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Music Sucks

February 28, 2013

I’m a twenty-six year old college graduate. I work in a bookstore. I’m an amateur banjo player. I secretly paint bad landscapes with watercolors. I love music. I am an avid reader of liner notes. Despite my affinity for music, I am in no way qualified to write about it. I’m not a musicologist. But that’s never stopped me before. So here goes.

I should say that I loathe speaking in generalities. But sometimes in life it is necessary. My premise is pretty broad and open to all kinds of attack, but I’m going to say it anyway, if for no other reason than to just get it out of my head. I’m sure I will probably look back on this one day and wonder what I was thinking, like some of my other posts (here and here). I guess we’ll see.

Modern music sucks.

 I told you it was a broad premise. And I should say that I am not indicting all of modern music, but certainly a large segment of it that I will define in a few paragraphs. There is definitely still good music being made, but it goes largely unheard and unappreciated.

I know this is the part where you are thinking to yourself, ‘How can she presume to tell me what music is good and what music is bad?’

I will attempt to explain.

Music, to me, is the most beautiful of the arts. Unlike many of the others, it is best when witnessed in real time. The listener is privy to the moment of creation, in many cases a creation brought forth at the hands of many people working in concert. Humans, filthy, disgusting, bickering, addicts with broken dreams and broken souls, human people working together with such precision and awareness that they draw forth beauty from friction on strings and sticks banging skins, from blowing precisely through metal tubes and plucking at wires, their voices blend together with such harmony that it begins to sound like souls touching. They sing words of poetry that capture life succinctly, sweet and loud. How could such beautiful, such mathematically and emotionally beautiful sounds come from such petty creatures? Or is this a physical manifestation of the beauty of humanity and the goodness we are capable of that isn’t always visible?

Music is more than just about sounds. It is about humanity. It is about common experience. It is about sharing. It is about working together. It is about accumulated experience. Anyone with determination can make music. Anybody who can tap their foot or raise their voice can join in. Music is accessible to anyone who can make and hear sound. It crosses language barriers and is globally accessible. It is the universal language. I think we would do well to greet any visiting alien species with our best musicians and singers. Then they would see it’s not all war and killing and anonymously shouting at each other on the Internet.

‘So with all her gushing praise for music,’ you are thinking, ‘how could she say modern music sucks?’

Modern music is not made by people. It is made by computers. There is no humanity. It is humanity translated by computers. It is a cold reflection, precise. There is nothing exciting about a producer in front of a computer wearing headphones and clicking a mouse button dragging tracks around. There is nothing to be impressed by. There is no hard work or determination. People don’t have to work together; the computer will mediate. “Don’t bother singing well. We’ll fix it in post.” Modern music is just sound. There is nothing deeper. Humanity has been fed into the machine and stripped of all imperfection, leaving a shell, a hollow approximation.

‘Now, hold on. Computers are merely a tool used to create. They are no more responsible for bad music than a hammer is for a poorly built chair.’

That is true. Computers are a tool. But what has happened is that what should be used to augment art has become the sole means of creating it. The work that was once required, the determination, the life, the experience that once went into the creation of art, of music is no longer necessary. Talent, that inborn quality that allows some people to tap into the pool of musical consciousness, is now vestigial like a human tail. It has gone from technology augmenting humanity to create music to humanity augmenting computers.

‘Wow,’ you think, ‘she’s pretty young to be such a Luddite.’

It is not only the computer that I hold responsible for the destruction of music. It is the way that it is treated. I am speaking here about the American music industry and that says it all. “Music industry.” We have made pieces of the soul of humanity into quantifiable commodities to be bought and sold and controlled. Music is no longer created as a form of expression. It is created to be marketable. It is marketed on the basis of its commercial appeal. The “goodness” of a song is viewed through the prism of business and focuses on units sold. In order to sell the most units possible, music must be created that appeals to the broadest audience. In order to appeal to as many people as possible, it is necessary to smooth away any rough edges and present the slickest surface possible so that any shit that may be flung slides harmlessly away. Regional sounds have all but disappeared; the music that people listen to in Washington State is very similar to the music that people listen to in Florida, with small variations that can be attributed to variations in ethnic diversity and median age. There was a time when songs were traded, covered, improved upon, responded to, and requested. Modern copyright law has destroyed the ecosystem of the pool of musical consciousness, forbidding almost any exchange of ideas or cross-pollination. Music, that once great and universally revered pillar of the Arts, has become subject to the dark art of marketing.

I know none of this is new. I know that the industry of music has existed for at least the last hundred years, if not longer. But the music industry of the 1920s, peopled with talented individuals and spirited entrepreneurs, is an anthill when compared to the towering behemoth we live under the shadow of today. In our time, the music industry is heaving with greed and laziness. It is a dirty puddle that spreads out, not a deep pool that reflects truth. Truth, once an ally of the hard-working artist, is no longer welcome in the Musical Industrial Complex. Truth is repugnant to the musical consumer. Sugary beats and vague sentiments of love to satiate the masses. With computers to aid in the production, music, like many of the Arts, can now be made at a fraction of the cost in a fraction of the time with a fraction of the talent.

‘Who cares?’ you ask. ‘Most of the stuff you’re talking about is just pop music anyway. It’s supposed to be like that: disposable. It’s good when you just want something to pump you up or you’re working out or something. I mean, what’s the big deal?’

Perhaps you’re right. Maybe I am making too much from nothing. Maybe it is okay to have music that is disposable. Maybe it is okay for music to be only sound to keep thoughts at bay. Maybe computers make better music than humans.

I don’t know if I want to live in a world where those sentiments are true. I don’t want to live in a world where music has no meaning and its only purpose is to keep the Musical Industrial Machine running. Modern music is the plastic face of humanity, the horrible caricature that has replaced the hopeful, determined, talented, genuine beauty of the past.

Don’t believe there’s a difference between digital music and analog music?

Compare and contrast these two versions of the song “In The Mood”. The first was made in 1983 with great focus on being a “digital” album. Though it was performed by actual musicians, it was recorded digitally. The second was recorded using analog equipment in the 1940s. Which sounds better to you? While the first one sounds cleaner is it better? Does the sterilized digital environment augment the beauty or detract?

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