Googling “music definition” returns: vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.
Odd as music doesn’t sound like that anymore.
There’s Been An Awful Murder
My assertion is that music has been removed from the noise that we get sold. Worse, just about every musician and fan has swallowed the new order and is perpetuating it. Anyone who stands up to say otherwise is un-cool or irredeemably old fashioned. Ask Bob Lefsetz.
George Strait & Alan Jackson “Murder On Music Row” is about how Music Row, cut out the heart & soul of Country and instead drums and Rock & Roll guitars are mixed up in your face. It either sounds like a bit of a whine from some old dudes or a wonderfully insightful look at the deconstruction of modern music.
By modern I am mostly going to define the year 2,000 as the threshold. The trend was already there but that seems to be the point when the scales tipped over completely.
I will cover quite a few songs. Theory says I should pop them in the post as YouTube clips but that will create a lot of mess, esp when the clips get pulled. I take it you understand how to copy & paste into a search box. I helped by putting in bold.
Shoot Your Shot
Sticking with a Country theme for now (don’t worry we will look at other things), lets look at Tammy Wynette “Stand By Your Man”. This song is iconic. Just about all people have some knowledge of it. It is that powerful.
The song is about two and a half minutes, which is pretty short. It takes about half of that time to get to the ‘good bit’. A modern producer would probably say that was too long and start with the great rousing chorus. Try it. It will work best if you don’t really know the song. Blam! Catchy hook with a slightly cracked voice. In that situation what does “stand by your man” mean? Nothing. It is a catchy hook but with no meaning so it rolls away. Taylor Swift could have sung that song with a few gibberish lines in-between about her ambivalence to some skater boy and the song would be a novelty hit for ten minutes then sink.
Tammy didn’t do it that way.
The real Stand By Your Man(ager) has two verses that explain the chorus when it arrives. They make those four words carry so much emotional baggage that they knife right into you. Tammy’s voice puts on an edge but she doesn’t need to over-sing or drag things out. We, the audience need to invest the time needed to take in the first two verses to get the huge payoff the songwriter has in store for us in a four word cliche turned inside out.
Short Memory – No Time For Games
Back in the 80’s we had people saying that watching TV (with advert breaks) had shortened the attention span of people from 20 mins to 5 mins. If that is so then web sites that make their money from moving people from page to page, to increase exposure to adverts, have decreased attention span closer to 5 seconds.
This explains part of why melody is no longer acceptable in music. A melody takes a period of time to complete and resolve. Even something as simple as the two note hook in Neon Judgement “Factory Walk” takes about 10 seconds to play out. I prefer the version from the “World of Electronic Body Music” compilation which is a tighter mix.
People can’t/don’t want to devote the time necessary for even the simplest of melodies to resolve or make sense. This means that actual melodies have to be removed altogether. Many musicians actually shun melody as being old-fashioned and an impediment to proper music. That leaves only Rhythm. And those rhythms have to be simple and already half-known or the listener will flick away to another thing before even half way there.
Nu Metal and later Industrial music fans deride the more melodically and lyrically powerful works from before in favor of short machine-gun patterns with no allowance for melody at all. The whole melodic movement of these pieces is commonly one step up and the same step back again. The only exception being over-singers like Christina Aguilera and Idol contestants who woo, woo and wobble all over the place, but despite the impression are not providing any melodic development at all. Quite the opposite.
Interestingly someone compared modern Rock/EDM/Pop patterns to Morse Code. It makes sense. Just about any modern song is not significantly different from (chosen at random) Coal Chamber “Loco”: bip, bip, b, bip, bip – that’s about 5 seconds – bip bip, b, bip bip.
I have had many people say older songs lack impact, aren’t tough enough, compared to the modern stuff. I don’t agree. Sure, Darude “Sandstorm” knocks the socks off you, at first. But after about a minute, it wears off and is somewhere between tiring and annoying. Like eating sugar with a spoon. First few spoons make you feel alive (and naughty) but after that it starts to burn (and melt your ability to taste). “Sandstorm” is a footnote, yet New Order “Blue Monday” still works a treat. Even Guru Josh “Infinity” or Utah Saints “Something Good” sound satisfying in comparison to “Sandstorm”. M.A.R.R.S. “Pump Up The Volume” is still intriguing despite sounding like it was sticky taped together. Donna Summer “I Feel Love” still feels like having sex in a bed of clouds because it has melody and genuine content.
If modern music is like eating sugar with a spoon, fans have lost their ability to taste or have any staying power. If Spice Girls “Stop” or Aqua “Barbie Girl” were released today, I doubt they would chart. Taylor Swift “Shake It Off” is a hit today when I think it would have been (rightly) ignored in 1998 as the puerile tripe it is.
Life’s For The Living
Sugar is addictive. You don’t necessarily even realize you are sucking it down as the packaging says it is healthy food. Coldplay and Nirvana were sold to us a great bands, yet neither delivered anything as grand as The Church or Boston. Sure you can say that they don’t compare but in pure market positioning The Church “Under The Milky Way” and Coldplay “The Scientist” occupy the same space. Same with Nirvana “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Boston “More Than A Feeling”. You could do the same between Adele and Sade.
The thing I notice between these before/after is that the older act builds something that sounds like it affirms life, even if they are singing a sad song. The modern sounds dreary, as if it doesn’t want any joy. Back in the 90’s I was already referring to bands like Pearl Jam as “Miserable Rock”.
The Cure or Psychedelic Furs weren’t the cheeriest of children yet their music holds a far greater sense of hope than A Simple Plan, Nickleback etc. Sisters of Mercy could almost have been Bucks Fizz compared to the passionless misery of Nine Inch Nails. I think Winter “Into Darkness” is more life affirming than Justin Beiber “Love Yourself” despite being about the grayest album ever released!
Hold On Hold Out
It seems to me that people swallowed the stinky fish and didn’t want to cough it back up. We are a proud lot but more problematic is that we hate change. Tammy Wynette “Stand By Your Man” challenges us to think, to assess our own lives and therefore to change. We don’t want that anymore. We are right as we are and change hurts so why should we. Pass me another alcopop.
The trivial doesn’t challenge.
Having anti-art that is deliberately unable to cause challenge is the perfect way to avoid growth and change. Good music asks us to examine something. That causes us to grow and change. Miserable Rock allows us to think we are facing our misery but it does so without holding a mirror to anything.
An example I have used before is the difference between Nine Inch Nails “Hurt” and Johnny Cash “Hurt”. Same song but where Trent (who wrote the song) refuses to really challenge us, Johnny rips open the scabs. Trent leaves me feeling just as trapped as before (and therefore angrier), but Johnny lets the pus run and I feel like there is a light. Same song.
Reach The Beach
There is no easy way to fix this. Pointing the bone at the record execs or even Taylor Swift is no solution. They are only doing what makes cash. Challenging audiences is a sure fire way to not make bulk coin today. Lucky for The Eagles they were already famous or no one would buy a ticket.
If you love music as an artist or a fan, challenge yourself. That is what you are really wanting from music. Let it shine a light, raise a mirror and show hope. You don’t necessarily even have to understand how The Angels “Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again” or Guns & Roses “November Rain” helps you feel better but allow that music should have that role. If it only seems to offer a facsimile of release then it is anti-art, anti-life.
Sure it may seem hard at first to swap the sudden rush of a 5 second machine-gun riff for a melodic riff that takes 15-30 seconds but there is so much more space for real emotion once you give yourself the space to breathe.
What Seth Godin just wrote seems very interesting in light of what I just wrote.