The Walking Dead of Pop Music

In our culture, so many great pieces of music are buried in the middle of the night, without any fanfare, while meaningless songs of the walking dead haunt our airwaves day after day.  Sometimes when I accidentally catch the radio, it reminds me of the movie Weekend at Bernie’s.  Corpses, dead on arrival, are propped up and paraded around, made to look as if they are alive in some way.  Those parading this music around are salesmen and women, knuckle dusting promotors, and other hucksters of various stripe.  They have skin in the game, and they will make sure something that never was now is, for their benefit, through controlling the means of promotion and distribution.  How many songs on the radio that were nothing but mere product in their time, now are brought around like some puppet king on the backs of slaves and called “classics”?  How many new songs, that blur the lines between pop music and commercial soundtrack, are forced upon the masses until the collective subconscious can’t escape them?

There is no other art form right now where the gap between what is popular and what is great is so far apart.  The chasm is an “ancient ocean wide”.  While the movie industry still rewards many worthy movies, like 12 Years a Slave, that might not have reached a mass audience if those in power didn’t support them, the record companies push those that are slumming it to the top of the hill.  While TV has made audiences fall in love with long complex stories that often reward repeated viewing, the record industry has let the album, music’s greatest form, fall further and further into the abyss.

If I am beating on an ancient drum over and over, out in the wilderness where few can hear me, it is for one reason and one reason only:  These things matter…

Is Technology Destroying Our Culture?

Among the Disrupted

The above link is to a really interesting article in the New York Times Sunday Book Review section about how technology and economic forces are destroying important parts of our culture.  It was written by Leon Wieseltier.  It is definitely worth a read.  A small sample:

Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind. Everybody talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.

The Blame for the Charlie Hebdo Murders

The Blame for the Charlie Hebdo Murders

Here is another good piece on the attack in France that a friend sent my way.  This piece is in the New Yorker.

One of the reasons I find this kind of attack so troublesome is that it is a direct attack on the culture of freedom of thought.  This isn’t an attack with a political motivation at its core, as if these were people carrying out an attack in response to a particular war.  I’m not saying that global politics don’t play any role, only that they are not the specific reason behind these kind of attacks.  Whether it is the Koch brothers trying to destroy critical thinking in education, or fanatic Muslims trying to censor people through scaring them with violence, I am against any acts that try to prevent thinking.  (And I am not equating the two.  As much as I dislike what the Koch brothers are trying to do to public education, it is nowhere near as perverse as violence carried out against people in the name of religion.)  Having the freedom to think through things, to have an open debate, even if it occasionally leads to places people don’t want to go, is crucial to creating a future worth living in.

Thoughts On French Attacks

I’ve been paying attention to the horrible tragedy in France.  I have been to France several times have had many great memories there.  My last trip there, to Paris and La Rochelle, was especially meaningful to me.  The best thing about the French seems to be their zest for life combined with a deep need for meaningful culture.  So to see this culture attacked, especially when being committed by those those at the opposite end of the cultural spectrum, is completely senseless.  I have trouble, even now, even coming up with words to describe what has happened.  On one hand you have French culture, a culture that searches for the truth wherever it may be, is expansive in ideas, and is filled with the vibrancy of life.  Then you have Radical Islam which is dogmatic, close minded, and death obsessed.  It is clear to me which culture is worth preserving.

France has a much higher Muslim percentage than the US.  The majority of Muslims live in peace side by side with their French neighbors.  In Paris I often saw Muslims integrated in society in ways that seemed hopeful.  France also never made one feel like they were entering a police state at the airports the way the US does.  I hope that the French will retain their zest for life and their openness to the new in the face of this attack.

How Music Intersects With Culture and Politics

I’ve noticed as I’ve done this blog that I get the most hits from the posts I write about music.  (Though not always.)  This might lead you to believe that at some point I am going to get smart and turn this into a music blog.  But I’m not going to.  You see, you don’t get great artists like Chuck D, Bruce Springsteen, or Morrissey, because those artists are unaware of the cultural and political situations that are around them.  In fact those artists are great because they each reinterpret their surroundings through their own unique lens.  You don’t get Fight the Power or World Peace is None of Your Business or The Ghost of Tom Joad if those artists aren’t paying attention to what’s shaking on the hill.  Meanwhile although the best music can always connect on an emotional level even if you aren’t getting everything someone is talking about, you can’t really understand the full impact of a lot of records if you have no clue what is going on in the world.  Music and culture/politics is a two way street.  A lot of the all time great records never get made without those artist being attuned to the times.  As a listener you also get so much more out of records if you understand what is going on around them.

There is a collection of George Orwell essays called All Art is Propaganda.  I want to play with that and twist it and say that all music is political.  Even the banal country song that is just about the singer’s truck, or the mundane rap song that is just talking about what the rapper is drinking or driving, is political.  It’s not revolutionary, but it is political.  It’s basically telling you that everything you are being told on TV is OK.  Don’t think too much.  Buy things and you too can live the dream.

When is a pop song just a pop song?  Never.  Motown produced a lot of great love songs, but that was a black run label that was trying to cross over to white audiences, where a great deal of the money was, during the Civil Rights era.  They were making young white teens daydream about black stars.  They were showing young black kids that they could be successful.  During those times of division they were bringing people together.

Now that being said, you can totally, as a listener, just enjoy something on a purely emotional level.  Some music just has a physicality that you get off on.  I’ve been listening to a lot of TV On the Radio lately.  I know that some of their stuff is political, but I am mostly getting off on the sonic inventiveness of their records.

However, what you get out of something and what it is, is two different things.  If you were reincarnated in another country and didn’t understand English, you might still be completely captivated by just the sound of Chuck D’s voice, but that wouldn’t change what he was saying.  (And just the sound of his voice is like a god damn cannon going off!)

So I’m not saying that you have to look for the political in all music.  It’s fine to love a record because it just lifts your spirits.  There are plenty of records that do that for me and nothing more.  But again, that is different from saying that the culture at large didn’t shape those records.  It is there under the hood if you want to dive in deeper.

So if you are a huge music fan, like I am, and you want to understand why certain records get made, or you want appreciate a lot of records on a different level, then you need to understand what is going on out there.  Meanwhile, if you are a musician and you are creating something, you can’t help but be shaped by the times that you live in, even if it is not explicit in your work.  You can’t separate music, or any art, completely from the world at large.  Even a lot of those gospel or soul records, those that allow you to transcend your earthly problems for a couple of minutes, were often shaped by those who were suffering themselves.  Whatever music you are into, it was definitely not created in a vacuum.

Chuck D and the Personal Truth Made Universal

chuckdblackfist

This morning I was listening to the song Give We the Pride featuring Mavis Staples off of Chuck D’s The Black in Man album.  The song is largely about black pride and an overall frustration with modern materialism, music, and media.  It is an incredibly powerful piece of music.  Now I am white enough, being partially of Irish heritage, that I often resemble a ghost after a long winter.  Some of you might wonder how Chuck D’s message could resonate with me.  Here is one verse:

It it me, grown folks acting like kids on TV
While they’re trying to be what they see
Sitting around sipping on BE uh
No difference than MT uh
Reality trying to murder me
(There is a line right here I can’t grasp after multiple listens)
Tired of social media asking me
Chuck D what you think about this policy?
Wanna do something for the people and make us equal
Instead of being creatures with human features
You fail to plan, you plan to fail
2014 three million folks in jail
11 year olds can’t relate to champaign
Silent N-words in marketing campaigns
Believing everything celebrities saying
Now 40 year olds be pounded by the fame

By speaking his truth, as any great artist does, Chuck D touches upon universal truths that should resonate with any thinking person.  You not only can understand that he is evoking a reality that is too real for many, but it relates to the bigger overall problems in our culture.  The line about, “Silent N-words in marketing campaigns”, especially struck me.  There is truth to this statement as so many commercials deal in one dimensional stereotypes.  You not only see the cartoonish black male, but the inept father, the controlling mother, etc.

Also, how many marketing campaigns are based upon any tactic that will make people feel inferior so that they buy their product?  Every time I am around a TV I notice that commercials are telling guys, for instance, that they will never get laid if they don’t buy so-and-so.  Girls will never be thought of as beautiful if they don’t buy so-and-so.  This stuff is designed to play upon peoples insecurities so they will develop needs and wants for things that they don’t need or even want.

Chuck D is laying it down.  By reflecting on what he sees he is providing a sliver of truth that opens the door and allows us to view the larger problem.

Thanksgiving in Australia

It is already Friday here, but they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Australia,  so Thanksgiving is only really happening at home.  At least that is my reasoning why I am celebrating today.  I spent all morning listening to the Eagles destroy the Cowboys.  I come from Pennsylvania and my Dad is from Philly, so I was quite happy about that.  Still it is quite surreal listening to a football game at 7:30am.  

There is so much we take for granted that would be totally different if we were born somewhere else.  In the states we think of November as the end of fall and the beginning of winter, but here in Australia it is actually the end of spring and the beginning of summer.  Christmas happens in the summer.  They drive on the left side of the road, which even weirder seems to make people walk on the left side of the sidewalk.  For over half the day I am also in the future as Brisbane is 14 hours ahead of Austin. 

So well someone back home is celebrating Thanksgiving, with winter coming down, walking on the right hand of the street on Thursday, I am in increasingly warm weather, walking down the left hand side of the street on Friday, with no sign of Thanksgiving at all. 

How much do these differences change one’s perception of the world?  These are obvious differences, but so much of what we assume to be normal is an accident of birth.  It’s a strange world. 

However, the Eagles beating the Cowboys is definitely real.  There is much to be thankful for!