Tuesday, January 17, 2012

All music, without exception, is a direct expression of the buddha-dharma.

It's been my thesis for a while now that at this time popular music is undergoing a renaissance unmatched at any time since the 1960s for the following reasons:
  1. The death of the record industry has removed the filters formerly imposed by A&R executives that had restricted the variety of music being heard.   The industry's goal of producing yet another triple-platinum best seller kept creative (read "different") artists from getting recorded and forced those few musicians fortunate enough to get contracts to sound like what the executives thought would sell in large quantities, in other words, like every other band on their roster.  The emergence of small, independent labels following the collapse of the corporate empires has ushered in an age of nearly unparalleled creativity, experimentation, and variety.
  2. The loss of revenue associated with the death of the record industry has also driven away those only in it for the money, and left the stage open for those true musicians who play purely for the love of the music - the pure artists who probably would make music regardless of the situation, those who couldn't imagine doing anything other than creating sounds.  And since there's no economic incentive to play according to some formula - in addition to there being no formula left - they're playing the kind of music that bands formerly only heard in their heads.
  3. Rock music has been around in one form or another for some 50 years now, giving today's musicians a far richer pallet of styles, techniques, and approaches than their predecessors ever had.  This, combined with the rise of the internet, YouTube, and the MP3 (which alone probably precipitated reasons number 1 and 2, above), has resulted in the young musicians of today listening to and assimilating everything previously played on Planet Earth over the past half-century.  The result has been a level of sophistication previously enjoyed in popular music only by jazz.
To these reasons, critic Sasha Frere-Jones has added a fourth.  One of the purposes of rock music in the past has been to differentiate a younger generation from its predecessors, to alienate a teenager's parents, and to allow a place of solitude for young people to express themselves away from the adults.  Rock music wasn't worth a damn if it didn't send the grownups grumbling out of the room, and had to get more and more extreme over the years to accomplish this.  Acid rock gave rise to hard rock, and hard rock grew into heavy metal, which transformed into black metal and death metal and doom metal, all of which in turn splintered into industrial and post-industrial rock and a hundred other subgenres.

Those genres and subgenres still exist and are still actively and creatively being  explored and expanded, but the "heavy lifting" of pissing off parents has now been taken up by hip-hop and by electronic dance music.  If you don't believe me, watch what happens when you put on some rap music around people over 35, or count how many parents you see dancing at a rave at 3 in the morning.  Freed from its obligation to act as a sort of barbed wire to keep the grown-ups away, rock has been allowed to embrace harmony and consonance without regret, even while "difficult" pop music still  exists.  But the "difficult" music is not intended to be a barrier to separate an elite from the rest, as much as a challenge to the adventurous listener to explore and discover unexpected rewards, much as is the case with "difficult" classical music or "difficult" jazz.

All of this, of course, brings up the uncomfortable possibility that for all of its acoustic instrumentation, lush harmonies, and reverence for the past, indie rock has become the new "adult contemporary," mood music for Starbucks and for Lexus commercials.  But while that may be true in some cases, there's a far greater number of bands still ready to kick ass and take names, albeit with a smile on their faces.

My observation is that many young people today just plain seem more polite and better behaved than I and my peers were at their age.  Maybe it was an effect of the Cold War, or the struggles of the civil rights movement, or Vietnam, or whatever, but the young people I see at concerts and festivals all seem to sincerely want to get along, both with each other and with those outside of their demographic.  Case in point: I couldn't be more outside of the indie rock audience demographic, or a more potent reminder of their parents or even grandparents, yet I've been treated more than kindly at the shows and concerts in ways ranging from benign neglect to curious involvement.  

More to the point:  today I received a comment about the Bad Weather California concert last weekend at The Drunken Unicorn by none other than Logan Corcoran, talented and energetic drummer for Bad Weather California, offering to mail me the CD that was missing from the empty sleeve that I inadvertently purchased at their show.  I find that gesture to be almost unbelievably kind, a token of respect from an artist to the most distal portion of his fan base, equivalent to Picasso lowering a painting on the wall for a child to  better see his art.  Please note, though, that I removed his comment from the post as it included his email address, and I didn't want to be responsible for a dozen or so requests to have the CD mailed elsewhere.  

Meanwhile, this weekend presents a quandary for the fan of Atlanta indie music.  Friday night, Smith's Olde Bar cruelly has booked two of my local favorites and returning friends of these pages on the same night, but in different rooms.  Downstairs, powerkompany, the seductive, husband-and-wife duo of Marie Davon and Andrew Heaton, will be headlining the Atlanta Room with their electronic/acoustic dream-pop, while upstairs, Adron will be playing her unique brand of neotropical psychedelic folk pop, a perfect example of what I was talking about up above under item 3.   

It's an almost impossible, nearly Sophic choice.  Seeing either one will mean missing the other.  While it is truly a blessing to have such a variety of options, especially at a nearby roadhouse, the decision will be a painful one.  What's the typical 50-something single Zen Buddhist living in Atlanta, Georgia to do?


Robin said...

Thank you for a brilliant, thought-provoking article, Shokai. I hadn't thought about it before, but you're right: rap music has assumed the grup-irking role today. (Remember Weird Al's send-up of Nirvana? "We're so loud and incoherent/Boy, this oughta bug your parents!")

And I agree about the positive side of the music industry taking a header. Not only is there a lot more creativity in music today, but you can _get_ it. In our day, if they didn't sell it at the record store, you couldn't have it. And if they didn't play it on the radio, you didn't know about it anyway.

Finally, thanks for the comment about young people today. You're right. Kids today, as a group, are much more sophisticated in their musical tastes, much less willing to be stampeded into a corporate definition of "cool," and much, much more respectful of others than our generation was. You can actually have an intelligent conversation about music with them. Not like in our day, when a kid's musical preferences were a political stance, and everyone else's sucked on principle.

I do worry that the new status quo makes it impossible for artists to make a living. Not to get rich; I don't care about that. But how would the Beatles have remade the world if they'd had to keep their day jobs? Can these thousands of Internet-begotten artists devote their lives to their craft?

Great post!


Rusty Ring: Reflections of an Old-Timey Hermit

Shokai said...

Thank you, Robin, for your equally thoughtful comments. Do you have any idea how much I enjoy reading comments that agree with me (grin)?