Saturday, November 24, 2007

Imagined Communities of Music

The Segmented Society - David Brooks, NYT

I didn't mean to do it. It's not as if there aren't hundreds of other articles, posts and op-ed pieces I could write about. But goddamnit Brooks, if I ever catch you on the streets I'm punching you in the nose, hard. You and Steven Van Zandt. Fucking old men and their old opinions of music developed during that brief period when music came in album form. But oh no, we have to bitch and moan about how music isn't as good as it was 'back then', how the bands of today are ignorant of their musical heritage and since they no longer attempt to play for the widest audience possible they are one of the causes for the social dissolution we are witnessing. This is the tack Brooks and Zandt take; arguing that since a band like the Rolling Stones wouldn't have made it as big now as they did then there must be something wrong with the music scene of today.
Of course, this is ignoring the whole series of movements and scenes that took place between 1969 and today. Take a gander at the British Isles alone and you'll see bands that played to more people in less time than the Beatles or the Stones have. Didn't anyone bother to mention the whole Brit-Pop thing and the Oasis versus Blur competition that lead to huge sales and concerts? Or how bands from 60s, 70s and 80s continue to heavily influence the bands of today? Garage rock would not have been possible without the Sonics or the Kingsmen and how long did those bands stick around? And if longevity is the key component then shouldn't Michael Jackson be considered one of the most unifying musicians of all time?
Sub-cultures happen and sub-genres will always exist. Despite our ability to categorize a band into a particular 'sound' each band is always different. And to say that these sub-genres are isolated is more than ridiculous as the sub-genre generally forms because a few musicians, either together or separately, dabble with the sounds of another genre. Hip-hop would not exist without funk or R&B. Metal would not exist without 70s stadium rock. Rock'n'Roll itself was a fusion of blues and electric instruments with Bo Diddley.
What so infuriates me with Brooks and Zandt is their attitude that modern music requires a 'canon'--some sort of grand narrative that music teachers can impose upon students and the public consciousness. Yet, much like in history, the grand narrative is false; it doesn't exist and never did. No single line exists from one musical act/movement to the next that you can point to and act as if ignoring one point along the line is blasphemous. Certain eras have certain tones but that's more due to our need for classification than of some real, concrete effort by that era's bands. Music, particularly the sub-genres, is one of the more raw forms of culture and so it moves in odd and unusual ways. There's only so much you can say about one time period through its music since music is so close to the ground of cultural production. It's just unfortunate that Brooks and Zandt don't get this and attempt to cover up their old-man-syndrome with some argument about the unifying aspect of music when that aspect never really existed in the first place.

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