Friday, September 02, 2005

Haven't you heard it's a battle of words

I should preface this post by observing that I am extremely ignorant about music. I can be a little self-conscious and defensive about this at times. Growing up, I was surrounded by talented musicians... my dad, in addition to being a worship pastor with a Master's degree in music history, has incredible depth of knowledge about jazz, classical, rock, and world music. My mom has sung in a choir for most of her life. Each of my siblings played a separate brass instrument (French Horn, Trumpet, Euphonium) and most were good piano players as well.

And me? As best as I can recall I took a month of piano lessons when I was really little, and took mandatory music classes through elementary school and junior high. I certainly didn't dislike music, but I sensed that I had little aptitude for it. Throughout my life I've always focused on activities that I can excel in, so it's little surprise that I didn't dive further into this field.

Since leaving for college, though, I have come to regret my lack of experience. This is true for several reasons, but one of the biggest ones is that I'm often frustrated by my lack of musical vocabulary. I didn't become really excited about individual bands and genres until towards the end of high school, and while I have built up a fair collection of pieces I enjoy, I can only express my opinions in a few limited ways. Which I suppose is pretty minor as problems go - some would consider it an advantage that I can't become High Fidelity-esque about my appreciation - but still, I'd like to be able to explain to my dad why Massive Attack is so groundbreaking, or be able to describe Sigur Ros and Boards of Canada to friends in such a way that they can actually tell the difference. I'm tired of always saying "Atmospheric" and "Avant-garde" to describe things I like.

OK, that was really just a disclaimer. I love music but am very, very, very far removed from expert status. With that in mind, on to the post:

Like almost every form of popular entertainment I can think of, with the possible exception of televised professional football, modern music is narrowcasted. It feels like producers have given up on finding the next 1980's-era Michael Jackson crossover that appeals to many segments of society. Everything is aimed at little insular audiences with little crossover. Rap and hip-hop are for people under 30. Jazz is for white middle-class professionals over 30. Classical is for middle- and upper-class whites of all ages. Country is for people in rural areas or south of Mason-Dixon. And so on.

Now, I realize that there are plenty of exceptions. The point is, though, that regardless of who actually listens to them, the massive marketing that takes place doesn't even try to move items outside their cultural category. There's been no serious effort (that I'm aware of) to sell country music to Asian immigrants, or to introduce the older generations to the interesting things happening in modern hip-hop. Each segment is analyzed and focus-grouped, not challenged and given encouragement to grow.

There are two hypotheses I'd like to make. First, digitized media are having a revolutionary effect on the way individuals approach music. In one way I think this is actually sort of negative. With the exploding popularity of ipods and other portable personal media players, you can easily become isolated in a world of your own music. There's a definite appeal to hearing only music you like, but in the long run it will drive you into the insular situation that's killing Oldies stations today: without any fresh blood in the form of new artists and genres, you grow indifferent and eventually hostile to the music you once loved. While personal collections are great, they should always be growing and changing. I don't see us returning to an era when excellent music from all genres coexisted on the radio, so that means the onus is on consumers to seek out and find new material that interests them. Here, though, the great advantage of digitized media appears: low barriers to access. Like many people reading this site, I would not own half the CDs in my collection if it wasn't for the ready access I had to mp3s while in college: more specifically, I was introduced to excellent electronic bands, groups you will never hear played on the radio, but that grabbed me in a way few other bands have. By seeking out people with good taste in music (easily defined as "People who already like things that I like"), my horizons expanded dramatically.

My second hypothesis is that the current state of the music industry means that we won't get any help from the industry in achieving cross-pollination of genres and cultures. That means that it is entirely up to outsiders to do so. It's been interesting in the last year to see who acts as an advocate for tearing down these barriers. One pleasant surprise is NPR, long parodied as a celebration of all that is dry and calm, which actually spins some challenging records. Whether featuring the new Coldplay on prime-time "Morning Edition" (and rather intelligently, in a 60-second segment breaking down their debt to Radiohead, the importance of their touring and commercial tie-ins as well as critiquing individual tracks) or piano arrangements of Massive Attack on "Marketplace", I think they're doing a phenomenal job at showing the best of today's "young" music to an audience that probably doesn't hear much of it. Musical acts on sketch shows, long irrelevent for Saturday Night Live, are quite powerful on "The Chappelle Show," not only introducing black artists to white audiences but also refusing to limit the show to a particular genre of artist.

I think some of the most exciting work is happening at the fringes of public recognition. My dad once said that the mark of a great work of music is that it can survive the transition to another musical form: witness the "Symphonic Pink Floyd" or the numberless borrowings of the opening of Beethoven's Fifth. One CD in regular rotation here is "True Love Waits," by Christopher O'Riley. Christopher is a classical pianist who has rearranged works by Radiohead for the piano; even better, they're incredible to listen to. Please check out this CD if you haven't already... I hadn't realized until listening to this how much of a musical instrument Thom Yorke's voice is, or how tight Radiohead's harmonies are. My admiration of O'Riley grew after reading an excellent interview with him in the Chicago Tribune (sorry, no link, but I can make a photocopy if you want). In this interview he made clear that his love of good music transcended form, and that the joy of watching parents' awe of Radiohead matched his joy at seeing their children truly appreciate a night of classical performance. O'Riley also hosts a show called "From the Top" that bridges the gap between classical music and modern sensibilities.

Part of the reason I'm thinking about this so much is that I'm incredibly psyched to have scored a ticket to see O'Riley in concert in Santa Cruz later this month. I'm looking forward to seeing him live, and also am really curious about what kind of crowd will make it out. It's held on a college campus, and I'd love to see college kids pack the house. Likewise, I wouldn't be surprised to see an older audience there, nor to see families. Either way, I'm already in row "I" when ordering almost a month in advance, so hopefully he'll get a full house.

That's it for now. In summary: a major problem with music today is that the industry encourages isolated communities of listeners. Technology can either make this problem worse, by further dividing us into individual listeners, or better, by letting us experience new music outside the label/radio/album cartel system. I hope it will get better, aided by the efforts of media not affiliated with the industry proper.

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