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It Used To Be About The Music, Man

An article I wrote way back in 2012 for Seizure Magazine, waxing lyrical about my very important opinions on music. They haven't changed, I just keep them to myself more these days.


“I sing along to the pop radio It’s propaganda but I know how it goes”

– Regurgitator, Superstraight.

Every time I download a song from iTunes, I feel just that little bit more spoilt. Hundreds of years ago servants would clamour together hiding around the corner of their master’s chamber to eavesdrop on his piano lesson, having never heard such sweet sounds. Today we complain when the music in a department store isn’t the kind we like. I am trying to be increasingly positive of late, and I am constantly thankful that I live in a world where I can hear a song I’ve never heard before on a bus, hold my phone up to it to find out its name, and inconceivably have a recording of it beamed into my pocket. I dabble in witchcraft with powers I will never understand and they make my life a joy.

But even before technology made it so accessible, music was still a miracle. Waves of sound float through the air, enter my body via my ears and touch my heart. I’ve been a musician for most of my life, and despite being part of this phenomenon every day it never ceases to amaze me what a wonder that is. And sadly it seems almost too easy to hear music these days, and now we simply take for granted that we can carry around every song we’ve ever known and loved, plus hundreds we don’t, on something the size and weight of a pack of playing cards.

Regardless, I make every effort to remain thankful. Particularly as I travel so much, music keeps me sane. A new playlist of songs will get me through weeks away from home on tour. As I write this I am in Edinburgh, performing at the world’s largest fringe festival, having just opened our brand new hour of music comedy last night (it went well thank you for asking). I did not expect that a degree in music would make me a comedian, but I didn’t have the foresight to plan for anything else so I’ll take it.

As such, part of my job is to follow musical trends and know what’s popular so I can ridicule it. I recently learnt how to make dubstep and sadly, even though I can’t apply any of my knowledge of functional harmony, it’s still a lot of fun. Moreover it’s given me an appreciation of the style; I enjoy listening to it, and I know what skill and effort go into creating it. I think that’s important.

That is why I find nothing more grating than reading today’s music reviews. Take this excerpt from Rolling Stone’s write up on Maroon 5’s album Hands All Over:

'On "Misery," the first single, frontman Adam Levine floats his reedy tenor over a percolating groove.'

And compare that with their review of No Doubt’s single ‘Settle Down’:

'The beat is Caribbean, with hints of Seventies funk and Eighties electro percolating up through the mix. There are burly rock power chords. The chorus is a big, delicious bubblegum flavor burst.'

The latter of these started with such promise, describing actual elements of the music; a Caribbean beat with rock power chords. From that description, I can begin to imagine what it sounds like, and whether or not I might like it. But bubblegum flavour? What does music taste like, I wonder? And how is it that the word percolating comes up this often? I imagine the former uses it with reference to syncopation and quick, jagged melodic leaps rising from an ostinato around a tonal centre. Or at least that’s what I suppose a percolating groove sounds like, without knowing what instruments it’s played on, or whether it’s even produced by real instruments.

Another review that has recently sparked controversy in the world of criticism is Chloe Papas’ brief and scathing attack on Chris Brown’s fifth album ‘Fortune’. The controversy has been around her comment that as a registered woman basher, he probably shouldn’t continue to be a celebrated artist and multi-millionaire. All that aside, this is the bit that gets me:

'First track Turn Up The Music sets the tone for the whole album: generic, overly auto-tuned commercialised R&B that could easily be any artist in the charts right now.'

That, as far as I’m concerned, is the important bit. And it’s only two lines of the review. The rest is social commentary. As far as I’m concerned, a music review should still deal with the music. At this point you might argue that the problem isn’t necessarily with criticism, but with the music itself. A description of a new artist will inevitably be as deep or as vapid as their product. But that begins an entirely new and messy debate.

It’s not an original idea for a musicologist to bang their head against a wall trying to explain that modern music is, by and large, rubbish. Every generation that comes along, it seems, realises that whatever the kids are listening to these days isn’t as good or as real or as honest or as meaningful as it was in the good ol’ days. For some, those days are only as far back as Kurt Cobain and the revolutionary new musical genre of grunge. For others it’s as far back as the swinging 60’s when the revolution was scored by the anthems of the youth, giving a voice to a generation marching for freedom…or something. Some will hail back to the glory days of jazz, the only true American art form that bridged the divide between the skill and intricacy of art music and the catchy dance beats and popularity of music that most people actually liked. And for some it’s even further back to when music was only written by musicians, performed by musicians, played to people who on the whole weren’t, and paid for by a king who wanted an orchestral accompaniment to his daily constitution. I only heard Smells Like Teen Spirit five years after Cobain had died, and as much as I try to keep an open mind, I can find a lovely cynical way to denounce anything that’s not technically and conceptually genius.

However, it is the role of any good musicologist to understand and accept the terms and conditions of music in general, and particularly with regard to modern music. It does not exist in a vacuum, and even music that is arguably ‘pure’ music, music for music’s sake, was still created by a society that had its own customs and values the way one of any era does. So if a narrowed class divide and redistribution of wealth and whatever else (NB I don’t do the history thing) has allowed anyone to learn a handful of chords on the guitar and pay to have an album recorded, and anyone else to buy that album, then I guess anyone can make music these days. Not just the kinds of people who have a natural affinity for it, are born into it, and are employed because of their skills, but the people who simply want to. And buying power is in the hands of anybody, so they can support this kind of mediocrity. And that’s just fine.

Really, that’s fine. Everyone can make their own mediocre music and have their voice and let others buy it and hail it. But as long as we all admit that that’s what it is: mediocre. It’s just pop music, and it’s very nice, but that’s ALL it is, and as much as it means to you, it will never compare to the music that’s been created by genius. The kind of genius that heard polyphonic work performed once at the Vatican at the age of fourteen and went home to transcribe it later that day. The kind of genius that went deaf and continued to compose. The kind of genius that improvised their piano concerto a semitone above the original key in a rehearsal because the piano was out of tune. You just can’t tell me that Sting is as good or as worthy a musician as that, or that I’ll Be Watching You is just as good as Beethoven’s 5th because of their significance to society these days.

So let’s get back to music criticism, taking as read that all music is good for different reasons. If it doesn’t have great musical depth or originality, at least the words have meaning and cultural significance. Or if it has neither of them, it’s got a beat and you can dance to it. Or further still, if it has none of those things, at least it has a sinister drone that makes you appropriately uncomfortable to the point that the villain’s sudden appearance makes you tremble in your movie theatre seat. What matters to me the most is that it be taken for what it is.

A children’s book shouldn’t be compared to a great novel; a review of Clifford The Big Red Dog should not attack its lack of character development and the absence of plot. It’s a picture book, designed mainly to help children learn to read. Conversely, War and Peace shouldn’t be condemned for being too wordy for toddlers, and in Russian. Critique it for what it is, based on what it’s for, and why it was created.

Why then does every new analysis of the next manufactured band hail them as revolutionary? Let’s be honest about the music industry. David Guetta’s next big hit probably won’t incorporate any tribal rhythms or experimental harmonies. There will be no clarinet solo. It’ll be a club dance song, designed to make people dance in clubs. It will probably have words to that effect, for example, ‘let’s all dance in the club tonight’. I implore anyone writing a review of it to just say “there’s a driving 4-to-the-floor beat, an electro bass line, synthesised keyboard chords, swirly wind sound effects and the latest pop star’s guest vocals. It’s about love. The kids are gonna go nuts for this shit.” That’s an accurate review. If a review of today’s music isn’t going to deal with the music itself, it should be honest about it and make no pretence to describing the music as ‘mellifluous’ or ‘sarcastic’. These terms, when related to sound, are meaningless.

But if there is the need to talk about the music, why then does Usher’s song continually be referred to as Usher’s? It seems this is a result of both ignorance and apathy to how these songs are made today. Before technology developed to its current peak, live instrumental music was understood, in that even if an audience didn’t know how a guitarist could make them feel sad just by plucking some strings, it was still clear to them that plucking the strings is what made the sad noise.

These days the technology available has given an unlimited palette to anybody who can afford a laptop and a copy of production software, and any lay person listening couldn’t definitely say what’s making the noises beyond “computers done it”. Why can’t a review talk more about them computers and what they gone done? Beatles reviews should have been about George Martin. Sure, Lennon and McCartney (and yes, fine, Harrison too, SOMETIMES) wrote excellent songs. And they were of course contemporaries of a glory day when a musician sounded the same live as they did on an album. But we wouldn’t have the albums without George Martin making them.

A review of a pop group should be about the producer, not the singer. They’re the ones who make the music sound the way it does, and surely the sound of music is what makes music music? And more important than any of that, if you don’t actually know how it got made, or what went into its conception and creation, don’t have the audacity to review it. Don’t dress up your subjective opinion in hollow adjectives. Scrap all of that for two lines : “Its genre is ______. I liked/hated it a bit/a lot.” Once that’s covered, you can go on about the clip, and what the artist was wearing, what worthy cause some of the proceeds of the album are going, and how they like their eggs cooked.

But EVERYONE has an opinion that they think matters and is more valid than yours if it differs from theirs. The bathroom cubicle backstage at Sydney’s Metro Theatre is a shrine to the constant petty rivalry between the hip-hoppers and the metal bands that regularly play there. The wall is filled with hateful graffiti, the metal heads insisting that their loud, indiscernible, distorted static and yelling about the Devil is much better than hip-hop because they write it themselves and don’t simply steal other music and rhyme over it. And the hip-hoppers reply is usually that metal is dated, and was awful to begin with, and the black clothes and piercings and chains and horns are too much. It’s the olden day equivalent of a YouTube flame war.

Is there no way to explain to them succinctly that they’re both right, and they’re both wrong? Everybody tries to rationalise the music they like, and so often that’s done by tearing apart the music that someone else loves, for reasons of artistic integrity and passion, when it’s all just fucking pop music. It reminds me somewhat of religious debate; “Your reasons for not killing other people aren’t as valid as my reasons for killing other people, and I will kill you for disagreeing with me.” Well that’s what I hear anyway.

What needs to be stated explicitly is that music these days is less about music and far more about fashion. Which is fine, that is deeply culturally significant, whether you like it or not. There was a time long ago when it stopped being about the sound and more about the image, and I’m perfectly happy with that. I much prefer to live in a world where Jay-Z can publicly boast of his drug dealing expertise and be made one of the richest men on earth as a result, rather than being a slave. I think we’ve come a long way. But could we just admit it? And stop pretending that it’s something it’s not?

R’n’B clips of recent years play a wonderful trick. The film clip for Soulja Boy’s ‘Crank That’ begins with two young boys dancing the new ‘Superman’ dance craze begun by the very song. Their father sits at his mahogany desk in his business suit shuffling papers the way executives do, wondering what the racket is. His children are astonished that he has never heard of Soulja Boy. Putting aside the fact that past even the age of 30 there’s no real reason why anybody would hear about music acts that have a target demographic of 12-25, the main reason that he’s not heard of him is that this is Soulja Boy’s first single. Nobody’s heard of him yet.

The same stunt was pulled with T.I’s first (and only) single, ‘Whatever You Like’. In it, he and his entourage walk into an unnamed fast food outlet and order some hot wings. The girl behind the counter loses her freaking mind and swoons off into a daydream in which she is serenaded, wined and dined and lifted from her pitiful existence as a regular person with a real job. Her immediate recognition of this alleged megastar and the Beatlemania with which she is enraptured are a scam. This guy only just got a record deal and they’re pimping him out, to convince you that he’s already famous, and if you haven’t heard of him, you’re either old and uncool or you’ve been living under a rock.

But in truth, you and everyone else does not know that this person is meant to be a big deal, but you play along as soon as you’re told, whether it’s by actually enjoying their music and buying their albums, or simply by recognising who it is and agreeing confidently, ‘Soulja Boy is so hot right now’ whenever his name comes up. Like laughing heartily at a joke that you don’t get when everyone else is. It’s not so much that people will like what you tell them to like, but they will certainly only know what you tell them there is.

These tricks are merely playing on people’s need to know what’s in; it’s fashion. The constant arguments about music at high school soon became manageable when I realised that it didn’t matter whether I liked the music or not, but as long as I had heard of them and had an opinion one way or the other, I could stay marginally cool.

If anyone’s finger is truly on the pulse enough to listen to bands that don’t exist yet, bravo. Them being new doesn’t immediately make them good. Unless, of course, your interest is in knowing something that no one else does yet, which is just an elitism of its own. And not even a worthy one, it’s merely an exclusivity of fashion, not of skill, talent, taste, or an eye and an ear for those things. So much of what I’ve written can easily be labelled as snobbery that excludes anyone without the benefit of a musical education. But isn’t it the same kind of snobbery that doesn’t listen to the bands they liked in March because younger, less cool people had heard about them by June? While there may be many who listen to art music for intellectual elitism, there remains an undeniable quality to the work and a listenership who enjoy it for that reason. When it comes to popular music, it is just as elitist, but based on popularity rather than worth.

It seems that music will be divided into two groups these days, the real and the fake, and the lines blur because some are great at being unashamedly fake, and others don't realise they are when trying to be real. But next time you are introduced to new music, try to listen to it before ingesting any other influence. Before you even see what the album artwork looks like, listen to the notes. Before you find out who produced it and whether they're on a label or not, just listen to it. Treat it like a movie or TV series and demand no spoilers from whoever gives it to you; make sure they don't tell you how much they like it or whether it's as good as the album before or after it. If the work is good, it should speak for itself. Music began simply as sound, and when everything else crumbles, the sound will still be there. Keep it pure. For the sake of a snob like me.

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Once upon a time, I came across a video of a magician speaking at some corporate function. He did a little magic, to be sure, but mostly he talked about magic. It was fascinating to listen to him, because he'd clearly thought deeply about his craft. He'd become quite a philosopher about it. And so it was here, too. This was a terrific essay. Once again, a man who has clearly thought deeply about his craft. Tip of the hat to you.

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