The Challenge

Music, like any other artform, has it’s share of hypocrisy. Essentially every “scene” that exists bashes outsiders for not being open-minded enough to accept their astounding contribution to the world’s auditory discourse, and yet they immediately avert their eyes from anything labeled “pop,” commonly without even giving it a listen. What once was labeled the “counter culture” of America – our youth at clubs and concerts, famously at Woodstock – is now sponsored by Xbox, Honda, and Hot Topic. Wristbands and hair spray are flying off of shelves nationwide, and gradually the bands that the average consumer is exposed to sounds less and less sincere.

That’s what it’s really all about now. Sincerity. Hip-hop calls it “street cred,” punk calls it “underground,” but the concept is the same. As long as no one else knows you, the few that do will insist that EVERYONE is missing out. And when EVERYONE finally dials in, suddenly the climate has changed and you’ve been rejected by the fanbase that worked to get you where you are today. My Chemical Romance is a fabulous example of a band that was touted by their followers as something everyone had to hear. Two singles later, they’re lambasted on blogs, deleted off of Myspace accounts, and their singer was even accused by some fans of carrying on a relationship with the singer of The Used.

What the hell happened?

There was a time in the “music scene” where there were no “scenes.” There was a single, simple division: the cultural values of yesterday that kept fucking up the country, and a growing, stirring mass of youth armed with their own unified culture and a demand for their own voice. The 60’s sparked a flourishing counter culture united against inequality, deceit and hypocrisy. The community at Woodstock gathered and danced to music from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, swayed to Jefferson Airplane, and sat in awe as Jimi Hendrix performed his own magic on stage. The culture had no need for divisions and silly politics: the only “street cred” you had to have was a desire to share a message and a willingness to listen to others. Sure, practically everyone was on acid, but their enjoyment of the concert was still a beautiful expression of acceptance in a society struggling with Civil Rights and a war that was going nowhere.

Almost fifty years later, our music scene has degenerated into another product. I don’t mean to speak mercilessly against the record industry, because their ultimate goal – that is, to mass distribute music – is something that I don’t think anyone could disagree with. Their methods, however, are an entirely different discussion altogether. We are well aware now of record companies paying for radio airplay of select singles, or their insistence on taking more money for a cd than the band that wrote it. Still, record companies respond to the consumer: their decisions and actions are more of a reflection of the BUYER.

That means that the problem ultimately lies with US, the listeners. We are the ones who have fueled a music scene that puts more effort into economic competition than artistic discourse. We are the ones who find it so necessary to say that anything we don’t like sucks. We have entire magazines devoted to telling people whether or not a cd is worth buying, and there are actually people out there who read a negative review somewhere and immediately develop a negative opinion for a band that they’ve never even heard. Imagine if hundreds of years ago there were publications circulating where critics could write pieces stating that Van Gogh’s latest painting was missing the intensity of his previous works, or that da Vinci should retire because his style was straying into unfamiliar and unlikable territory.

Which leads to the ultimate hypocrisy in music: art is relative, and therefore an objective review or discussion about a band or album is impossible. We all have different tastes that have been shaped by countless factors that we could never even begin to decipher here, and sometimes we enjoy music that we feel we really shouldn’t be enjoying (“Guilty Pleasures.”) But it isn’t as simple as saying “try everything!” either. Can ANYONE deny that there is a noticable difference in effort and general enjoyability between Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and anything ever released by Shakira? I would hope that the average person would prefer Pink Floyd, but do I have the right to say that they should in the first place?

I don’t really know the answer, and I don’t think anyone ever will. A solution isn’t entirely impossible, though. Rap seems to have gotten to the point where it embraces the popular AND the unknown as equally enjoyable. Jay-Z is practically worshipped by the entire culture, and we all are well aware of the martyrdom of Tupac and Biggie. But there is also a love for newer artists such as Lupe Fiasco who bring a truly unique approach to their art, and Common has managed to somehow remain both underground AND well known. The double standards in hip-hop seem to actually tie it closer to the culture that supports it: it both brags of it’s poverty and aspires to wealth. It speaks against the violence that has plagued it for years, but does so in threatening and violent terms. But make no mistake; there is much more unity in hip-hop than essentially any other genre of music. Rappers who are hated are still respected for their talent and pursuit of success. Imagine the average emo fan saying “I hate 3 Doors Down’s sound, but I really respect what they’re doing.”

It seems that we will never be able to eradicate the double standards that music has developed, but ultimately our generation is faced with an opportunity to reverse this decline in acceptance by changing our approach. Rather than classifying something that we don’t enjoy or even loathe as “horrible” or “sucky,” we can just accept the fact that for every 10 cool people you meet, there’s always at least one bizarre asshole, and he’s probably the guy that enjoys that song. His enjoyment isn’t something you have to understand or explain, nor does it make him wrong. It just means that that’s what he listens to, and you don’t enjoy it. We can share with others music that touches us or we feel deserves more attention, because art is something that should be shared and discussed with others. In doing so, hopefully we will start to be happy for the bands that do succeed and accept that more fans equals longer lines, less intimate venues and higher ticket prices, but in exchange the life of the band will be extended and enriched with the support it needs. If the musical community stops trying to politicize and narrowly define the sounds it demands and instead simply applauds and supports what it enjoys, we’ll be exposed to more and more artists unafraid to push the boundaries of what we think is possible in this medium of music.

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9 Comments on “The Challenge”

  1. Kyle Says:

    Hey nice read. Part of it echoed something I came across this weekend; a new documentary being made “Before The Music Dies”
    http://www.myspace.com/beforethemusicdies

    it looks like it could be quite good. Explores the idea of Music as a product vs music as an artform for one.

    Anyway, this was a nice read. Will definitely comeback here again.

    Kyle

  2. ReDMoSqUi Says:

    Great read. And you are correct, it’s all about honesty and passion. I am not one who thinks that it’s a sellout to sign a major label contract or to actually MAKE A LIVING off music….but when artists stop caring about the product and ONLY about the money or fame, well that’s when I am angered.

    I am not a fan of rap or hiphop but there are artists in that genre that i respect…and nobody should ever have a problem respecting an artist who is 100% commited and “for the music”…regardless of style.

  3. boula23 Says:

    I wrote a paper when I was in college titled Selling Out. It was mainly based on the punk movement and how there was a fine line between being a considered a “sellout” and one that kept the punk ideals in tact and still came on strong throughout their career.

    It’s a tough thing to think about…especially if you want to incorporate Rap into the whole thing.

    I think that if you want to bring Rap into this argument, it’s going to be much more difficult to find where their ideals lie. If you look at many of the earlier rappers, you will see that they had the essence of the early Folk singers (Woody Guthrie and Jack Elliot to name 2). Their main objective was to show the struggles that people in our world face in their lives. The early rappers focused on rapping about how their culture was having a hard time; they were the voices that were getting it out. Much like Guthrie who sang about the hard working farmers of the midwest and the coal miners.

    Now what has happened, is that rap’s popularity is not only based on what they are rapping about, but the materialistic points in their lives. Looking at black culture today, you will see that being materialistic is much more important than others. Kids with the newest Nike shoes instead of decent clothes or food on the table. These are things that are very present. Rap stars have been a very big role in this dimise, and in turn MTV/BET feed off of it.

    Videos in rap have changed a culture. “Bling” is somehting that is more important than anything else.

    If you want to look into Rock music, it’s a harder thing because there are so many different types and genres. The new “Emo” music is somewhat similar to those of the early grudge days. The music was hitting the core audience in such a way that hadn’t been heard before. The emotion that was brought into both the music and lyrics hit home to a younger audience and brought out things that weren’t being sung about…or wasn’t getting hit on correctly.

    But now you see “Emo” being exploited, much like grunge, and it’s only diminishing the purity of it.

    Some people say that music goes in cycles…in regards to popularity and style. That may be true, but I think what is really hurting our music is not the internet, but videos to me have truly been the demise of much of what our music culture is…

    Who knows…Great site by the way!

  4. Billy Says:

    You know, I find myself disagreeing with some of the things you say, Brock. However, I will ALWAYS say that you’re an intelligent guy and you’re very good at explaining yourself perfectly.

    About the disagreements. After finishing the article, I thought about it being the listeners fault that music has become unfeeling and mechanical. I immediately said to myself, “No, that’s not true at all.”. Now, though, I’m realizing the reason I’m so quick to say that is because I don’t believe it to be MY fault personally. I don’t believe I’m part of the group of people that support these bad decisions on part of the record company. I look around and see that you’re right. Too many people aren’t expanding their horizons enough. It’s their choice if they want to strictly listen to what’s on the radio. I’m different, though. I thought I had to look at this as a united base of people that listen to music, but that’s not true. We’re all different. I think the reason I defend these people is because I seem to always take the defensive side, trying to point out certain facts that seem to be forgotten. I can’t do that with you. You think about these things. I may always play Devil’s Advocate, but I need to learn to seperate myself from others. Just because you’re not right about me doesn’t mean you’re not right about everyone.

    But, and I know a lot of people dislike that I take this stance, I will always support the right for someone to say “This sucks.” I find it to be the polar opposite of saying “This rules.” It is annoying to those that don’t get this fact, though: Our generation refuses to remember to state things as opinion rather than fact. Ignorance should be unexcusable, but at the same time, it’s not my place to tell people how they should say something. And furthermore, some music is just bad. It’s an art form, yes. However, as you were saying much more eloquently than I, music is also a business now. Movies and video games are subject to these things, and I think music qualifies as well. That may not be how we want it… but it’s certainly how it is. A lot of music, in my eyes, is just expressionless. I don’t believe in saying “I don’t get it.” because the fact is, you listen to it, you got it. That was really it. You may not have gotten the same thing someone else did, but you got something. There is never an aexcuse for saying “I don’t get it.” because the only people that don’t get it are those that didn’t even listen.

    And I’m aware you never called anyone ignorant, but you can’t deny that people have done that. Labelling someone ignorant because they do something you don’t like is equally as ignorant as the “ignorant” person saying “This sucks.”

  5. boula23 Says:

    Billy, I like what you said. “That was really it” made me laugh.

    I think what makes music so hard to really…understand, is that not everyone enjoys music on the same levels.

    To me, music is ranked up there as one of the best things in the world. I can never get enough of it and I find myself constantly trying to find something new and great. I’m more of a lyrical person…I dive into lyrics and love reading them. Being an English teacher, it’s what I love most.

    There are some songs however, that I just enjoy listening to, ones that I don’t really have to think about. A lot of Hip Hop songs are that way to me. Some of the more profound rappers (Jay-Z, Kanye, Common, Mos Def, Nas..to name a few) give some good songs that are lyrically genious…whereas others (Ludacris, Ying Yang, Bubba Sparxxx) are more about getting the dance songs out and putting in a good hook. There is nothing wrong with either of them. Both are getting music out, making money, and doing what they enjoy.

    The expressionless music that you talk about is the type of music that I think gets rejected by the people who truly enjoy the art and dive deeper into it rather than just hearing it….they listen to it. (I know I’ve heard that before somewhere)

    It’s easy to get carried away with much of the ignorants and with saying “This sucks” because, well…I just don’t like it.

    My friend and I often have conversations about music. He’s a Phish fan for instance. I could give you maybe 3 Phish songs that I can listen to all the way through and enjoy them to some extent. I don’t like the music. I don’t like the lyrics. I don’t like pretty much anything about the band. Yet I respect them as muscians, because I know that they are quite talented.

    I guess that’s the stance that people should take. Luckily, we aren’t forced to hear certain music. I mean, I picture A Clockwork Orange with my ears taped to a recording of country music that is looped over and over…and I get a little queezy.

  6. Marc Says:

    “Which leads to the ultimate hypocrisy in music: art is relative, and therefore an objective review or discussion about a band or album is impossible.”

    This is what everyone needs to keep in mind at all times. Arguing about Music is retarded because everyone is going to have different opinions. One man’s “Insert commonly shit on Album” is another man’s “Daydream Nation” or “Darkside of the Moon”

  7. ReDMoSqUi Says:

    again, i think i agree with this somewhat…that people have their opinions and i can respect them…but only when it’s about the artform not about fame and riches…that is why i have a hard time with bubblegum pop, today’s rappers and hiphop crap, etc….

  8. Brock Says:

    Thanks for all the comments. I’ll try my best to respond to each.

    Kyle: Thanks for the link and the kind words. That documentary looks awesome, I’ll be sure to check it out. Come back more often, and hopefully we’ll have some other good stuff to read. =)

    Jon: Anyone who tries to argue that an artist is being selfish by trying to make a living off of their work is ignoring the necessities of life. I agree that any band that wants to pursue a career in music should feel comfortable in entering into a distribution deal that will guarantee them some sort of reliable income so that they can continue to produce their art.

    boula23: Interesting points, although I disagree with a few of them. First of all, the materialism you refer to in hip-hop music is an interesting aspect of the culture because it is evidence of another dynamic at work: black artists are now successful in rap music largely because of the white support of their music, something that they went very long without having. As a result, much of the materialism is actually considered a strike against the struggle that they still speak of: the genre is so obsessed with saying “look how successful we’ve become,” but at the same time the struggle still exists because the success was reached because of Caucasian monetary support. Another form of slavery? That’s a matter of opinion, but generally speaking I think a lot of rap is both an embracing of poverty and a demand for wealth. That paradox that exists is similary apparent in emo music now. Emo is certainly grounded partially in punk music, which calls for rebellion and a denial of concepts like image and status. However, emo music is similarly deeply rooted in the glam rock of the 70’s and 80’s. Thus, we have the contradiction that essentially all rock music follows: we worship rock stars because they break the rules and shun all the requirements for how we’re supposed to look and act, but at the same time their image is calculated and regularly excessive. It’s an interesting argument, and one that isn’t likely to end anytime soon. Thanks for coming by here, by the way. It would be nice to have your opinions on some of the other articles we’re about to put up as well.

    Billy: I think what you’re disagreeing with – and I expected this from you =) – is the “political correctness” of much of what I’m talking about. I think a lot of people want that freedom you’re talking about… the ability to say “this sucks. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s not that I don’t get it, it’s that it sucks.” And I can completely relate. However, I can’t logically defend the right to do so because of my personal view of art as something that cannot suck because it isn’t quantifiable… that is, there is no way to objectively judge it, and if we DID have a system for judging what was and wasn’t good we’d be severely limiting what should be the freedom of artistic expression. There is a lot of music that I listen to now that I hated when I was younger (as I’m sure everyone else can relate to) and that reveals to me that there really isn’t a reliable way to judge music, if I can’t even trust myself to hold steadfast opinions on the same pieces over a span of several years. It’s good to have people like you though who can say that a band sucks so I don’t have to. Haha! And thanks for the nice words, by the way, although they were unnecessarily kind.

    Marc: You’re right, much of the time the arguments become cyclical and it’s hard to really pull any logic into such an abstract theme. I think, though, that the argument is important for the sake of struggling artists who are simply trying to make a living off their work… it is in our interest to find a way for artists to sustain themselves without having to compromise their works if we are going to have a truly open artistic community. Thanks for stopping by man!

    Thank you all again for all your comments. The next couple of articles will be a bit more lighthearted so we can all just giggle and sing along instead of getting deeply philisophical.

    – Brock

  9. ReDMoSqUi Says:

    oh i have no problem with an artist making money, hell no, they’ve got to eat, and if people are really interested in the product then of course they make MORE money…my problem is when people CHANGE who they are to make money…and ignore the art and simply go into as if it were NOT an artform and only interested in making money…when this happens the music suffers, the songs sound heartless (as they are)…that’s my problem…NOT that people make money…


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