I wrote this essay in response to two questions I was recently asked. The first question pertained to an ongoing discussion about the state of affairs in music. The second question pertained to my personal guidelines regarding what I consider musically innovative. It’s important to mention that to me, this wound up being more of a blueprint for something than a laundry list of complaints about it. Perhaps you’ll get this, too.
I reckon there are countless discussions which feature all kinds of people debating the relative merits of recent music all over the arena of social media. Going back to the early 1970’s, I recall people ranting and raving about how commercialized and soulless popular music had become; when complaints about the evils of Corporate Rock (personified by bands such as Led Zeppelin) were numerous, while said complainers simultaneously lauded bands like Iggy and the Stooges due in no small part to their, er…raw power.
There is a wonderful documentary on the Newport Folk Festival (oddly enough, called “Festival”) and it features a scene where a music fan is decrying the horror that is commercialized pop music- mainly because they use electric instruments and don’t sound “real” enough for him. This interview is roughly circa 1964.
Prior to that, there were various old folks and white folks (along with Frank Sinatra, the FBI Mitch Miller and most of ASCAP) railing about “dirty jungle music”, “primitive rock n’ roll” and “race music” Actually, a great deal of amazing music resulted from this type of pushback.
At any rate, it’s pretty clear that in recent history- at least over the past 50-60 years and, I would reckon, going further back still- people have had their issues with popular music. However, over time, there have also been vast cultural differences and changes which affect these collective expressions and can be a decisive factors in helping a pattern to emerge from the apparent chaos. Recognizing just a few of these differences provides some helpful context and shines a bit more light on what is currently taking place (or, at least, raises more questions)-
1- although, over time, people have complained that various forms of music were commercialized and soulless, they have also emphatically stated that the particular form of music they listened to was not. One example of this is the music fan in the previously mentioned documentary on the Newport Folk Festival who was clearly using his intense disdain for the more commercialized popular music as springboard to underscore his love of folk music.
Growing up, I heard a lot of people whining about shitty music. However, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone who loved popular music complain that all contemporary popular music was uninspired or disinteresting (and I would respectfully accept being challenged on this point by anyone who has a different experience). Even the most scathing rock critics of the 1970’s- the foremost being Lester Bangs, who hated everything- were absolutely, passionately committed to the music they revered. To the death.
By comparison, many people in the current era (and this includes an unhealthy number of young people who should, by all rights- if such cultural stereotypes were actually valid- be fighting in the streets for their musical icons) who declare themselves passionate music lovers, definitively assert that they haven’t heard any great new music (let alone, music they like) at all. In the past few years, I’ve met virtually no one who deviates from this opinion. In fact, nearly everyone I speak with appears to be relieved that a person involved in music creation is actually giving a voice to something they’ve had an uncomfortable suspicion about for a long time.
History tells us that prior to the 1950’s, music was a major motivating and inspirational force in most people’s lives- especially through two world wars and the Depression (which nearly demolished the recorded music industry). Therefore, it makes sense that throughout the history of recorded music- apart from the usual generational friction- everyone had some form of popular music they found comfort in (and any sense that all popular music was lacking emotion, substance or meaning would have been completely foreign).
2- these days, a disproportionally large number of young people are familiar with (and in many cases, prefer) popular music that was created 20-60 years ago. Comparatively speaking, this would be akin to living in the 1970’s and saying you preferred The Platters (a Doo Wop/oldies group from the 1950’s) or Glenn Miller (Swing- 1940’s) to contemporary artists of that period such as Led Zeppelin or even Bob Dylan (whose career began in the early 1960’s). On a relative scale, English bands like the Rolling Stones were emulating American R&B and Blues artists from the early 1960’s onward, however, at that point in time, the majority of the music they were appropriating was roughly five-ten years old.
Of course, there were cultural anomalies that took place. After the movie “Grease” came out, there was a brief obsession in pop culture with 1950’s music and fashion, however, this was an extremely short-lived fad. Also, there was one relatively well known Doo Wop band called Shanana which was active 1960’s-1980’s (and performed at the Woodstock Festival), but they were largely considered a niche act.
On a side note, I feel this effectively helps deflate the oft-invoked notion that the main issue most people have with popular music of today is a generational one (in other words, it’s more of an “curmudgeonly old farts versus hormonally over-endowed kids” issue and less an overriding question of intrinsic quality). As stated before, the abnormally large quantity of random young people I’ve met recently who state (emphatically) they prefer older music to new puts the cap on this statement more than adequately.
3- historically, popular music in every era has always been fueled/informed/influenced either by some concomitant form(s) of folk music or some other kind of music form- either from a different culture or entirely outside of the mainstream. This has been the case from the earliest known Western music, to classical music and finally, to contemporary popular music of the last century.
Relative to rock music- if we’re going to be completely honest- this particular wellspring ran dry in the mid-1970’s once all the indigenous and related music forms such as folk, blues and R&B, etc had been completely tapped for new ideas. Nearly everything since (with some noteworthy exceptions- electronic pop music being one) has been the result of continuously recycling an assortment of music that came before, in varying degrees.
By comparison, Black music forms have endured slightly longer courtesy of rap (which was derived from field hollers and prison poetry amongst others and began to be absorbed into the mainstream in 1973 courtesy of the Hustler’s Convention record), the evolution of hip hop and more recently, Jamaican Dancehall music. Certain rock artists also attempted to assimilate aspects of hip hop into their work, but in the long run, this created more of a niche than a major musical sea change.
Btw- by saying this, I’m not denying that some artists have made significant artistic and emotional statements that also happen to be both extremely derivative and appropriated from very obvious sources. I’m merely pointing out that the degree of recycling and lack of peripheral, concomitant music forms to appropriate from are indicative of a unique cultural phenomenon relative to the history of popular music and to which, I know of no historical precedent.
Onward and upward….
Here are a few principles by which I define music as innovative. Certainly, uniqueness and inventiveness are essential components of innovation- mainly, in how distinct a given piece of music sounds from other compositions in the same musical genre.
I also feel that musical innovation- mainly with respect to modern popular music- stems from precisely how artists appropriate ideas. That is, how artists assimilate the ideas and expressions they encounter that speak to them on the most visceral level, and how they convert this assimilated data into something never before heard.
It’s also about how an artist synthesizes and derives inspiration or adapts the world around him into his musical expression- either conceptually- by altering other styles of music he has an affinity for in order to create his own new expression (a perfect example of this in visual art is how Pablo Picasso helped to deconstruct the concept of figurative painting by converting radical forms of visual expression such as Impressionsim and Expressionism into Cubism), or by using some facet of their current cultural/societal landscape (and this doesn’t necessarily mean an expression that is directly relevant or created as a literal response to something topical- unlike much protest music, which, while inspirational to many as a call to arms, doesn’t necessarily inspire musical innovation since it is mainly political in nature).
In this case, it is the quality and creativity of the appropriation and not the specific act itself that defines the artist. In other words, there is world of difference between creative appropriation (which involves assimilating an idea which came from elsewhere and modifying it to the point where it only vaguely resembles its original form) and wholesale appropriation (the annexation and plagiarization of someone else’s idea).
Since the ultimate goal of music is to communicate (and to entertain, although I consider that to be a secondary objective), there must also be a very palpable emotional component which accompanies or is interwoven into a piece of music- generally as subtext. This is because the emotional component in music is a telltale means of recognizing that it has come from an authentic place in its creator.
This emotional component is precisely where the communicative aspect of music lies in its purest form. When it comes to emotion in music, if it ain’t there- it ain’t real.
One reason I feel popular music is less innovative now than at prior points in time, is not in how appropriated or derivative it is (modern popular music is, by its very nature, derivative), but how it is derived, where it is originally derived from and how many times previously that same point of origin has been exploited as a source of derivation by others.
To underscore this point, please consider that every successive generation since the 1960’s has had at least a few artists who got in their “way back machine” to liberally pilfer (often shamefully) from The Beatles and The Velvet Underground. Since the 1970’s, the same thing has happened with The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, etc. Since the 1980’s, the roll of artists that have borrowed from the U2 bag of tricks is unending (and from “The Unforgettable Fire”onward, I’m hard pressed to think of any prior musical artist that regularly and prominently incorporated ninths in their choruses as harmonic coloration or used hyper-compressed 16th note stomp box delays on arpeggiated guitar lines).
At one time, all the above bands had a new sound- most certainly appropriated in some way- but synthesized into something new. And instead of their ideas gradually being transformed into altogether different forms by those who appropriate from them, they have become literal hard, fast and immutable rules in the play books of most modern rock bands. These days, the coolest bands take their inspiration from such ancient arcana as the Chess Records catalog…
Now, this wasn’t a big deal the first time around- not even the second time. However, a few decades on, the slack repetitiveness of this literal appropriation has gradually deteriorated into a stale kind of creative double-dipping. Now, compare that rote, uninspired mode of thinking to those jazz innovators in the 1950’s- most of whom were in a constant frenzy of trying to out-compose and outplay one another and literally could not stop moving forward- or composers like Beethoven and Mozart who literally redefined the course of all music (while extremely popular in their own time).
And if there is any question whether artists of previous eras found the idea of appropriating the work of other composers wholesale (and doing so, flagrantly and openly without any regard for propriety or even trying to conceal having done so) disdainful and objectionable, we can simply rely on the obvious progression in their creative output- as well as the greater timeline of musical history- to eliminate any doubt.
With all that in mind, one may ask, how many times can artists keep composing new music which is essentially recycled from the exact same sources over a fifty year period, and still maintain meaning, relevance and excitement in what they do? To me, the answer is an equation of proportions- the greater an artist relies on appropriation and derivation as creative tools, the easier it is not be inventive, but being innovative and evolving also becomes that much harder.
Another question is, does this gradual deterioration in innovation indicate either a lack of overall inspiration or a pervasive laziness that has gradually become inherent in music creation itself? I’d say it’s a bit of both and the responsibility is equally distributed amongst a variety of catalysts.
For example, while innovation, nonconformity and creativity are actively encouraged in the world of technology, they are also actively discouraged in the music industry. To a large extent, this is why (along with the diminishing income streams and aggressive micromanagement from clueless businesspeople) so many of those who might have been great artists (if the Petri dish still existed for them to germinate in) are rushing to learn how to program- there simply is no room to grow or innovate in corporate-subsidized arts.
I feel that at this point in time, the nature of musical innovation has actually morphed into something other than musical innovation as I defined it earlier. We live in a cut-up, mashable, ready-made, consumer-oriented culture which is defined by artless, bold-faced wholesale appropriation. Concurrently, many of today’s values are on par with those of a sociopath; spin everything; never steal anything small; if you are caught stealing, vigorously deny everything and if you are judged, make up a new and confounding excuse as to why you are in the right and anyone who disagrees with you stands against the future.
As new musical ideas are becoming less and less available (and the music business is coincidentally less inclined to be supportive of them), the only logical path is to be a grave robber. As a result, innovation in the arts is now directly proportional to how good one is at appropriating information and ideas completely intact and convincing others they are one’s own. Further, this is directly proportional to one’s knowledge of what is relevant to the present and how encyclopedic one’s knowledge is of musical history.
With this in mind, an artist no longer needs to define himself by his talent, but instead by his ability to invent his own legend. And that is an art form unto itself.
One final tangent- I found it kind of sardonically amusing when there was recent infighting between certain contemporary artists regarding which of them was the first to begin appropriating music forms that originated 60+ years ago.