I may have been a little harsh on Adam Ant in my previous post. Every musical artist, performer or composer, is trapped in time. So it might not have been completely fair to isolate Ant to introduce that point.
Musical artists seem to express the culture of a moment in the language of the moment, which is sort of what traps them in time. The folk music explosion of the 19th and 20th centuries only exacerbated this condition. Now, I don’t mean Bob Dylan or Peter, Paul, and Mary when I say folk music. The music of the people has become the music that makes money. Whereas, in days gone by, I think the music of the people just sort of stayed with people and was never considered financially useful. Composers of the music of the courts and the palaces made the money. The success of bums singing about their broken hearts is a peculiarly 1900s thing.
Blues, jazz, hip-hop, country, and whatever else spring from people. Real people made this music because they wanted to, or because they had something to say. And the great thing about mass media, at least for them, was that they could make some money from their music-making. From sheet music to downloadable songs, mass media has made the music of the people into an industry.
Selling their folk music, as it were, has trapped it in time. If it wasn’t being sold we probably would not know the music of our great-parents. That is, we might have those songs passed down to us, but they would have been appropriately adapted over the decades. If mass media hadn’t permitted folk music (or pop music) to be recorded, I might be singing a version of ‘Crossroad Blues’ or even ‘My Generation’ but they would not be the exact recordings made by Robert Johnson in the 1920s or The Who in 1965. I would be singing versions of those songs, not the specific version that was pressed on vinyl. Even Robert Johnson himself wasn’t quite aware of the impact that mass media was having on folk music. He sang different versions of his songs. The differences are usually minor, but you can see that he didn’t view his music as having a definitive version. It was fluid. That is, there is no Robert Johnson canon any more than there is a crochet scarf that all others must be measured against. It’s an art form of, for, and by the people. Selling it is new.
And selling it has dated it. It’s dated every single person that has ever sung a pop song. Those old blues tracks sound all creaky and ancient because they are. The music was supposed to stay with us, not given away to big companies to preserve like the songs are the bones of some saint and the record companies are some medieval Catholic church.
So when I appeared to be picking on Adam Ant in the previous post, I was only scratching at a problem that I think starts a lot deeper.
If our world resembled that world that preceded the Industrial Revolution, I’ll bet we would sing folk songs still. Instead we let others sing the songs for us. The music of the people is no longer of and by the people. It’s for us alright. It’s produced for us to get at our money.
By letting others sing the songs of our culture – no no no. We’re not letting them. We’re outsourcing it. We pay others to do culture for us. By paying others to sing the songs of our culture, we make them look silly. After all, they will be dated soon enough. Just look at the pictures of Prince or Bono or George Michael taking themselves seriously in the 1980s. They look ridiculous. But they also strip us of the chance to build our own musical interpretation of our culture. And what’s the harm in that? Well, if we’re not building our own musical interpretation of our culture we are letting others define the culture for us. We are inviting others to tell us what we think about the world, how we feel about our neighbors, and how we see time passing. Most importantly, the outsourcing of folk music has changed the most vital question a human can ever ask about himself or about his creator: Who.
Outsourcing music to the industrial complex denies us the position to ask Who made us and who are we in this mess.
That might seem a bit far-fetched. But think about it. Do you know who you are?
Do you think the people of the past, who organically built onto the musical landscape of their culture knew who they were? Which of them has a more concrete answer when asked who they are? I don’t think there’s any doubt.
Identity is the prize that comes from folk music. It’s the prize that comes from any folk art. (And again, please don’t assume I’m only talking about quilts or folk-y music; I mean the arts that come from the people, excluding the high art that was traditionally commissioned for a price.)
See if you agree with me.
What is the benefit of folk art? I say it’s to enhance an established, maybe even establish an, individual’s identity.
Take that away from the geographically-near culture of that individual’s home and what happens? Whoever is making the music is deciding who that guy or girl is. And whoever is making the music probably is not overly concerned with that individual’s identity. As much as I found in common with Pete Townshend’s music, his concept of me as a person is probably just the few extra bucks I’ve added to his bank account.
By outsourcing music-making to others, I’ve let them define who I am. And I hate that…I think. Lemme see if I have a song to express this…This‘ll do.
What has the music of The Beatles been termed? The Soundtrack of our lives. What is that, if not an admission that pop music has replaced geographically-near community’s role in defining who we are. Have you ever seen The Big Chill? That movie really drives home this theory. I mean, I love that movie, but find it pretty disquieting when I start to identify with characters from a movie that’s all about media-saturated middle-agers who don’t know who they themselves are.
When you start peeling, it gets creepy. Who am I?
“I’m a Steelers fan.” SUPER-lame!
“I’m a fan of The Who.” Lame.
“I’m a real nowhere man.” Getting warmer.
“I’m a Trekkie.” Colder. Colder!
Peel it back, layer after layer. You like this or that TV show, or maybe Rocky Horror, or maybe this or that band. What are they singing about? Are they singing about TV? Or other bands? Or old movies? Whatever they’re singing about, I am sure it’s based on some previously outsourced cultural moment. Like, how many Beatles’ references are packed into the movies? I Am Sam is kind of nothing without The Beatles.
Okay. That’s enough for now.
It’s easy for me to hate when I am.