I’m beginning to sound like our parents. Mine never really complained about what I was listening to, but it was often apparent that – despite being open-minded about everything I tormented their ears with – they thought I had gone off my rocker when I was blasting Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and other (to their ears) loud and obnoxious music out the speakers (at full volume, naturally).
Because of my upbringing in a family that listened to the broadest musical range possible, I was always willing to give just about everything a chance, and I’ve followed many a fad and have heard the oddest music available at any given time, but these last years, if not this last decade and longer, I noticed that I have basically gotten sick and tired of about 99% of the music being published. You just have to have a look at my collection that seems caught in a time warp, in permanent lock-down, to actually see the effect.
I can’t really pin-point the time when I basically stopped buying new music or keeping new music I had bought, or the day I basically threw my radio out the window, shut the various music video channels down permamently and stopped reading the more widely-circulated music mags, but it did happen, and it happened for a reason.
At some point I started noticing that what I had always considered an essential ingredient of music, ability, was becoming secondary, if not redundant.
I’ve also been a teacher for a decade and a half and the tendency that is becoming apparent in a lot of the music is also something I have been able to see in consecutive generations passing through my classrooms: Having the ability to do something worthwhile and concentrating on developing skills has been pushed to the background by an ever-increasing and seemingly unstoppable desire to take the easy way out, to “make it (big)” with the least amount of effort possible and to basically become rich and famous without having the faculties. Screw ability. I can because I am. I copy, therefore I am. That kind of philosophy. Just look at all the Web 2.0 hype, perpetuated by a bunch of college students trying to make a million by the age of 24 (“Bought out by Google? Way cool, man!”), throwing out endless streams of hyped and utterly useless products that sink faster than they were put live. Listen to their invective when confronted by people with a bit more life experience, simply telling them that success is not necessarily the result of perceived grandeur. I’ve taken part in a few of those discussions and have simply given up. Delusional people who have tuned into the concept of marketing as opposed to ability and perseverance easily get mightyly frustrated and verbally aggressive when they are confronted with a simple question as to the intrinsic value of their product. And then they churn out the next one.
Yes, there have always been artists and people who turned their inability into success and, yes, I was a fan of some of them. I went to see the Sex Pistols live, several times, and was bowled over by the sheer energy being blasted off the stage to be soaked up by an explosive audience with incredible amounts of bottled-up raw energy, frustration and anger. I have often wondered what excited me about that music back then. I think it came at a time in which mediocrity had already gained a solid foothold, albeit not to the extent we see it permeating our society today. The disco wave was ebbing, with its endless stream of mediocre to downright bad clones, and whoever else was making music that day seemed to have subscribed to a safe formula, trying to keep innovation out and steady airplay in. So, to me the Sex Pistols made sense, as a reaction to formulaic music that was polluting the environment. It was “cool” to see a bunch of guys without any ability whatsoever making it big, showing the industry and their peers – actually everyone – the finger. It felt right and was enjoyable – for a time.
But then the trend continued. New wave synthetic pop hit the scene and the 80s were swamped by musicians who thought that programming a Linn drum and regurgitating the latest synthesizer sounds of the day (Yamaha DX7, anyone?) constituted musical ability. I don’t know if it was at that time that engineers and want-to-be home recording fiddlers took over, but they were beginning to get a foot in the door. Gosh, I remember the “Neue Deutsche Welle” here in Germany, with its asinine lyrics, rudimentary simplistic melodies and synthesized beats (one of the biggest hits of the day, “Da-Da-Da”, by a “band” named Trio, rested squarely on a pre-programmed and widely available extremely cheap Casio beat), its monotonous beeping and pulsing and all the other new wave or whatever you want to call it stuff that was hitting the airwaves and video channels faster than you could say “spare me”.
Rock and hard rock were hit by generic hair bands and I still remember thinking that David Coverdale must have blow-dried himself to death when he temporarily vanished from the scene. Popular music in general was getting more and more generic. Tried and proven construction principles – solid beat, catchy melody and most simplistic lyrics – became a fad and never really disappeared.
Then, at some point, probably around the time Nirvana killed rock music, inability became an essential ingredient to the above tried-and-tested mix. Teenage angst could seemingly only be verbalized by people who couldn’t sing, couldn’t play their instruments and basically didn’t know anything but themselves. I read Kurt Cobain’s verbal diarrhea and was astonished that anyone could and would take the guy seriously. As you all know, it only took a second for the music industry to jump on board and literally throw a million clones on the market, accompanied by target audience hype to boot, and everything went downhill from there.
Mind you, fads, incest and cloning have always been a central aspect of the music business, but there’s one thing that bothers me to no end, and that is the modern-day insistence that in order to make music, you don’t need to know squat about it. What you do need to know is how to rip off other people’s stuff, how to overcome your own inability by remixing other people’s art into your own artificial new product and how to prostitute yourself in the most effective way possible, perhaps throwing a clothing line and a few perfumes into the marketing machinery for good measure. Garnish that with an elaborate philosophy explaining and defending your inability by saying that it has worth as a form of pushing the boundaries of antiquated formulaic music, and what you have is a commodity, not music. You have the “coolness” factor. That’s enough. Gotta be cool.
The epitome of this came one day on, as far as I recall, an MTV Cribs segment in which a known artist showed off his Steinway Grand in the living room, playing a simplistic melody with one finger and getting even that wrong. He laughed it off and took the crew into his million-dollar studio in the basement – with missing sound booth and an array of samplers and master keyboards plugged into an assortment of digital soundboards. On the screen, visible in the background, ProTools was raising its ugly head, that programme for musical illiterates who don’t even have the ability and perseverance to get a puzzle done properly.
In “preparation” for this post, I forced myself to watch one full hour of German MTV, something I haven’t done for ages, and what I heard and saw was that nobody (besides the sampled Whitney Houston voice in some odd football world championship “song” that’s being played to death at the moment) actually sang, there wasn’t one single instrument (not one) visible in any one of the videos that hour, probably because none was really audible either, and I had the impression that everything sounded the same.
I am aware that music has always been a way of liberating yourself from the influence of your elders, of sometimes even revolting against their perceived oppression and old-fashioned taste(s), but I do believe that what we are seeing today goes far beyond that.
Music has become democratized. It has been opened to every buffoon on the corner able to turn a dial, to every illiterate able to flaunt his stuff and to every mediocre talent savvy enough to put the power of marketing behind him- or herself. The playing field has been leveled. Know what a ball is? Then you have all it takes to win the championship. This is the age in which nobody would be surprised if George Bush took up singing. He’s potential hit (and dial tone) material.
Yes, I’m aware of Indie bands and alternative markets, and I’m aware of many musicians out there struggling against these tendencies, but when I turn on the radio, switch on the television or tune into the stuff blaring at me through badly-isolated iPod headphones from the seat next to me on my train ride into town, I don’t hear and see any of that. I hear and see mediocrity everywhere I go and it’s tiring. So, in refusing to be dumbed-down by the concept of music as a throw-away commodity, I have decided to abstain, to wallow in memories and old recordings, only sparsely interrupted by a new artist that gets me to prick up my ears because I hear him or her actually using an instrument, a voice or musical knowledge to bring forth something worthwhile. Man, that has become such a rare occurence.
At the end, I find myself suddenly liking music I once shunned, liking it for the single fact that someone actually played a sharpened subdominant with added diminished seventh chord by himself. These people are becoming a rare breed in commercialized music. Hey, call me elitist.
In summation, you can say I have arrived.
I have become old and nagging.
Fine with me.