"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Friday, August 22, 2014

Pop music not as organic as we think

Nostalgia about the 1960s is a perverse thing. So hideous was the tragedy of the Viet Nam war, it's hard to even acknowledge that any normal phases of our life could go on. They most definitely continued. The pop music factory kept giving us its tantalizing nuggets.
Songs of a particular era are put forth as a way of understanding our culture at that time. That's highly idealistic, as I would suggest instead, as someone who has studied the craft of songwriting, that songs are produced by people highly disciplined and experienced in the field. In other words, it's more a matter of professional proficiency than organic "inspiration" caused by our cultural environment.
Oh, the cultural environment does provide the raw material. In the late '60s, anti-war fervor might weave into your work. That's fine, and you may in fact have subscribed to all that - 90 percent of all reasonable people did. I can assure you the other ten percent weren't actually involved in combat.
The passions of the time, whether it be anti-war or other humanistic values, aren't enough in themselves to inspire commercially successful songs. Music is a hardcore business. I remember a bigshot in the music business saying (in a seminar I attended in Moorhead)  that industry people could slam the door on him just as readily as any vain young songwriter.
Let's be clear: songwriting is a skill. It is true that top songwriters break the rules sometimes, but you can be sure they know what the rules are.
It is common to see paeans about the music of the 1960s. Cliches abound about this. Young people were expressing themselves and seeking to assert in a manner never seen before, so the legend goes.
Transistor radios did allow kids to select their own kind of music. Kids had more money, or had more money showered on them. Thus they had more "fooling around" money.
In reality, the majority of kids followed a rather dull path not much different from other generations: going to school, surviving its drudgery, getting a foundation with career and family and fighting all those mundane battles. If they did watch "The Midnight Special" on TV, it was a minor passing fancy. Music essentially helped them combat boredom, which is what pop music has always done.
John Lennon was a highly intelligent man. He had to be well-read to have come up with the whole library of lyrics he wrote. Genius? I'd suggest it was more a matter of hard work. Toward the end of his too-short career, he said something defensively about all the "slack time" he had fallen into. I read a quote that he wanted to remind all his fans that back when they were "smoking dope," he and the other Beatles were in effect working their asses off. As I'm sure they most certainly were.
We have been deluded by the pop music of the '60s. It was not created by idle and distracted minds who were caught up in the "psychedelic" stuff. It was not all that organic at all. It didn't spring from pot-smoking sessions. It is a tragedy that the belief ever grew that drugs are somehow inspiration. Fact is, the Beatles had developed their music craftsmanship to a highly advanced level. If it seemed like they catered to the drug crowd, it was only because they were commercial artists and knew their audience.
Lennon and McCartney were masters of the "catchy three-minute song." They were masters and deserved high praise. But its wellspring was not simply an escapist desire for hedonistic pleasures. Much of that is stereotype, just like the notion that drugs inspired Hunter S. Thompson's journalism. Hey, Thompson earned all his fame and credentials when his lifestyle was clean and serious. He rode the coattails later. All the later silliness simply made him a candidate for Hollywood making a "biopic" about him.
A movie would never have been made about Jackson Pollock had he not had peccadilloes and personal or psychological problems in his later years. Why are we so fascinated by those "problems?" Why do we infer that somehow those problems had something to do with "genius?"
Many of these people may in fact break down because of fame. Fame is not part of the normal human condition. People accept fame because in the early stages it may seem cool. They also associate it with the acquisition of money. As time wears on, it becomes less cool. If the Beatles had been told about the ridiculous level of fame they would acquire, would they have said "yes" to stepping into it? I would say "no."
Lennon gave us "All You Need is Love" in 1968. Surely we needed a "love" message at that time. But is it really a sign of philosophical genius to simply write "All you need is love?" That phrase and its melody worked for Lennon because he was a highly advanced professional song craftsman.
Sometimes I think songwriting is a little overrated. How many lines in popular songs are simply written to achieve a certain rhyme? Or, because the lines have a certain number of syllables that fit the melody, and "roll off the tongue" as needed?
Still, I have total respect for this mysterious craft. I say "mysterious" because: has science ever demonstrated why certain melodies are more popular than others? We can only speculate on this. I believe the old TV show "The Twilight Zone" had an episode tied in with this. I never watched it but I heard about it. According to that episode, a melody is popular only in connection to how close it comes to a certain "ideal" melody, a melody no human ears were ever meant to hear. In this episode, someone was given a chance to hear the ideal melody. And, instantly becomes a vegetable. . .
Of course, TV episodes are created by people who have simply mastered a professional craft too. P.J. O'Rourke once said during a C-Span interview that he felt a certain level of anxiety or stress when writing his books. Someone then called in to the show to shed light on this: "The reason you feel stress is that it's your work."
So true. Successful commercial art is more a matter of professional craftsmanship and discipline - stressful things to ply - than anything merely organic or inspirational. Sad perhaps, but true.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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