Thursday, February 24, 2005

...maybe it is about the perception of the function of music

So I was driving home after work yesterday listening to NPR and during All Things Considered they had a review of a new album called Transistor Radios by a singer/songwriter guy named M. Ward. In listening to this review and the little clips of music, it occurred to me that I probably have a very different idea about the function of music than most people.

See, for years I've had arguments with my friends who are into punk / post-punk music. My argument goes something like this:

Punk developed as a reaction to the predominately over-produced, over-orchestrated FM pop music and disco of the late 70's. The idea was (as I understand it) to strip away all pretense and play raw, honest music. The problem is, nobody bothered to learn their instruments, write songs, or even understand music theory. Therefore, the only people to whom punk will be interesting will be those people who have a connection to the culture from which it sprang. In other words, once people have forgotten all about the over-produced, over-orchestrated FM pop music and disco of the late 70's, punk will lose 100% of its meaning. It can't stand alone - it is purely reactionary.

At the heart of this argument is a notion that there is music in the world which is capable of standing alone - standing the test of time, and that this music - art for art's sake - should be the acme to which all musicians and composers should strive, and all music lovers should strive to discover. These ideas are at the core of my philosophy and they strongly influence my opinions about music and musicians. In listening to this review (M. Ward is not punk, by the way), it became clear to me that this may not be the opinion most people hold.

The once consistent reaction I get from people when I say things like "if genius exists, why waste your time with the mediocre?" goes something like: "what's wrong with just enjoying the music?" I've never been able to fully understand this reaction since I tend not to enjoy music if it is too predictable or formulaic. But the one thing this NPR reviewer kept repeating was that this M. Ward album was great because it transports the listener back to another time. In other words, the music, in and of itself, is only good because it reminds someone of different music at a different time - and it is the TIME that the listener is enjoying, not the MUSIC.

I know from first-hand experience that music as nostalgia can be a very powerful thing. My wife, to this day, has a guilty pleasure of putting on old a-ha CDs precisely for that purpose. But if you look at the state of not only music but all entertainment media as a whole, it seems to me that, once you weed out the bubble-gum filler material marketed for 12 year olds, the vast majority of what remains fills exactly this nostalgia niche.

I'm not saying that this is entirely a bad thing - I still love The Band's second album for this very reason - but it makes me wonder if we are losing something in the way of originality. I know this is true in the movie and TV industries simply because people have had their careers ended by taking a chance on an original project which didn't make enough money - and to a great degree I would say that it is also true in the music business. But it's funny how a Norah Jones or Wilco CD, or the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou? seems somehow more authentic and original than the remakes of old movies and TV shows. Or is it just me?


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