Teaching the other day, I asked a very basic music question, but received a deeply troubling answer. To my students I inquired, “Have you listened to an entire album through in the past month?” Only two of the twelve responded with a “yes,” the others either responding with a resounding “no” or “I don’t know.” This filled me with a cocktail of sorrow and confusion, and threatened to take me further down the path of the cultural cynic, who believes, among other depressing eventualities, that true music is dead. And for those who’ve reached this stage know, it’s almost impossible to turn back from such depths of cynicism.
Especially when cynicism surrounding music is crotchety and mostly without a strong foundation of evidence. And I try not to be a cynic, especially about music.
Those who declare music to be a dead art form are generally responding to the current atmosphere of electronic beats and beeps the same way rockers like Dave Grohl have voiced their sonic grudges. That, or trolling about the Internet looking for Miley Cyrus photos and videos to foist poorly worded dislike upon. If their cynical logic were actually sound in any way, and adding in non-instrumental or non-musician[s on stage] elements to music were in fact harbingers of the doom of the form, then we’d never have made it as far as Michael Jackson, or even Elvis, if that far at all.
Supposedly, one of the reasons people claim music is dead (or losing its last shreds of integrity) is that the industry has produced a simplistic, marketable standard that corrupts creativity and promotes performer personalities that end up being more interesting than the catchy but shallow tunes they (supposedly) write. But hasn’t this always been the case in some respects? Rock stars from the 60s and 70s had an image to maintain, resulting in some pretty dumb (but yes, awesome) tunes and fan-bases very tuned into the drugs and sex scenes surrounding the music. Any music of any genre, be it commercially successful, has money in mind, and there’s actually no such thing as selling out, only misplaced jealousy of those purported to have sold out.
It’s always been the case that personality and attitude sell more than music seemingly produced from a vacuum. Catchy music from catchy individuals: not always nearly as musically astounding as free jazz or the rest of Gershwin you swore to listen to (but didn’t because you keep repeating “Rhapsody in Blue”), but easy to place into your daily life. Many remember Michael Jackson for the moonwalk, but no human ear on earth actually registers that as part of the song. And twerking is nothing but a visual supplement, only different in relative grossness to something like a classic rock drummer kicking through his bass drum. Antics are part of the lifestyle and culture, and that’s always been part of the commercial music world.
Music is an impossibly vast art form, ranging from groups of people wailing on oboes while a hairy dude plays blast beats, to bespectacled/flannel-ed individuals fiddling on a 12-string acoustic guitar for an audience of one or more owls, and even to a symphony of people who’ve never touched an instrument but program beats into their iPads. Anyone with Garageband and only slightly terrible rhythm can create a halfway decent tune, and that’s really a lifeline for music, as opposed to doom. Social media and music software does indeed suggest to a lot of people who shouldn’t be anywhere near music that they can write tunes, and that weirdly speaks to accessibility, production-wise.
One negative aspect could be that music suffers overproduction, as well as hyper-condensing. A single attached to a music video has never faltered in its popularity rise, while full albums sit untouched on the shelves. Easy, sometimes lyrically shocking content, delivered as simply as possible, that you can listen to without wasting a thought. I suppose it’s hard to defend the artistic merit of these types of tunes. But in between the musically dull electronic creations at the novice level and the monolithic pop ridiculousness are a wealth of smaller and medium sized acts still interested in playing weird, excellent music. With so much music available, great musicians have to be strange or unique to be heard; shaky standards at the industry level and the way music is sold is forcing the good artists to get better and more creative.
Music is definitely not dead, you just have to look just past the industry veil to find infinite good stuff. And listen to full albums before making declarations, or you’re just wasting wind and brain power.