue Bland (and Bessie Smith) and punk was/is one of the few kinds of rock I've ever really been able to identify with (I could never stand Led Zeppelin and its ilk). So, I'm really skeptical about the claim that punk was rebelling against blues influence in rock.

Punk was a rebellion against a lot of things, in strictly musical terms it was primarily against pretentious-stadium-rock and pre-packaged disposable pop/rock -stars (the latter actually more a british than american thing with major musical lifestyle fads taking over the UK and dying out on a clockwork basis).

American punk didn't was only intermittently about political alienation ("it was better before, before they voted for whatshisname") and mutated into white suburban alienation ("why are you such a stupid asshole?") and many 80's groups showed more than a passing acquaintance with country conventions (x, blasters, meat puppets) and/or even jazz (tupelo chain sex, minutemen).
Of course none of those groups ever really hit the mainstream, despite some half-hearted tries but they made grunge, the last roar of the dying rock beast possible.

Richard A. said...

Let's go back to music over 60 years ago and since it's Halloween -- from youtube,
"St. James Infirmary Blues" - Cab Calloway
http://tinyurl.com/2lkrmd

Marc said...

But the real coup in this game was outing one's self as gay. A white kid with a dentist father could join the ranks of the sainted oppressed by announcing himself as gay.

I regard about 90% of the kids' gay performances as complete fabrications. I know... I know... It's completely innate and considering the sainted history of gay oppression nobody in their right mind would just pretend to be gay... or engage in homosexual acts for peer approval. Baloney!

In the hip environs where I've lived for 35 years, kids routinely pretend to be American Indians in a ploy for sympathy. Why not pretend to be gay (or even engage in gay sexual acts) if it makes you an object of sympathy, and elevates you to the status of the oppressed?


This is the stupidest thing I've ever read on this site, hands down.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, some of the most interesting as well as popular music coming out of hip-hop is by guys like Dangermouse and the Outkast duo, who rather unashamedly listen to and borrow from white dude rock music of the past 35 years. Gnarls Barkley scored big with a more or less straight cover of a Violent Femmes song, after all.

N said...

Steve- this is a topic you've brought up several times, and I think part of the problem is that though your analytical skills are great, you're not an artist or a musician...

There are two kinds of songwriters, two modes of songwriting. One is the more classical Paul McCartney school, these guys are natural musicians, often have perfect pitch and such, they hear melodies in their heads, as when McCartney wrote 'Yesterday' while in bed with the non-sense words 'scrambled eggs' in mind; to them lyrics are as rhythmic placeholders.

But rock has moved away from that, people arent so interested in hearing sweet catchy melodies if there also isn't an air of cool authenticity to them, songs that capture pathos, angst etc., as if the songs were being written even as these emotions were experienced; songs that are really vehicles to convey and capture how strongly possessed of depth and pathos the creator is. Rap is the stripped down version of this school of songwriting, it aspires to be pure spontaneous pathos and convey superiority without any melody at all.

John Lennon at the end of his career represented this school, he wrote great melodies, like 'Imagine' and 'Watching the Wheels', but does anyone think he could have written those songs to the words "scrambled eggs"? Again, authenticity is the operative word.

In short, people want music that lets them adulate a man possessed of depth and angst, not so much material that you can hum to, the way you would a well-crafted commercial jingle (that a fat loser in his basement could write).

Now the dude above --who wrote about 'irony' --is correct: bands today are full of harmless, liberal white guys who are only authentic when they are ironic. The problem is, irony is not the epiphenomenon of great passion, and you end up with uninspired and therefore boring melodies. (modern bands have been thrown off by cobain, who did feel strong authentic pathos and capture it in music, but he wrote surreal ironic lyrics after the fact, kind of an anti-mccartney)

Malcolm said...

Pop music might also represent an ever downwards spiral of musical literacy among young adults.

Steve, please recall back in the good ole days that these groups, err actually knew how to play instruments and sing. Its no accident that the best country and motown singers all, at one time or another, sang in the church choir. When you have a kid growing up now, whose time is probably spent playing video games and vegging out in front of 100 cable channels, and 1000+ other activities, learning music is not as common and if they are trying to imitate rappers - well there's no place to go but down.

point 2: as the alan lomax recordings show, back in the old days lots of people knew how to 'make' music - to pass the time, to make work easier...so it probably came a lot more naturally to younger people who grew up in such atmospheres, or 'little bubbles' as Lomax called them. Listen to those recordings - Geneoese longshoreman could sing better than most professional choirs nowadays. It was completely organic where as if one has training today its totally artificial.

point 3 perhaps as with modern art we're at the point where novelty has replaced skill. If generations lived with the same folk songs, why do we need so much 'change' marginal utility and all that - I was a lot happier with my 10 albulms in highschool than my 5000+ mp3 collection.

PatrickH said...

m farris said:
"I'm really skeptical about the claim that punk was rebelling against blues influence in rock."

I can hardly speak for most punk rock, but I do remember Johnny Ramone, the Ur-Father of punk, saying that he wanted to create a music with "nothing black in it", and his particular zero-syncopation guitar style succeeded brilliantly.

Steve Sailer said...

I've got to dig up my old 1978-1980 record reviews that I wrote for my college newspaper, because I was making the same points three decades ago -- that the Ramones were minimalist artists rebelling against the emotional richness of the blues because it had been overused, but that the Clash's great London Calling album showed that there was only so far you could take popular music in the Ramones' abstract direction and the best band in the world was now getting reacquainted with African-American and Jamaican styles.

Evil Neocon said...

Cato -- Five words: Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool

Steve -- the other issue with the decline of rock music is the limitations of the guitar finally being reached. While it's very expressive, pretty much all the changes that can be rung have been rung. Perhaps the power of amplified wind instruments that are also expressive, like the Sax, could bring new life to Rock.

Certainly there is a niche or opportunity for a band that plays emotionally expressive, beat-heavy music that's different than the irony-laden emo-rock of today. Which ironically is not very emotionally expressive.

Somewhat ironically, Mick Jones "Big Audio Dynamite" incorporated both sampled Brit-irony (often Hammer Horror films) coupled with Jamaican reggae tunes.

Anonymous said...

Fuck talent, Devo were one of the best bands of the time and are listened to now more than some of the "important" bands of that period (Clash *yawn*, Talking Heads, etc).

Their Satisfaction cover was a piss-take on the Stones but they could rawk out when they wanted to and often did, consistently and thoroughly. Evidence:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=ZRENoPisFYk

http://youtube.com/watch?v=zQj6vI_LX9g

Anonymous said...

"Name one guitar player today who could be considered in the same league as Hendrix, Clapton, Brian May, Don Felder, and so on and so on?"


There are probably two contenders for "biggest rock band in the world" right now: U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. RHCP have never been the choice of music snobs, but they have incredible muscianship along with a lead singer who simply cannot sing. John Frusciante, Flea and Chad Smith are all legitimately great musicians and Rick Rubin has pushed them towards great pop success.

Quite simply, Frusciante can do anything with a guitar, and his musical curiosity is why the the Chili Peppers have evolved more than any other band in the history of pop/rock.

Anonymous said...

"Hip-hop is enduring form with decades left in its lifespan."

My God, what a depressing thought.

Anonymous said...

Evil Neocon said...

Cato -- Five words: Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool


Actually, isnt that six words. Sorry to make a cheap shot!

Cato said...

evil neocon said:

Cato -- Five words: Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool

The tempting response is: Two words: Gil Evans.

But seriously, I see what you're getting at. But to me, the distinctive thing about Miles Davis' music has always been the creation of interesting textures and arrangements - actually giving the instruments room to breathe and the audience something inviting to the ear. He was certainly one of the best jazz musicians of the 1950s and early 60s, and obviously put out some of the best records, but I still think it's hard to say that he was a great songwriter in the traditional sense (melody, etc).

James said...

Maybe it's because I'm 21 and probably twenty years younger than the median reader here, but I think music today is just fine.

What the kids like these days:
Timbaland
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GojTUmjxVHU
Kanye West
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZd1Js0QaOI
Rihanna
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4WAapKx2TvM

Black music with white influences top the charts. It's new, interesting, and danceable.

Judging from the Top 40, popular white music on the other hand is in a sorry state. The most best rock acts are throwbacks (White Stripes, the Killers) or old bands like Green Day and Smashing Pumpkins also retreading old territory. Occasionally a white singer-songwriter with a nice melody will get recognized, but otherwise the popular white artists make it thanks to black hip-hop producers. I do like indie rock, but most of it's too weepy and cerebral to go mainstream.

colin laney said...

This is the stupidest thing I've ever read on this site, hands down.

I just wanted to second the above sentiment.

I've been reading Steve's blogs and articles for years. I can't recall an instance where both Steve and the entire commentariat were so completely removed from reality in every particular. It's sort of spooky.

Among other things, Steve seems unaware of Sasha FJ's previous witch hunt against Stephen Merrit of The Magnetic Fields for insufficient fealty to "blackness" in music.

That's right - Merrit's annual top ten list was found to be insufficiently worshipful towards negritude! And you can bet he was made to pay the price, too. I guess Steve's sympathy for deviationists ends with James Watson.

The history of music being presented here also varies quite a bit from the one I lived through, where worshipful adherence to negritude in music was enforced at every level. Even Annie Lennox was brought up on charges by Rolling Stone magazine in the early eighties . . . only a letter from the Queen of Soul Herself, Aretha somebody-or-other - Johnson? - called off the dogs.

I also got a good laugh about SFJ being a self-hating "white". Significant Jewish ancestry within the last two generations seems evident (and I don't even know what he looks like!). Whites, self-hating or otherwise, are rarely in such an active and outspoken 'enforcer' role as Jones.

I'm surprised to see Steve in SFJ's corner, but it fits perfectly with the upside-down and backwards feel of this post and the commentary on it. I'm generously going to suppose that Steve's blog was hijacked by Sarah Schulman today and hope that he is able to wrest control of his blog away from the spectre of this harpy by tomorrow.

colin laney said...

OK, I can't help myself.

(I recall Prince, opening for the Rolling Stones at the LA Coliseum in 1981, being showered with boos no matter how much heavy Hendrix-style electric guitar he laid on.)

So Steve, let me get this straight. A cafe au lait colored dwarf - sporting mascara, pink panties and thigh high leather boots - was booed by a crowd at the LA Coliseum - for being BLACK?

Are you sure?

I will be the first to admit that - ordinarily - you are the internet's finest at sussing out hidden racial subtexts in popular culture and foreign affairs.

However, I feel it is my duty as a longtime reader to point out that something here is queering your judegement.

An interesting data point that weighs against your interpretation of Prince's reception (by uncharacteristically "anti-black" rock fans) is that his feature film "Under the Cherry Moon" was widely disdained by the Rock crowd (wonder why?) but warmly recieved by the New Romantic types, who are the very same people you're accusing here of being "anti-black" for no greater offense than wishing to make and consume new forms of music, more congenial to European (and European-American) sensibilities.

Though you and Sasha Frere Jones (and PBS!) would have it otherwise, choosing to demure from noxious Boomer rituals of obeisance before Jazz and Blues as the voice of God is certainly not "anti-blackness".


Your question, "What's gone wrong with music?" is just as easily recast as "Look how much is going right with music". A century of monotonous, overrated crap is finally being laid to rest. And not a moment too soon!

Jazz has been interred in the mausoleum of Academe. Like James Joyce, it's something that everybody swears that they love - and listen to often!

The last remnants of "soul" styling are found in the tasteful yodelling of American Idol contestants.

"Punk" is currently being mummified for permanent curation by Mojo magazine, Spin, various "arts" networks and documentary makers, splayed out and neatly labelled for ease of access and comprehesion.

"Hip hop" continues to disappoint as the Next Big Thing, though Timbaland's work with Justin Timberlake and Duran Duran will no doubt one day be ranked with Glenn Gould's Brandenburg Concertos.

A few readers here make something of units moved, but who really cares what increasingly mentally and morally incoherent modern consumers, at the end of their emotional chain, choose to consume? Is their hip-hop "music" somehow more significant than their Xanax addictions and self mutilation? I certainly don't think so. If anything, it's far less interesting.

As an added bonus, I'm never pressured by the larger society to get down on my knees and worship Xanax addiction and self-mutilation. Sasha Frere Jones and accomplices will never be able to declare me a national pariah because I am insufficiently enthusiastic about benzodiazapenes.

Narcotics and tittilation: every generation has had its distractions, but end-of-game boomers insist that theirs be labelled "art" - maybe because no actual art was produced on their watch? The distractions with which one chooses to guild the lily of fondly remembered adolescent sexual experiences should be the subject of happy reveries, not forcibly jammed down everyone else's throat as "art".

Fred said...

James has an interesting point about Rihanna. Her hit S.O.S. samples "Tainted Love" by the '80's. white boy New Wave band Soft Cell -- and Soft Cell's Tainted Love incorporated "Where Did Our Love Go?" by The Supremes. A little bit of inter-racial recursiveness there.

devolution said...

I was going to write about the problems with today's rock music in my previous comment (namely, why it sucks), but since that comment was becoming an essay, I decided to end it. Anyway, I'm back because I can never resist an opportunity to impart my wisdom onto the unwashed masses.

Today's rock music is all image and no substance. Today's rock stars wear the trendy rock star clothes and have the trendy rock star hair-do's, but they seem utterly incapable of creating memorable riffs, writing thought/emotion provoking lyrics, or comanding a strong stage presence. In other words, they are posers.

So, why is this? I think one of the reasons is the corporate influence in the modern music industry. I don't say this as some anti-corporate socialist type. In fact, my views tend to be more libertarian than anything else.

The free market, including the corporations that arise within it, is by far the best and most efficient way of allocating our scarce resources to meet our innumerable wants and needs. With all that being said, however, major corporations have a long and consistent track record of producing a shallow, idiotic, and often vulgar popular culture. This aplies not only to music, but also to TV, advertising, movies, and fad promotion.

When you combine this corporate tendency with the increasingly dumbed down American public, who not only accept this drivel but increasingly seem to demand it, you have a recipe for our current sad state of affairs.

Another puzzling thing about this is that in other areas of the economy, corporations are regularly willing to take on a certain amount of risk in the hope of reaping a greater return, but in the area of popular culture, corporations seem to be terrified of breaking out of the mold. The countless numbers of movies that are knock-offs of past successes is but one example of this. Indeed, it seems our entertainment industry is out of fresh ideas.

Good rock music has one of two ingredients in it, and preferably both. One is a GENUINE sense of rebellion, which speaks to the natural rebellion that normal young people in their teens and 20's feel as they seek the freedom and independence to create their own identities in this world. It also speaks to the older soccer moms and dads who occasionally will want to re-experience those feelings through the music of their youth.

The second ingredient is some form of underlying sexuality. This sexuality doesn't necessarily have to be overt in the musician's style of dress or in the lyrics. In fact, it is better when it lies underneath the surface. It is more of a sexual vibe that the musician gives off. Like the Supreme Court's definition of pornography, this sexual vibe is hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

Of course, like I said before, good rock also has to have good riffs and/or clever lyrics. Lastly, drug and/or alcohol dependence also seems to produce great rock. I know this will offend some people, but rock history has proven this to be generally true. And no, marijuana and the ritalin don't count. I'm talking about serious self-destructive addictions here. *blushes*

To sum it up in one word, todays rock music lacks soul. However, unlike Sasha Frere-Jones, I do not equate soul with blackness. Art has soul if the art moves something within one's soul. Any type of music, from Mozart to James Brown can have soul. It is not dependent on musical style or the color of the musician.

Evil Neocon said...

Cato good point. You can't forget Gil Evans. But I'd also point to Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. Both wonderful "traditional" songwriters "Livin for the City" is amazing ... both lyrically complex and country-style storytelling and with an amazing funk beat that still makes me smile. And yeah, concede that Davis was more about complex textures than anything else. Sketches of Spain fits in that.

Creatively however, it seems that Blacks have entered a melt-down in music where they used to dominate -- no more Motown, Stax, etc. White rockers also have had a creative meltdown but seem marginally more creative -- with more acceptance for fusion styles such as funk-styled Chili Peppers (and yeah, Kiedis can't sing).

Fred said...

"(and yeah, Kiedis can't sing)"

What about his work on the song Aeroplane?

Anonymous said...

This brings to mind all the grief that Paul Simon got a decade back that he was exploiting African musicians. That would turn away others from making the same mistake.

invisible lizard said...

Music from before the time that homos and nerds ruled the earth. Not that(it goes without saying)there's anything wrong with that.

michael farris said...

I thought the real meltdown in black music came about by the late 70's and early 80's.

I remember wanting to get back into soul music (after spending more time exploring country and a bunch of other styles) around 1980 and looked around and found ... not much that I found very interesting. I suppose disco was partly to blame for siphoning off a lot of black talent (that found itself with not much to do once disco collapsed as a mainstream format).

Legal and management disruptions that brought down the big black corporations like Motown and Stax also played a part I suppose.

In that sense, hip hop is more a symptom of earlier collapse rather than the disease itself (and I don't hate hip hop, 98 % of it just leaves me cold). I even remember hearing Rapper's Delight for the first time and thinking that it at least was something original. I suppose I was still vaguely aware of rap but the next time it actually remember it was the roxanne saga in the mid-80's.

I think one bad thing that happened in the 80's was the segregation of melody and rhythm. They always had a tendency to go their separate ways in American Black music but I think it was the mid? late? 80's that they made the divorce final.

Whitney Houston was maybe the last mainstream superstar who was able to combine the two (though her big vocalism power ballads were one of the driving forces of the final split).

What all this has in common (I think) might be described as display over communication. Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight didn't have tremendous vocal ranges, what they had was crystal clear diction and a knack for projecting the empotional content of the text, communicating directly to the listener rather than bowling them over with vocal fireworks.

tommy said...

(and yeah, Kiedis can't sing).

Even worse, the lyrics of most RHCP songs are complete crap.

Anonymous said...

Well, actually, OK, you'd have to add early Stevie Wonder to the progression I was talking about. So you can't say funk fusion didn't get enough play. I guess there just wasn't the musical talent out there to continue the tradition.

I nominate this session for the high point of post-WWII American pop. Holy shit.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDZFf0pm0SE

MQ

Shouting Thomas said...

My answer to this post can be accessed here.

Ash said...

I apologize that I only seem to comment when I disagree. I actually agree more often than it would appear.

However...

While you have some interesting insights on this subject, particularly about the situation when you were younger in the late 70's early 80's, you are somewhat out-of-touch with what is going on in music right now.

This is typical, of course. Previously on your blog, you discussed a Rolling Stone list of the best rock songs, and failed to note that if you made a histogram of the years of the selected songs, it probably formed a bell curve of centered on the year when the average age of the list contributers was twenty. (The list didn't include the Violent Femmes "Add It Up". Enough said.)

If you went to your local "goth" club on an average Saturday night, you would discover a very white scene with a lot of new electronic music that you have never heard.

If you went to your local Barnes and Noble and study the magazine racks, you would discover a lot of magazines geared towards people making music on their home computers.

Steve, for the first time since before disco, heterosexual white men are composing dance music. This has got to mean something (besides that, consciously or not, they recognize doing so as a way to get laid.)

Something is happening out there, but it won't be as apparent, at least not right away, because of technological and market differences. There's not as much money to be made when people are just giving their music away.

There are big stars who all the clerks at Hot Topic follow avidly. They manage to support their families, but don't get to buy their own private jets.

In short, music is still going on, but the internet has made obsolete a whole infrastructure for music distribution, and so the whole scene is different.

fwood1 said...

Colin Laney should have his own blog.

David said...

Music went downhill after 1900. It died by about 1940. Some jazz is interesting aural wallpaper. The stuff on the radio is not music.

CGHill said...

Me, I'm just bemused at the thought that Hall & Oates and Michael Jackson are "equally gifted."

Oh, and this quote from Ash deserves rehash: "[I]f you made a histogram of the years of the selected songs, it probably formed a bell curve of centered on the year when the average age of the list contributers was twenty."

When I turned 20, we were in the waning days of 1973, moving into 1974, and I doubt anyone can argue with a straight face that this was some sort of Golden Age of popular music. Hell, it wasn't even zinc.

Anonymous said...

Tunes notwithstanding, this era of Aframerican music might be remembered as the great liberation from poetic nonsense, which is what the vast majority of popular music, old-school and contemporary, has been. I mean, the dismality of much rap notwithstanding, at least nobody's cloaking their vile humanity in lies.

For instance, a "nuanced" song like "It Ain't Me, Babe," is a pretty disgusting declaration capable of inflicting grievous emotional harm on some young woman who feels she's not worthy of the great and complex Dylan; who, in actuality wants to use his fame to have wide and varied, sundry intercourse. No such mistake exists in Jay-Z. It's war. It's honest.

James Kabala said...

Colin Laney: For someone who professes to disdain the great majority of twentieth-century popular music, you certainly seem to know a lot about it (e.g., minutiae of Prince's career or the all-but-forgotten New Romantic movement.)

"Your question, 'What's gone wrong with music?' is just as easily recast as 'Look how much is going right with music'. A century of monotonous, overrated crap is finally being laid to rest. And not a moment too soon!"

What are you referring to here? What is "going right with music?" It's not as if the demise of jazz, pop, and rock and roll is being replaced by a classical music revival, which is what you would seem to prefer (and which would certainly be a wonderful thing); it's being replaced by hip-hop and emo. Even country music is moribund these days. Where is the good music of any genre?

Anonymous said...

Please dont forget these days that the charts and record sales are all caused by music promotion. How can we judge which music is the most popular now when alot of crap music (Black & White) is being forced on these kids with music television . A film clip is just a big commercial 'Buy this can of drink, its cool' ' Buy this artist , he's cool'.
I gave up on the charts years ago. Its only when alot word of mouth music gets around without media promotion is when im interested.
Clever artists that deserved to be in the charts (and were) in the last 15 years are:
Eminem, Outkast, Nirvana, Jack Johnson , Chilli Peppers.....
These are buy no means my personal fav bands but everything else is nothing new , if not getting worse.
Looking forward to that modern R&B to finally dissapear so we can get some energy music back to the kids again.

Dan said...

Most white kids I see still listen to Rock or Indy especially in the suburbs and some parts of the city away from the inner cores. I see that many white kids seem to listens to everything or just rock or indy music. When I was growing up in the 80's, everyone I knew listened to rock soft hard heavy metal even if a lot of them turned pop. I see early rock and roll very close to some country western music. Bill Haley and Elvis tried to be Country types singers but it didn't work for them. They combined elements of swing jazz. Early jazz, some of it came out of folk music from the irish and scottish. They technology of music started to change a bit with new instuments in the 20's with early jazz. They weregreat white jazz bands that were considered the best years ago people like Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. Later on to rock and roll. Blacks have a roll but not all of it. I do not like jiving singing! They sound like they are whinning or screaming. Moat white singers did not do that. They sang normal to me. Today, with the media, they are pushing the jiving singing all the time. Black music is very different from white music. White Jazz or Big Band Jazz was so different from Black Jazz. The white kids that are imitating black rappers are soo unhappy and they are looking to rebel. Thanks to the media of the 90's, they replaced the bad boy image of Heavy Metal like Guns and Roses. Black kids do it as well but not all! The media through videos are selling the gangsta pimp looks. They started here in the US in the early 90's and it took hold all over by the late 90'S. I thought it would never go to England and other parts of Europe but it started in England in the late 90's and it it taking root now for the past 5 to 6 years. I think they have more popularity in England than in the US but other parts of Europe, not much. I think a lot of it is contibuted to the break down of the family. In England, I think it broke down entirely, not all. In America, they families are gnerally strong. Of course in the suburbs or in higher economic area. Lower economic white or black areas here in the US, the rap and hip hop is very popular in those areas more than the nicer areas. In Italy and France as well as other parts of Europe, the families are strong as well as traditions. I have taught in Europe many years and in England in 04 and 06 and taught Europeans teens from summers of 00 to 07 in England and Ireland. They still love rockish sounds but they like dancing to trance techno sounds but not so much rap and hip hop. England like I said because of the family structures of 75 to 80 percent I think collapsing, rap and hip hop gangsta look is becoming popular but many of the kids I have taught there still like rockish sounds as well. The media is brainwashing many people esecially our youth for the greed of money. The greaser to the heavy metal looks lasted a long time from the 50's to the mid 90's in America. 40 years is not bad but the media starting in the 80s in the black communities but the white communities in the 90's like areas like eminem's area, they sold gangsta rap. 10 to 15 years not bad but people are talking about changing the inages. I hope people get serious because this is serious. America's families are still strong about 65 percent is very, about 20 percent semi strong but about 10 to 15 percent are weak to very weak or disfunctional. Does anyone notice when they are, they seem to listen to rap and hip hop. I know I am saying a general statement but I think I am right. Black music? Well I know like many Black Jazz singers or bands. I prefer the white ones they play in many old time movies or movies today based on that time. I never like rap and hip hop. I thouht it was soo silly and dumb but I do believe it was born out of ignorance and exploited by corporate america and MTV for money. I listen to Rock and some new bands I like like Angels in the Airwaves, Cold Play, Alanis Morrisette and the Goo Goo Dolls. I love my 70's and 80's Van Halen, the Cure, New Order, ACDC, Journey, Boston, Go Gos and more. My music tastes keep evolving as I get older like many of you would as well but many still won't find the courage to do so because you still somehow do not think it is cool. I always liked Classical when I was a kid. Kids say it is boring but music from Staw Wars, Lord of the Rings, Gladiator, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter. Most kids I teach 3rd 4th or 5th and teens in the summer say yes they like that type of classical. I get the soundtracks! I also like Enya. I like music traditional music from all over Europe. Irish English and Italian Russian and Austrian are all fun. Period films when they have dances, waltzes. I find it fun. Powerful Operas! I like Peggy Lee. Musicals from Sound of Music and more. These are all white types of music and singing people! Black singers I have liked. Nat King Cole but when I first heard him sing, I thought he was white like the 50's black band, the Platters! I think you all know the white sounds of singing to the black sounds jiving! Sorry I never liked it. I do not like Raggae. I do not know how to spell it.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff. (sorry for the ridiculously short comment, but what else was I supposed to say?) :)

Anonymous said...

This is a great thread; wish it could be resurrected ...